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Echo Chamber – Harrell’s House Of Cards, Pt. 2 April 29, 2007

Posted by fitsnews in SC Politics.

Harrell House of Cards 2


FITSNews – April 29, 2007 – It was a little before 5:00 p.m. last Wednesday afternoon when the wheels officially fell off in the S.C. House of Representatives. An amendment to the cigarette tax increase introduced by Speaker Bobby Harrell himself had just been shot down by a 61-55 margin – a vote that represented nothing short of a roundhouse right to the jaw of the man considered by many to be the most powerful politician in all of state government, not to mention the frontrunner to become South Carolina’s next governor.

“What just happened?” one lobbyist sitting in the House balcony leaned over and asked another.

“Bobby just got punched in the face, that’s what happened,” the second lobbyist whispered back.

Down on the Speaker’s dais, the green and red glow of the House’s electronic voting board served as backdrop for a heated discussion between Harrell and his chief lieutenants.

“Let them know I’m getting that tally laminated,” a red-faced Harrell told House Majority Leader Jimmy Merrill and Chief GOP Whip Shirley Hinson following the House’s rebuke of his amendment.

Yet as the arm-twisting to revive Harrell’s amendment began, the so-called “more Republican” legislative body of the so-called “most Republican” state in the nation stood at a crossroads – on the verge of passing a tax increase that would have also blown a $100 million annual hole in the state budget.

Not exactly a page from the Gipper’s economic playbook.

“If they had sent that bill over to the Senate $100 million out of balance it would have been the end of Bobby,” one State House insider told FITSNews. “The Senate would have made him eat it, and after that the Governor would have made him eat it, too.”

Thanks to the passage of a $1 million “agricultural promotion” amendment offered by Democratic Leader Harry Ott, the cigarette tax bill had turned into a bipartisan Christmas tree. Amendment after amendment had begun eating into projected revenues faster than a horde of termites devouring a wooden outhouse.

And when the outhouse was gone, the termites started in on the main house.

Harrell ultimately revived his amendment and got the tax swap passed (we’ll return to the particulars of that in a minute), but how on earth did House Republicans end up in such a predicament?

After two consecutive years of double-digit spending growth and a $1.3 billion surplus for the coming fiscal year, how did the party of less government and lower taxes ever reach the point where a GOP Speaker was forced to beg a GOP-controlled chamber to accept a “revenue neutral” tax shift as opposed to a “revenue negative” tax hike?

Whatever happened to “prosperity producing” tax cuts? Or the Medicaid reform that was supposed to accompany any increase in the cigarette tax?

Like fiscal discipline, both notions appear to be as good as dead in the Republican-led House.


Prior to the passage of his “agricultural promotion” amendment, Minority Leader Ott was encouraging members of the Democratic Caucus to vote against the cigarette tax increase because it “failed to adequately fund health care.” Once Ott’s amendment passed, however, his tune changed dramatically.

“It does move the ball,” Ott told The State last Wednesday shortly before the cigarette tax increase passed with his vote – and his amendment – tacked on. “I’m going to really hold my nose, but I’m going to vote for it.”

What The State failed to disclose last week was that in securing the annual $1 million allocation for agricultural promotion, Ott was doing more than just holding his nose – he was helping his family.

Ott’s son, Russell Ott, is a full-time lobbyist for the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, whose web site coincidentally lists as its primary mission “to promote agricultural interests in the State of South Carolina.”

How convenient.

It should probably also come as no surprise that Ott’s son was at the State House Wednesday aggressively lobbying legislators on behalf of his father’s amendment.

Amazingly, the elder Ott did not have to defend this transparent display of “budgetary nepotism” once on the House floor.

Why not?

House Republicans never mentioned it.

As a result of this tremendous tactical mistake, Ott’s amendment passed and the impending train wreck was on.


It’s rare to see a Speaker descend from his rostrum and take to the floor of the House. It’s a sizable expenditure of political capital, a ceremonial departure from form and is usually tied to an issue of great personal significance.

In the case of Speaker Harrell’s decision to speak from the House floor last Wednesday, it was also about one man’s flair for the dramatic.

By the time Harrell strode to the microphone and urged the House to pass the cigarette-grocery tax swap, his whips had already secured the votes needed to pass the proposal. Taking the floor, then, was no longer necessary.

Yet there was Harrell, fighting to reclaim some of the legitimacy that had been taken from him moments earlier by a GOP Caucus that one observer said “is split worse than a broken bat right now.”

“This body doesn’t do unbalanced things,” Harrell said of the $100 million hole. “Let’s sent a balanced bill over to the Senate.”

His members responded this time, granting him “victory” from the jaws of defeat and giving untrained observers the impression that it had been his floor speech that did the trick.

Of course that’s precisely what Harrell wanted them to think.


Needless to say, the train wreck in the House was all the talk Wednesday evening at Za’s Brick Oven Pizza, a popular after hours hangout for the political “in-crowd” in Columbia, S.C.

Staffers from Harrell’s office, Gov. Mark Sanford’s office and a gaggle of lobbyists downed glasses of wine and cranberry vodka drinks while debating the significance of the Speaker’s floor speech.

“He looked like passive aggressive woman up there, whining because he didn’t get his way,” one insider said derisively.

“That’s not true,” another shot back. “Bobby prevented a disaster from happening by taking the floor.”

“You don’t think this tax swap is a disaster in its own right?” another asked.

“How they let Ott slip in that agriculture amendment is what I don’t get,” one lobbyist wondered.

“Ott’s the only one up there fighting for farmers and poor people,” still another opined.

And believe us, as the bar tabs and blood alcohol content escalated, so did the volume, intensity and irascibility of the remarks.

We wrote four Sundays ago after the defeat of the school choice bill about how a “rogue band of big government House Republicans” had effectively wrestled control of the GOP Caucus. We even published a list of these Republican members which was provided to us by a confidant of the Speaker.

Interestingly enough, many of the so-called GOP Representatives involved in that debacle – Joan Brady, Bill Cotty, Davey Hiott, Lanny Littlejohn, Gene Pinson and Bill Whitmire , just to name a few – also made the “naughty” list this time around.

At some point, we hope Speaker Harrell will realize that jettisoning these jokers from his House of Cards is the only way to restore the fiscal discipline that is so demonstrably lacking in his chamber at the moment.



1. Anonymous - April 29, 2007

Consider exercising full disclosure.

Biography:OTT, Harry Legare, Jr. [D]–(Dist. No. 93, Calhoun-Lexington-Orangeburg Cos.)–FARMER

Hmm.. wonder why he supported that?

2. wallace - April 29, 2007

I wonder who gets more dates, Bobby Harrell or Brady Quinn?

3. Anonymous - April 30, 2007

“budgetary nepotism” , yeah, thats something that is totally uncommon in the Legislature.

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