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Sheheen backs health reform, immigrant law

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen considers himself pro-life. He says South Carolina's illegal-immigration law, which he supported, is stronger than Arizona's.

And he supports much of federal health care reform. But Sheheen, a Kershaw County state senator, said if elected governor he would leave the decision to pursue a pending lawsuit over health care reform to the state's next attorney general.

The state Republican Party and Sheheen's opponent, Republican Rep. Nikki Haley, have pressured Sheheen for weeks for his positions on those Washington issues. Sheheen addressed many of them in an interview with The (Columbia) State this week, as state Republicans made clear they want to busy Sheheen with defending national Democrats' views on policies that affect South Carolina.

There are 68 days left before voters go to the polls to elect a new governor. Sheheen said Tuesday he wants thecampaign to instead focus on issues over which the governor has more influence, such as economic development, education and tax reform.

But Sheheen took the national issues head-on, at times rejecting parts of the national Democrats' platform and at times charting his own course.

Take immigration, for example. S.C. lawmakers have proposed an anti-illegal-immigration bill modeled after a new Arizona law, which national Democrats have roundly criticized. Sheheen said an S.C. law approved in 2008 is a better law because it sets tougher standards for verifying employee residency and provides local law enforcement the ability to enforce immigration law.

"Ours is frankly tougher," Sheheen said. "We need to fully implement the law that we passed, and that's not been done."

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Reggie Lloyd recently told a legislative panel his agency does not have the funding nor the manpower to provide its current public safety services and also enforce the anti-illegal-immigration law.

Sheheen thinks South Carolina needs to fund its current enforcement before approving any new law.

"Nikki supports the Arizona immigration law and would support it for South Carolina," said campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey. "Vince Sheheen ducks the question."

Sheheen said he would be open to additional changes, once the current law was enforced.

"I would think I would not veto [as governor] any provisions that are needed," he said.

Greenville-based political consultant Chip Felkel said questions about the health care law, immigration and abortion matter to many voters. However, he said, the election will be about the economy and leadership.

"You've got to convince the people you can actually do the job," Felkel said. "It's about jobs and about the job of governor."

Sheheen was less definitive about his position on the health care reform law, saying he supported parts of the law that prevented insurers from eliminating coverage for those who get sick or denying it to those who have previously had major illnesses. Sheheen also supported extending coverage to dependents until the age of 25.

Among Sheheen's concerns about the law are the potential state budget costs and impact on small businesses, which might be required to insure employees or pay a fine.

Small businesses would be given tax breaks to ease the cost of insurance while the federal government would initially pay for most of the expansion to state-run health care roles mandated by the federal law. But independent analysts have said the law will likely increase health care costs, and the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services estimates state costs would increase by $914 million by 2020 -- a 4.4 percent increase over what the state would have spent if the new law were not approved.

"I'm seriously concerned about those. I think it's the governor's job to voice those concerns to federal officials," Sheheen said, adding it was unclear to him how the law would affect the growth of Medicaid, the tax-funded health insurance program for low-income residents and the disabled.

"Time will tell how we handle these" questions, he said.

Haley, according to her spokesman, does not favor the federal government requiring citizens to buy health insurance or face a fine.

"Nikki opposes the individual mandate in the Obama health care bill."

Sheheen would not commit to supporting a pending lawsuit filed by Attorney General Henry McMaster and others, which argues requiring citizens to buy health insurance is unconstitutional. Sheheen said that decision should be up to the next attorney general.

Haley has pushed worker's compensation reform, arguing rates are harming businesses. She has said rates should be based on objective standards proposed by the American Medical Association, which would lower business insurance costs.

On abortion, Sheheen, a Roman Catholic, said his position is clear. "I have always supported life, and my voting record has supported that," he said.

The S.C. GOP noted Tuesday that Sheheen missed a vote this year on a controversial budget rule that would bar the state health plan from covering abortions. Sheheen argued he missed fewer votes this year than Haley, who was frequently on the campaign trail instead of in the legislature.

Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said the health care issue could hurt Sheheen regardless of his positions and the rationale behind them.

"The bill is not well-understood, and most of the public has a poorly defined, cartoonish understanding of 'Obamacare,'" Huffmon said. "Being in a position where his opponent can force him to explain why he supports any part of 'Obamacare' could put him in a more difficult position to pick up moderates."

Huffmon said Sheheen's response to immigration "threads the needle pretty well without seeming soft," while the complexities of worker's compensation law are a difficult campaign issue for many voters.