SC gov State of State hits on familiar education, tax themes
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Gov. Henry McMaster’s vision for South Carolina laid out Wednesday in the State of the State address was the continuation of his themes of education reform, tax relief and environmental protection he has been preaching since starting his first full term earlier this month.
His formal address before state lawmakers had few new developments. It was the third big audience McMaster had this month after his inauguration two weeks ago and the release of how he would like to spend the state’s $9 billion budget last week.
But if the inauguration speech was lofty and the budget was wonky, the State of the State speech was a chance to plainly fill in details of his plan to a statewide audience.
It was his second State of the State address after taking over as governor when Nikki Haley was named U.N. Ambassador in 2017. McMaster won his own full term in November.
McMaster again promised to fight for a 5 percent raise for teachers worth $155 million, a small increase in across-the-board funding and a $100 million fund to bring business to the most-disadvantaged school systems that he said will then in turn improve those schools with higher incomes for families and community investment.
“We are building an international reputation for business growth and progress. Being perceived as weak in any part of our state in education is not good. But being perceived as not committed to fixing it is disastrous,” McMaster said.
The governor didn’t give details on changing the formula for schools, consolidating school districts, eliminating excessive testing and social promotion or other issues. But he said he trusted the eventual work of his Republican colleagues House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree.
“I support the Speaker and the Senator 100 percent. Send me these reforms and I will sign them into law,” McMaster said.
The governor again called for lawmakers to back giving $200 million back to taxpayers in a one-time rebate that would amount to an average check of about $87.
McMaster said just because government collects it, doesn’t mean it has to spend it and the state must be careful to keep its economic growth going. Unemployment is well below the national average and the state recently topped the 5 million mark in population several years before projections.
He also made a brief mention of his proposal to cut state income taxes by $2.2 billion. He proposed a similar plan over five years in his 2018 speech. Legislators are considering comprehensive tax reform that could take several years to develop.
“It has taken years to get to where we are. But we must do more,” McMaster said. “That means we must keep taxes low, reduce burdensome regulations and invest heavily in infrastructure.”
McMaster again touted his South Carolina Floodwater Commission, in which dozens of experts will come together to combat flooding from coastal sea rise to nuisance flooding from poor drainage to the damaging floods like those over three of the past four years.
He also took a sharp stance against his longtime ally President Donald Trump on oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We must stand firmly against all efforts to endanger the future of our pristine coastline, our beaches, our sea islands, our marshes, and our watersheds. Ladies and gentlemen, that means we will not have offshore testing or drilling off the coast of South Carolina,” McMaster said to one of his biggest ovations of the evening.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving member in the House, said there is more optimism among her fellow Democrats to work with McMaster than the previous two governors.
She wishes the governor would consider taking federal money for Medicaid expansion and wants a raise for all state employees, not just teachers.
The governor’s request last week for an in-depth look at the decades-old formula used to determine how the state’s public education system is funded is completely supported as an idea by Democrats, but they are waiting to see what is proposed.
“The devil, as always, will be in the details,” the Orangeburg Democrat said.
In the formal Democratic response, state Sen. John Scott said his party wants to work with McMaster, but worries too many people are left behind with Republican proposals. The Democrat from Columbia said one of every three jobs in South Carolina pays less than $25,000 a year and many are part-time jobs without benefits.
“Sure, we could continue the same path that we travelled last year, but that would not help the children in our neighborhoods whose mouths are filled with cavities,” Scott said.
The governor opened his speech with the traditional recognition of soldiers, police officers and first responders who died in the line of duty. There were six since his last speech: Saluda County deputy Shannon Hallman; Lancaster County deputy James Kirk Jr.; Florence Police Sgt. Terrance Carraway; Florence County deputy Farrah Turner; Van Wyck Fire Department Assistant Chief Dennis Straight; and U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Andrew Celiz.
McMaster pointed out Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, the first lieutenant governor elected on the same ticket as the governor. He also acknowledged outgoing University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides and incoming College of Charleston President Andrew Hsu.
McMaster also said hello to his wife, son and daughter-in-law. The governor said his daughter was in New York getting ready for her wedding on March 16.