First, finish restructuring
Gov. Nikki Haley carried her relentlessly upbeat message to the Legislature on Wednesday night as she outlined plans to bring more jobs to South Carolina and improve the efficiency of state government. And to change what she describes as the institutional "culture of negativity" in the state.
That "culture" was only occasionally evident during the governor's State of the State speech. She drew applause when she hailed the state's success in adding jobs and bringing industrial investment in the past year, and for her plans for 2012. She cited 20,000 new jobs and $5 billion in investment over the first year of her term: "I say to you tonight that the state of our state is surging."
She cited the "team effort" that has made possible the economic development success, and urged the Legislature to support her on other fronts as well.
Gov. Haley pressed lawmakers to achieve finality on government restructuring begun under Gov. Carroll Campbell 20 years ago. That includes creating a Department of Administration, jettisoning the State Budget and Control Board and taking another crack at reforming the Department of Transportation, which continues to make its major funding decisions based on political influence.
She encouraged legislators to finally resolve the financial problems of the state retirement system, which totters on a $17 billion unfunded liability. Lawmakers even applauded when she told them to eliminate their own sweetheart retirement deal. We hope they weren't just clapping for show.
The governor announced a number of promising initiatives: a new workforce training program aimed at improving employment prospects for South Carolinians, turning over the state-maintained school bus system to local districts, and providing long-overdue funding for charter schools.
And while Gov. Haley stressed the importance of cutting unnecessary spending, she also acknowledged the need to restore funding to certain core functions of state government, notably law enforcement and mental health.
Each has suffered during the budget cuts forced by the recession, and with negative consequences at the local level. The State Law Enforcement Division hasn't been able to meet the demand for lab work required by local law enforcement agencies that depend on SLED to help make cases. Mental health patients often end up in jail or hospital emergency rooms.
It was a welcome indication that the governor isn't solely motivated by the idea of stripping government to the bone.
"Yes, we can, have, and will cut spending in the state of South Carolina," she said. "But we must be smart about it. The time of across-the-board cuts is over."
On one point, however, her speech was met with dead silence: her defense of the Savannah River dredging project that would support the port of Savannah at the expense of Charleston. The state Senate had already spoken as a body on that issue Tuesday, with a unanimous resolution that seeks to void the actions of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control related to the Savannah project.
If that was a daunting way to begin the legislative session from the governor's perspective, Mrs. Haley didn't show it.
She extolled the business-friendly climate of South Carolina and the importance of providing jobs in rural areas with historically high unemployment.
"We have so much to be excited about -- and not just in the traditional economic hotbeds like Charleston and Greenville and Lexington, who we want to continue to thrive and grow, but also in the less populated areas like Orangeburg and Union and Denmark," she said.
And she defended her order that every state employee under her authority answer agency phones with, "It's a beautiful day in South Carolina." She expressed bewilderment over the reaction of naysayers to that small matter, and more broadly to the "culture of negativity" among the political class.
"I believe the only way we make South Carolina a better, stronger state is if we turn that same negative energy into a positive, and focus on 'can' and 'will' instead of 'can't' and 'won't.' "
We doubt if the Legislature is altogether ready to head down the Yellow Brick Road with Gov. Haley. Nevertheless, much of her program deserves lawmakers' support.
The General Assembly should begin by finishing the work on government restructuring for a more accountable and efficient state government.
And keep up the push for more jobs.