Guest Editorial: McMaster outlines ambitious agenda for S.C.

January 26, 2018 GMT

Gov. Henry McMaster’s pro-growth, anti-tax agenda for South Carolina, put forth in his first State of the State address, offers a long list of conservative ideas for boosting prosperity, improving government transparency and saving money.

The challenge will be reconciling one of his central themes — “Let’s let the taxpayers keep their money” — with the existing financial needs of the state and the new costs that some of his proposed initiatives would involve.

Mr. McMaster led his speech on Wednesday with praise for the massive tax reform bill that President Donald Trump signed in January and called for a similarly large cut — $2.2 billion — in state taxes. The first year’s benefit would be $139 million.

“Like Presidents Reagan, Kennedy and now Trump, I believe that low taxes spur economic growth and prosperity,” he said.

“We must respect the right of the people to their own money, for their own purposes, according to their own priorities.”

But the state does have legitimate uses for tax dollars — schools, public safety and health — that cannot be ignored or underfunded. The Legislature has the responsibility to ensure that the governor’s tax cut proposal doesn’t blunt the ability of the state to meet its basic obligations.

And Mr. McMaster is right that a low-tax, pro-growth environment can bring business investment and help South Carolinians live better lives. He cited a missed opportunity created by economic growth in the state — one that should spur the education improvements the governor seeks.

“Despite our low unemployment rate, we still have an estimated 60,000 jobs available throughout the state. That number is expected to grow. And these are good-paying jobs,” he said.

The trouble is finding South Carolina residents with the necessary skills. Expanding the state’s workforce training and technical college programs will be essential to filling the thousands of new jobs being created statewide by companies like Samsung, Volvo and BMW — all of which sent representatives to Wednesday’s speech.

McMaster recommends strengthening programs in the state’s technical college system and improving links with high schools.

“This new initiative will connect businesses with high schools and technical colleges to collaborate on internships, dual credit and certificate programs for students interested in the skilled trades — focused on rural areas of the state,” he said.

He also pledged support for workforce scholarships and grants to enable more students to attend tech schools.

According to Mr. McMaster, “In 2017, we announced more than 17,000 new jobs from over 120 economic development projects, with nearly $5 billion in new capital investment.”

That is an impressive continuation of the legacy left by his predecessor, Nikki Haley. But the full impact of that new investment cannot be realized without the South Carolina workers needed to step up and successfully fill those jobs.

The governor’s concentration on rural schools recognizes that many school districts continue to face daunting challenges to provide the kind of education that students need. “I recently visited most of the school districts in the Abbeville case. One thing is clear: the words ‘minimally adequate’ bear absolutely no relation to our aspirations for our children.”

In making the case for public education, the governor urged the Legislature to endorse a proposal to make the state superintendent of education a gubernatorial appointment, thereby ensuring that the state’s chief executive would have broader range to implement his schools program. The proposal is endorsed by the current superintendent and has previously been approved by the House. It would require a statewide referendum for a constitutional change.

Legislators should heed Mr. McMaster’s call for stronger ethics reform. Noting that he previously served as co-chairman of an ethics reform commission under Gov. Haley, he urged the Legislature to fully adopt its strong set of recommendations. Underscoring that need is the ongoing investigation of legislative ethics abuses by special prosecutor David Pascoe.

The governor challenged lawmakers to end their own exemption to the Freedom of Information Act. And he urged the adoption of a bill that would provide stronger measures to identify ethics abuses in local government, including school boards.

Gov. McMaster took a strong stance against offshore oil drilling, standing up to ill-conceived policies proposed by his close political ally, President Trump. He rightly pointed out that the state’s $20 billion per year tourism industry offers far more value than even the wildest expectations for offshore oil and gas. He noted that every coastal municipality has officially opposed drilling.

“We cannot take a chance. We must do whatever it takes to preserve this economic paradise we call ‘the beach, the marsh, the coast and the Lowcountry.’ Ladies and gentlemen, we must do whatever it takes, because that coastline is made of gold for the people of South Carolina,” he said.

Mr. McMaster also called for greater effort to combat the state’s deadly opioid epidemic, with a budget allocation of $10 million for “treatment, prevention and education.”

He was right to declare opioid addiction a state public health emergency last year, and his continued efforts to keep South Carolina residents healthy and safe should find legislative and administrative support.

Finally, the governor got around to the elephant in the room — two failed nuclear reactors and their $9 billion price tag.

Mr. McMaster didn’t reveal any new information or offer much guidance to lawmakers regarding the massive economic disaster sparked by the abandonment of the reactors by SCANA and Santee Cooper last summer. That failed project will undoubtedly dominate the legislative year.

But the governor took an appropriately strong stand for state ratepayers, who face decades of higher electric bills for power plants that will never generate electricity if the Legislature fails to adequately remedy the situation.

“Send me a bill that replaces the Base Load Review Act and prevents ratepayers from being charged in the future for the abandoned reactors, and I will sign it,” he said. “Send me a bill that continues to place the financial burden of this corporate failure on South Carolina ratepayers, and I will veto it.”

That’s the right stance.

Mr. McMaster also suggested that selling state-owned Santee Cooper is the only way to protect its customers from higher rates. That might be true. But the governor and the Legislature must proceed carefully to ensure that any eventual deal truly serves the best interest of ratepayers and the state.

“So, let us seize this day, and each which follows. Let us recognize that there is no power in a small idea,” Mr. McMaster said.

Certainly, there is much power in incremental, sensible change that can benefit South Carolinians through job growth, education, protection of our natural environment, public safety and the other responsibilities entrusted to Mr. McMaster as governor.

Many of the proposals – particularly for job preparation and ethics reform – that the governor advanced on Wednesday would make the state stronger. Lawmakers should welcome the chance to work with Mr. McMaster for a productive year, even in the shadow of the failed Fairfield County nuclear project.

– The Post and Courier