South Carolina

SC Senate restricts abortions to get to road-repair bill

Ted Pitts, president and CEO of South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a news conference at the Statehouse.
Ted Pitts, president and CEO of South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a news conference at the Statehouse. tglantz@thestate.com

The S.C. Senate is a step closer to debating a proposal to raise money to fix the state’s crumbling roads after passing a ban Tuesday on abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“The number of days are ticking away rather quickly,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who expects debate on a road-repair bill to start as early as Thursday.

With only eight legislative days left in the session, the road-repair bill was trapped behind the abortion bill on the Senate’s calendar until Tuesday.

Getting to the roads bill required that the Senate act on the abortion-restriction proposal. And, after days of threatened filibusters, the Senate finally acted, passing a bill that would bar abortions at the 20th week of pregnancy with exceptions for the life of the mother, and cases of rape, incest or severe fetal anomaly.

The action came as both abortion opponents and road-repair supporters urged the Senate to act.

A coalition of business leaders filled the Statehouse lobby Tuesday, urging lawmakers to pass a road-repair bill.

“Failure to act now is an indicator that this government is broken,” said Cathy Novinger, director of the Palmetto Agribusiness Council. “It would be broken just like our roads and bridges are broken.”

Most of the nearly 30 groups represented at the pro-roads-bill news conference — including AAA Carolinas, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and S.C. Trucking Association — are urging legislators to increase the state’s 16.75-cents-a-gallon gas tax to help pay for road repairs. That gas tax, the third lowest in the nation, has not been increased since 1987.

“You use the roads, you pay for the roads,” said Eric Dickey, chairman of the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads.

Road repair costs only will rise if the state delays acting, Novinger said.

S.C. Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ted Pitts, a former House member and chief of staff to Gov. Nikki Haley, said the state’s business community is united on the need to repair the state’s roads. “I’m calling on the South Carolina Senate … take the time that’s required to get through your calendar and deal with infrastructure funding.”

The House passed its roads proposal in January 87-20, a large enough majority to override a promised veto from Haley, who wants a big income tax cut to sign off on a gas tax hike.

The House proposal would raise roughly $427 million a year for roads by increasing the gas tax by the equivalent of 10 cents a gallon. That plan would cut income taxes by up to $50 million.

The Senate Finance Committee’s roads plan would raise roughly $800 million for roads by increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon as well as driver’s license fees and other taxes related to driving a vehicle. However, roughly 20 Senate Republicans plan to amend that proposal to cut state income taxes by $700 million a year and give more control of the Transportation Department to the governor.

Without those additions, the roads bill will die, Sen. Grooms said.

“What’s before us is just a straight-up tax increase,” the Berkeley Republican said of the Senate Finance Committee proposal.

The Senate abortion bill passed Tuesday also faces a fight.

The bill includes exceptions to the 20-week ban that are not part of a bill passed by the S.C. House, setting up a fight in House-Senate conference committee. The proposals would affect less than 30 abortions a year performed in South Carolina, according to state data.

Grooms originally authored an abortion bill that included no exceptions, except for the life of the mother, to the 20-week ban. But he said Tuesday that he would accept a bill with exceptions for rape, incest or severe fetal anomaly to win a 20-week ban.

“This was a victory for the rights of the unborn,” he said.

Other Republican senators, who make a majority of the Senate, disputed that statement.

‘Pro-life state’

Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg Republican who vowed to filibuster the bill if it included any exceptions, said senators caved into pressure from S.C. Citizens for Life, which wanted the proposal to move forward.

Bright said pro-life groups think they will be able to win passage of an abortion bill that includes no exceptions.

“This is on their backs now.”

Efforts to reach the president at S.C. Citizens for Life were unsuccessful Tuesday.

However, Palmetto Family Council president Oran Smith, who worked with anti-abortion groups on the bill, noted time was running out in the legislative session, which ends June 4. “We need to take what we can get,” Smith said. Still, abortion opponents will take a close look at the exception language in the Senate bill, he added.

A final vote on the Senate bill is expected Wednesday.

Bright tried to convince lawmakers they should not allow any exceptions. He filibustered the bill last week and, on Tuesday, brought to a Statehouse news conference women who said they either were conceived during a rape or impregnated by rapists.

“This is a pro-life state,” Bright said at the news conference.

“If these babies aren’t allowed to survive, then these politicians shouldn’t survive their re-elections.”

What’s next?

With only eight days left in the regular legislative session, state senators have two major issues on their calendar:

Reserve spending

The Senate next will take up a bill to authorize the state to spend $85 million in reserve money for various projects. The bill received preliminary approval last week, but lawmakers agreed to reserve the right to change it later.

Road repairs

Republicans, who make up a majority of the Senate, offered a fourth major road-repair plan two weeks ago. It would raise $800 million a year for roads through higher gas taxes and cut state income tax rates by 1 percentage point, or $700 million a year. The Senate plan also would give control of the Transportation Department to the governor. The proposal is an effort to meet Gov. Nikki Haley's three requirements for a roads bill. If the Senate OKs the proposal, the next challenge will be reaching consensus with the House, which has passed smaller tax hikes and tax cuts. The final stop will be getting approval from Haley, who wants an income tax cut twice as large as the Senate proposal.

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