COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina lawmakers returned Tuesday to the Statehouse and were greeted by dueling protests over health care.
On one side of the capitol, protesters called for the Legislature to pass a bill that would keep the state from implementing some parts of the new federal health care law backed by President Barack Obama.
On the other side of the Statehouse, protesters gathered for what they said would be the first of many Truthful Tuesday rallies to call for more spending on health care and education and more social justice in South Carolina. They hinted they would be willing, like their counterparts in North Carolina, to have mass arrests to get their point across.
Inside, the House and Senate met for less than two hours in what was a mostly ceremonious first day. The Senate briefly discussed a bill allowing guns in restaurants, but took no action. It was mostly a chance to catch up with each other after six months away from Columbia.
Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, was sworn into office, surrounded by his father, former Rep. Harry Ott, and other family members. Russell Ott, 35, was elected in October to fill out his father’s term. The former House minority leader represented the district for 15 years before stepping down to become the state executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency.
Lawmakers will start getting to the state’s business in the next few days. And one of the first bills that should come up in the South Carolina Senate is what was nicknamed the “Nullify Obamacare’ bill when it passed the House last year. The bill will be altered so it isn’t quite as stringent. The original version made it a felony for an agent or employee of the federal government to try and uphold the law and offered a state tax deduction to offset any penalties for not getting health insurance.
Those parts of the law are gone. The amended bill will ban Medicaid expansion and state-run health care exchanges in South Carolina and prevent state and local agencies from helping people sign up for health insurance.
“You’re not going to use our agencies, you are not going to use our employers, you’re not going to use our money. You are not going to use anything we have in our borders to implement this unconstitutional law,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who is one of the biggest backers of the bill.
About 200 people braved a steady, cold rain for the 90-minute rally, sponsored by Freedom Works. The group has held similar rallies at the Statehouse since 2008, with the first protests over whether government money should be spent to help banks from failing.
Thirty minutes after the first rally ended, several hundred people gathered on the south side of the Statehouse for a rally for social justice. Organizers promised weekly protests, called Truthful Tuesdays, modeled after last year’s protests at the North Carolina capitol. But unlike the North Carolina protests, there were no arrests or civil disobedience.
Instead, speakers and the crowd chanted “enough is enough.” A coffin was rolled in to represent the 1,300 people in South Carolina that rally organizers said would die this year because South Carolina didn’t accept federal money to expand Medicaid.
“This is about civilization. This is about making this the state we want to live in,” said South Carolina Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey, whose group helped organize the rally.
Groups sitting in the front row held up a string of angel wings with names on them that represented people who signed up for health care through the federal government exchanges. One sign in the crowd read “Protect Children. Not Beachhouses.”
Organizers said they want the protests to grow every week. If they turn into civil disobedience, that would be fine too. The Rev. Nelson Rivers from the Charity Missionary Baptist Church seemed to foreshadow future demonstrations when he spoke at the end of the rally, saying it will require a more forceful response to get the people in power to listen.
“Sooner or later, we can’t just meet outside. We have to go inside,” Rivers said. “We’ve got to fall on the floor, get locked up and go to jail.”