One by one, for more than three hours last night, members of the public let a panel of state senators know exactly how they feel about a bill that would nullify the Affordable Care Act in South Carolina.
“Yet again, South Carolina reaches for the bottom,” said Gwen Robinson, a Mt. Pleasant attorney. “This is stupid.”
Robinson was one of more than a dozen South Carolinians ranging from teachers, doctors, ex-military, law students, healthcare workers, political operatives and former lawmakers who showed up to the North Charleston City Hall, speaking to five senators — three Republicans and two Democrats — about the S.C. Freedom of Healthcare Protection Act, a bill that seeks to “render null and void certain unconstitutional laws enacted by the Congress of the United States taking control of the healthcare insurance industry and mandating that individuals purchase health insurance under the threat of penalty.”
Last session, the nullification bill passed the S.C. House, and it’s been fast-tracked for special order in the Senate. That means lawmakers will take it up quickly for debate when they return to Columbia in January. Because of the bill’s polarizing and controversial nature, S.C. Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, a Columbia Republican, tasked a bi-partisan committee of senators to hold hearings on it throughout the state and gather public input. The dominant message those senators heard last night in North Charleston was that such a symbolic measure is embarrassing for state residents, and lawmakers should spend their time and state resources on more serious matters.
Lawmakers, though, quibbled with whether the legislation was a true nullification bill, the kind of law that harkens back to the spirit of former vice president and South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who was known as the Great Nullifier. One statue of his likeness looms over downtown Charleston in Marion Square, and another is the centerpiece of the State House lobby in Columbia.
Tom Davis, a Beaufort lawyer and state senator revered by the state’s Tea Party movement, led the North Charleston hearing. Davis doesn’t think President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy is in the best interest of South Carolina, and he supports measures in the nullification bill that would ban federal subsidies for health exchanges operating within the state’s borders and prohibit state resources from being used to implement Obamacare. He also supports provisions that would request the state attorney general to fight the ACA in federal court, and give state residents a tax exemption for any federal fine or penalty they might incur for not buying health insurance.
Responding to that, Sumter Democratic Sen. Thomas McElveen, also on the panel, said, “The end result of this bill’s passage would be the nullification of Obamacare,” an opinion shared by his Democratic colleague, Sen. Kevin Johnson. McElveen wondered if their time might be better spent working on how to fix the state’s crumbing roads and bridges and passing ethics and tax reform.
The state’s history with nullification wasn’t lost on a recent law school graduate named Andrew Patterson. He noted how it was this month in Charleston in 1832 when delegates at a state convention approved an Ordinance of Nullification making it illegal to enforce certain tariffs within the Palmetto State. That move sparked what became known as the Nullification Crisis, which at the time laid the groundwork for secession.
“You can call this bill what you want,” Patterson told the lawmakers at the hearing last night. “But essentially it is gutting [a federal law] … the idea of nullification is terrifying to me.”
The three-and-a-half hours were dedicated to about 15 people who spoke out on the bill, a majority of whom were bitterly opposed to it, including 30-year-old law school student John Gentry, who said, “I’m a Republican, I’m conservative, but I’m against this law.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Democratic strategist Tyler Jones of Mt. Pleasant said he was tired of South Carolina being the butt of jokes. He blasted Davis and his supporters for trying to generate headlines and stoke resentment within their Tea Party base. He said they know such a law will never pass, and urged Tea Partiers to read the Constitution, take a civics course, “and for God’s sake turn off Glenn Beck.”
The bill, however, had its local supporters. The Charleston County Republican Party supports it, and the group's chairman, John Steinberger, took to the floor to defend it, saying it had his backing in part because it starts with the words “South Carolina” and “Freedom.” He mentioned how some states had nullified the Fugitive Slave Act, and more recently likened the legalization of marijuana in some states as a form of nullifying federal drug laws.
Pacing back and forth in front of the panel in a Confederate soldier’s hat, an animated William Hamilton told the lawmakers he had penned a proposed counter law to the nullification bill that he calls the Healthy South Carolina Act. His version would expand Medicaid, allow the state to take part in healthcare exchanges, promote the fair collection of taxes and penalties under Obamacare, and instruct state officials to assist state residents with any benefits of the law.
Hamilton, a local lawyer who said his ancestors stood on Tennessee’s Missionary Ridge in Confederate uniforms during the Civil War, pointed to a woman in the crowd named Loreen Myerson who works as a navigator for the Affordable Care Act.
“Your employees won’t help people get healthcare,” he told the panel. “Your clinics won’t, your governor won’t, Lindsey Graham won’t, Mark Sanford won’t. Loreen will.”
He said even if the website isn’t working Myerson is.
“Sir,” Hamilton said, gesturing toward Davis as he wrapped up his speech, “You don’t have to do what I ask you to do in Columbia. You don’t have to respect what I believe. This state can continue to embarrass me … but I can promise you ... if you come after my friend and her navigators, I pledge this, sir, the blood that stood for the state of South Carolina on Missionary Ridge will fight again.”
Following the hearing, Davis said the public’s input had opened his eyes to some interpretations of the proposed state law.
“It’s helped me understand this bill in a way I didn’t understand it before,” he said.