In one of the most shameless displays of political cowardice (and contempt for the law) I have seen in my two decades of covering politics in South Carolina, “Republican” leaders in the state’s House of Representatives killed a medical marijuana bill on Wednesday via a procedural gimmick.
Even more disturbing? These GOP leaders killed the bill with a capable assist from a recently formed “freedom” caucus … yet another example of Palmetto State politicians acting in a manner totally inconsistent with their self-applied political adhesives.
S. 150 – dubbed the “Compassionate Care Act” by its supporters – overwhelmingly cleared the GOP-controlled Senate more than three months ago. Since then, however, the bill remained stalled in the S.C. House of Representatives.
Sponsored by S.C. senator Tom Davis of Beaufort, S.C. – this bill would have created a heavily regulated medical marijuana program in the Palmetto State, one in which pharmacists would oversee the distribution of cannabis to select patients based upon the recommendation of their physician.
Davis has referred to his legislation as “most conservative medical marijuana bill in the nation,” and he is absolutely correct. In fact, his bill is so restrictive I have often wondered whether it was worth supporting.
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Ultimately, I came down on the side of those currently suffering from seizures, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments who would benefit from the passage of the bill. As a longtime advocate for decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs, I also believed passing this bill would be a solid first step in advancing this issue.
Senators agreed … and South Carolina voters agreed, too. Overwhelmingly.
Unfortunately, the House of Representatives chose to play politics with this bill. Unwilling to allow a floor vote on the popular legislation, S.C. speaker pro tempore Tommy Pope – backed by unelected clerk of the House Charles Reid – simply ruled it out of order.
In response to a parliamentary point of order raised by state representative John McCravy, Pope ruled – erroneously – that the bill established a new tax and was thus a “revenue bill.” According to the state constitution, all revenue bills must originate in the S.C. House of Representatives.
Does this sleight-of-hand sound familiar? It should. I addressed it back in late February when it became clear House leaders did not have the votes to kill this legislation outright.
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According to Pope (above), S. 150 “establishes a separate tax” and is thereby unconstitutional.
Is that accurate, though? No …
Here is the specific language from Article III, § 15 of the S.C. Constitution (.pdf) …
Bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives, but may be altered, amended or rejected by the Senate; all other Bills may originate in either house, and may be amended, altered or rejected by the other.
As I noted back in February, Davis’ legislation is not a revenue bill. It has a revenue component to it, but its primary purpose is not “for raising revenue.” Its primary purpose is to establish a heavily regulated medical marijuana marketplace – one which would be subject to existing sales tax laws.
In fact, the bill specifically noted that existing sales tax exemptions on prescription drugs would “not apply to authorizations for medical cannabis products.”
In other words, Pope’s characterization of this legislation – the one he used as his basis for killing it – was completely inaccurate.
Nonetheless, some lawmakers tried to defend Pope in the aftermath of his ruling … playing the ad hominem card against those (like me) who called him out for his treachery.
The problem? These anti-pot lawmakers are on an island. The legal counsel of the S.C. Senate, the state attorney general and numerous rulings from the S.C. supreme court all concur with Davis’ assessment of the bill.
“Even if the bill involved the imposition of a tax, that doesn’t make it a revenue raising bill within the meaning of the constitutional requirement,” Davis told me the morning after the controversial ruling. “To be a ‘revenue raising bill’ within the meaning of the state constitution, according to the state supreme court, the ‘primary purpose’ of the bill must to be to raise revenue. If the tax is simply ancillary to the bill’s primary purpose, which in this case is establishing a medical cannabis program, it is by definition NOT a revenue raising bill.”
Davis is absolutely correct.
In 1925, the supreme court ruled the constitutional revenue prohibition “only applies to bills to levy taxes, in the strict sense of the word, and not to bills for other purposes which may incidentally raise revenue.”
In a separate ruling in 1936, the court reaffirmed this position – describing an “incidental” piece of legislation with a revenue component as “not (being) a bill to raise revenue in the constitutional sense.”
More recently, S.C. solicitor general Bob Cook penned an opinion in 2015 addressing this precise question.
“A bill is a revenue raising measure for constitutional purposes when the primary purpose of that piece of legislation is to generate income,” Cook wrote, specifically distinguishing such legislation from bills which involve “the exercise of the police power of the state with the revenue feature an incidental purpose thereto.”
Game. Set. Match.
“The fact this issue is even being raised by Pope and his allies shows just how desperate medical marijuana opponents have become,” I noted back in February. “Basically, they are trying to rig a game they have clearly lost.”
Sadly, they were successful in that effort …
While the goal of this “rigged” game was to avoid members having to take a vote on medical marijuana, S.C. minority leader Todd Rutherford challenged Pope’s ruling – forcing members to go on the record either in support or opposition of his decision to kill the bill.
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This vote (above) was incredibly close – with 58 members voting to affirm Pope’s decision and 55 voting against the House leader. Pope, incidentally, voted to affirm his own ruling – giving they “ayes” (those voting to kill medical marijuana) 59 total votes.
Of interest? Ten of the thirteen members of the so-called “Freedom Caucus” voted with Pope and his establishment “Republican” allies to kill the bill. So did outgoing speaker Jay Lucas and incoming speaker Murrell Smith.
Shame on every single one of those lawmakers … and not because some of them have legitimate policy objections to this legislation (which I totally understand), but because they participated in a deliberately deceptive, anti-democratic charade.
To his credit, Davis was a statesman in his response to the House’s assassination of his legislation …
“We suffered a setback procedurally in the House today,” Davis told reporter Jason Raven of WSPA TV-7 (CBS – Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.) “I can’t cry about it. I can’t pout about it. I can’t come back and lash out and try to hurt other people’s bills. That’s not productive. I just need to find out a way to get this thing (a vote) on the merits up-or-down in the House – and that’s what I’m going to be working on.”
Medical marijuana supporters – including Jill Swing – were crestfallen at the outcome of the vote.
“Last week representative John McGravy told me had studied S. 150 in-depth for the past two-to-three months,” Swing told me. “Well, I’ve not only studied it for the past eight years, I’ve lived it. And during that time I’ve watched my daughter have literally hundred of thousands of seizures. His two-to-three month commitment to kill a bill that would have brought safe access to medical cannabis under a doctor’s care and monitoring is not only an insult, it is a horrible injustice to the people of this state.“
Republicans were getting absolutely roasted on social media for their treachery, as well …
Stay tuned … my news outlet will have much more to say on this issue in our upcoming “Week in Review” format.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
(Via: Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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