AP NEWS

In State of the State, SC gov to pitch ideas, seek alliance

January 22, 2019
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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster addresses the crowd after being sworn in for his first full term at the South Carolina Statehouse, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. McMaster defeated Democratic state Rep. James Smith in the Nov. 6 election. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — When South Carolina’s Governor Henry McMaster gives his annual State of the State address to lawmakers on Wednesday, he’ll be laying out a vision for the coming year in a state where his office notably holds little unilateral power. Thus, his ability to persuade South Carolina legislators will be necessary to secure that his proposals ever see the light of day.

It’s the third major policy rollout for McMaster since winning his first full term last fall, following two years of finishing former Gov. Nikki Haley’s second term. Now, with his own electoral mandate, McMaster is freer to choose for himself the areas in which he’d like to focus, as opposed to managing lingering expectations of fulfilling Haley’s remaining goals.

But whatever ideas McMaster brings to the state come with them the understanding that he’ll need the Legislature to see them through. In this state, lawmakers hold far more power than the governor, who can voice a myriad of proposals but, aside from executive orders and Cabinet decisions, lacks much authority to make many changes directly.

“It’s still a legislatively dominated state,” said Joel Sawyer, a political consultant who served as communications director for former Gov. Mark Sanford. “If you’re talking about something that is going to alter the power structure or is going to take money away from the Legislature that they could otherwise appropriate, then you’re either going have to trade favors or figure out how to apply political pressure to those people.”

Already this month, McMaster has had two opportunities to discuss his plans. In his inaugural address , he laid out an ambitious proposal, pledging to shore up the state’s education system and continuing to forge new ways to keep South Carolina economically competitive through lower taxes and business recruitment. Likewise, in his executive budget, McMaster included 5 percent for teacher pay raises, as well as a $200 million rebate for taxpayers.

McMaster — in the state’s top office since early 2017, when the then-lieutenant governor was hastily sworn in following Haley’s resignation to join the Trump administration as U.N. ambassador — has already tallied some legislative clashes. In 2017, he pledged to veto any increase to the state gas tax, which lawmakers were proposing as reliable revenue to fix South Carolina’s deteriorating roads. McMaster made good on his word, lodging a veto that lawmakers in both chambers combined to defeat by more than 80 percent.

Recent South Carolina governors have had contentious relationships with state lawmakers, despite the top office and both chambers all resting in Republican control. Sanford repeatedly clashed with legislators over what he saw as bloat in their budget.

Haley began her administration similarly, using her line-item veto power to strike budget proposals she opposed, like state funding for presidential primary elections and arts education earmarks. Haley pushed hard for ultimately successful issues, like ethics reform and moving positions like the adjutant general from an elected to an appointed position, but lawmakers had already been pushing for those ideas before she arrived.

This is where McMaster hopes his decision to choose Pamela Evette for the state’s lieutenant governor will help develop relationships with lawmakers and further his agenda. In an interview before the election, McMaster told The Associated Press that he planned to use Evette’s skills in the corporate world to help him move issues through the Legislature.

“She is persuasive, and that will be really helpful with legislators ... county governments, municipal governments, the federal government,” McMaster said.

Evette has never served in office but has a business background and says relationship-building comes naturally. On the trail, Evette often campaigned without McMaster, traveling the state and embracing political messaging with ease, according to party leaders who spent time campaigning with her. In the first week of session, Evette visited legislative chambers, greeting lawmakers as they returned to Columbia.

All signs are pointing to possible successes on the education front, with McMaster and legislative leaders in both chambers penning a letter to the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office urging reforms to the education funding formula.

In addition to relying on his running mate, Sawyer said he expected McMaster - who has been in and around South Carolina’s government for decades - to be able to develop and maintain good relationships with the Legislature. It’s something the governor himself referenced last week in his inaugural address.

“To the members of the General Assembly: We - among ourselves - are not competitors,” McMaster said. “We are all on the same team - with the same ultimate goal - which is the prosperity and happiness of the people of South Carolina.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.