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“This is the General Assembly. This is not kindergarten.”


A tinfoil hat and closed doors: Tensions fray among GOP in SC House as session ends

COLUMBIA — A tinfoil hat and squabbles over House rules put frustrations between the chamber’s hardline Freedom Caucus and majority Republicans on full display as the legislative session ground to a halt.

The antics began with a budget debate, as the House made changes to its spending proposal to set up negotiations with the Senate.

Confusion continued into the night with a pair of rarely used rules that caused the House clerk to begin reading a 218-page bill aloud while all members had to remain seated and listen. Highway Patrol troopers were briefly put on notice to collect any legislator who had already left, until the Freedom Caucus legislator who requested the read-aloud rescinded her motion.

By law, the regular legislative session must end at 5 p.m. Thursday. A special session is limited primarily to budget work. The House traditionally amends its budget plan before the chambers appoint conferees to a House-Senate committee to work out their differences.

The debate dragged out as Freedom Caucus members tried to insert amendments that were ruled out of order as not relevant enough to the spending package or as an unallowed attempt to create permanent law through a one-year budget. Legislators often spoke over one another as House leaders tried to rein in the chaos.

“Everybody stop. Just stop. Stop!” said House Majority Leader Davey Hiott, R-Pickens, at one point as he subbed in as speaker.

The House’s first crack at the budget in March also devolved into a debate among Republicans, with Freedom Caucus members protesting what they considered not the role of government. But the acrimony was more intense as lawmakers faced the close of session.

It’s also one month before the party primaries that, for most districts in South Carolina, decide who wins in November. For Republicans, it’s a question of whether the Freedom Caucus grows or diminishes next year.

House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R-York, lamented that he used to tell people back home that the Statehouse was nothing like Washington — that legislators disagreed agreeably in Columbia. But, unfortunately, that’s getting less and less true, he said.

Tinfoil hat

A Freedom Caucus amendment that brought derision from legislators in both parties proposed authorizing gold and silver coins to be used to buy things and pay bills in South Carolina.

Rep. Micah Caskey, a frequent Freedom Caucus critic, appeared to agree.

He sarcastically dismissed concerns over how state agencies and local governments would quantify gold and silver instead of dollars, then donned a tinfoil hat with a sticker on the side reading, “South Carolina Freedom Caucus.”

“I want you to support this amendment because I want you to stop thinking, too,” the West Columbia Republican said. “I think this allows us to trade genie lamps in for our parking tickets.”

Behind him, House Speaker Murrell Smith put a hand over his face and laughed, even as he asked Caskey to remove his hat amid calls for decorum.

“This is the General Assembly,” the Sumter Republican said. “This is not kindergarten.”

Rep. Jordan Pace, R-Goose Creek, defended his proposal, saying residents fighting inflation should have the right to pay by whatever means they want.

Smith eventually threw out the proposal as not being germane to the budget.

‘Campaign stunt’

A later attempt by Freedom Caucus Chairman Adam Morgan to insert a ban on state agencies distributing forms to noncitizens about voter registration sparked a greater outcry.

The Taylors Republican, who is running for Congress, repeated a story he told on social media last week about a refugee who received a benefits packet that included a form asking whether the unnamed noncitizen wanted to register to vote.

What the person received was not a voter registration form. Instead, it was a voter declination form, which asks someone if they would like a voter registration form. Federal law requires the information to be given to anyone receiving government benefits. The state Election Commission made clear last week it does not register noncitizens.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, questioned Morgan whether he realized his accusations caused the election agency to call in law enforcement due to threats. Rep. Gil Gatch, R-Summerville, said even if noncitizens filled in a voter registration form, they wouldn’t be added to the rolls — just as applications from teenage citizens not yet old enough to vote would be rejected.

Morgan didn’t back down from his proposal. Only citizens should get a form asking if they’re interested in registering to vote, he said.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford repeatedly asked Morgan to tell him what language the refugee spoke, since Morgan said the family had a language barrier. Morgan declined to answer beyond saying the person did not speak Spanish, as Rutherford had suggested, before refusing to answer any more questions from the Columbia Democrat.

Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, called Morgan’s allegations a “campaign stunt.”

“It’s frustrating having to watch what is so blatant and then to watch a temper-tantrum when you get called out on it,” Ott said after Morgan left the podium. “I mean, come on. My 15-year-old son knows how to behave better than a lot of folks in this room.”

Morgan said the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is investigating. A SLED spokesperson told the SC Daily Gazette the agency is evaluating the allegations but has not opened an investigation.

Smith threw out that proposal too, causing Rep. R.J. May of Lexington — a Freedom Caucus founder — to challenge the ruling, sparking frustrations from fellow Republicans.

“Why are we embarrassing the speaker of the House like this?” said Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence. “I’ve been here 18 years, people. I’ve never seen the decorum get this bad.”

Gatch called the move little more than political showboating.

“There are a few people who want to make sound policy and some people who want to make sound bites,” Gatch said.

Rep. Josiah Magnuson, R-Campobello, pushed back, arguing the rest of the chamber was teaming up against its most conservative members without holding one another to the same standards.

“Every time somebody jumps up from our caucus to direct how to spend funding, someone else will jump up and say that’s not germane,” Magnuson said.

Smith’s ruling was eventually upheld 98-14, with only Freedom Caucus members voting against it.

Closed doors

Hours later, Freedom Caucus members and Republicans butted heads again, this time on a bill merging six public health agencies. The House already passed the bill earlier this session.

But to stall the House from voting on the Senate’s version, Freedom Caucus Rep. April Cromer, R-Anderson, invoked a rule mandating the House clerk to read the entire bill.

Other Republicans denounced Cromer’s move, saying it was accomplishing nothing besides forcing staff members to work late.

“It’s just a time-killer,” Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, said in a video on X, formerly known as Twitter. “I mean, it absolutely served no purpose.”

With members scattered amid the boredom, Rep. Justin Bamberg invoked another rule requiring all members without written leave to sit in the chamber until the clerk finished reading the bill. The Bamberg Democrat noted Freedom Caucus members particularly should have to listen to the reading they required.

The doors closed, and the reading paused until legislators could return and take their seats. Anyone out of the chamber without a written note from Smith had to come back or the Highway Patrol would fetch them.

That included one unnamed member who left due to illness.

Legislators remained shuttered in the room for about half an hour before Cromer walked back her initial motion. Undoing Bamberg’s motion required a vote, which the House voted unanimously — all 111 members present, anyway — to do.

The House then passed the bill 98-15.


Skylar Laird covers the South Carolina Legislature and criminal justice issues. Originally from Missouri, she previously worked for The Post and Courier’s Columbia bureau.

SC Daily Gazette is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.