COLUMBIA —At the halfway point of her term, Gov. Nikki Haley is a contradiction: a rising national star who has struggled at times at home.
State of the State
What: Gov. Nikki Haley delivers her third State of the State addressWhere: In Columbia before a joint session of the General Assembly When: 7 tonightWatch: The speech will be shown live on ETV stations statewide and streamed at scetv.org.
Haley — an Indian-American, at 40 the youngest governor in the country and the first chief executive of South Carolina to be either a woman or a minority — has risen to prominence in national Republican circles at a time when the party is looking to emphasize its diversity.
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That national attention landed Haley, who took office in January 2011, a coveted speaking spot at last summer's Republican National Convention and has helped her build a sizable campaign war chest for her near-certain re-election campaign. But it's come at the same time Haley has seen subpar job-approval ratings in polls of South Carolinians, and as she's been unable to get the GOP-controlled Legislature to pass some of her key agenda items.
Haley has faced considerable criticism for her handling of a number of issues, including:
The massive breach of sensitive taxpayer information at one of her Cabinet agencies, the S.C. Department of Revenue.
Her request that a state environmental board filled with her appointees reconsider a request by the state of Georgia for a Savannah River dredging permit, which was subsequently granted.
A taxpayer-funded, week-long economic recruitment trip to Europe in June 2011 that included some controversial expenses.
The removal of billionaire businesswoman and philanthropist Darla Moore from the University of South Carolina board.
For her part, Haley said in a recent interview that she's proud of the job she's done as governor at implementing her agenda since riding a wave of tea party support to a narrow win in 2010, but said there's more to be done in the remaining two years of her term.
She declined to give herself a grade, saying she's learned that she'll be criticized no matter what mark she chooses.
Supporters of the governor's agenda, such as state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, members of the business community, some Democratic officials including Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and USC economists, have said Haley deserves credit for her job-recruitment efforts, which Haley said have been the central focus of her administration thus far.
“She talked about jobs,” Grooms said, “and I'm going to tell you, I think she's done a really good job of that.”
Grooms said Haley also deserves praise for advertising what's good about the state.
Haley critics such as S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian and S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess, who was once aligned with Haley, are critical of the job the governor has done. The council is a limited-government-supporting think tank.
Harpootlian called Haley a “miserable failure” who's more concerned about her national brand than changing South Carolina, evidenced by all the time she spent campaigning for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Landess said the governor has “gone along to get along” and hasn't done enough to challenge the status quo despite running an insurgent campaign built on doing just that.
Has the governor done what she said she would?
What follows is a look at Haley's progress on some of her signature campaign pledges with two years to go in her term:
Haley built her campaign around bringing a new level of transparency to the governor's office and making state government open and accessible to the people. But it's in this area that Haley has arguably faced the greatest criticism for her administration's performance thus far.
In 2011, it was discovered the administration was deleting internal emails, causing some to say Haley was violating the state's Freedom of Information Act. Haley said she was following the policy used by the previous governor, and the state's gubernatorial email retention policy was changed for the first time in many years following the revelation of the email deletion. “That was not something we had thought about,” Haley said of the email policy. “Rather then defending it, we said all right let's change it.”
Haley's administration last summer also refused to release emails related to a House Ethics Committee investigation of the governor requested by The Post and Courier, citing attorney-client privilege. Haley said she has taken major steps to improve transparency, including posting video of all her press conferences online, holding open door meetings across the state to meet with residents, making her flight records available to reporters upon request and using Facebook to communicate with the public. Haley also said she has released her “entire schedule” for the public to see, but that schedule has sometimes not included events such as out-of-state fundraisers.
Harpootlian called Haley's office the least transparent administration in at least the last 25 years. Haley's 2010 Democratic gubernatorial opponent and possible 2014 rival state Sen. Vincent Sheheen declined a request for an interview for this story. But he said in an email that “I think the public is in a pretty good position to understand if she has lived up to the many promises of openness and accountability made on the campaign trail.”
Haley said that it's not surprising she's faced criticism on her administration's transparency given how much of a priority she made it. “Someone told me that when you run a campaign on transparency, when you get into office, they're always going to say you're not transparent enough because you fought so hard,” she said.
A corollary to Haley's transparency pledge on the campaign trail was her push for legislators to cast all votes on the record through roll calls. Haley's support for the change dated back to her time as a House member from Lexington County. She signed the requirement into law after it was passed by the Legislature in 2011, and it represents perhaps her biggest legislative win of her first two years in office. It was one of the first things she ticked off last week when describing her accomplishments so far. Critics such as state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, have said the voting procedure change is insignificant and doesn't affect the lives of South Carolinians.
Haley pledged during the campaign to make job recruitment and reducing the state's unemployment rate a major priority, and she now says that the pursuit of “jobs, jobs, jobs” was her administration's chief priority in its first two years. The state's unemployment has dropped in recent months, mirroring a national decline. But despite announcing new jobs in 45 of 46 S.C. counties, Haley's job recruitment efforts have yet to lead to an explosion of statewide job growth relative to her predecessor. Haley's Commerce Department has announced 31,514 new jobs since she took office. By comparison, former Gov. Mark Sanford's administration announced 38,471 jobs from 2009-10.
Haley last month emphasized that the state is now better positioned to land additional investment, citing a report by USC economists and other publications. And she's won praise for her hands-on approach to wooing CEOs.
Haley promised her administration would advocate and lead efforts to establish a ballot initiative that would give voters the chance to change the state constitution to allow for legislative term limits. While she has occasionally talked about her support for term limits, a public push for the ballot initiative has been lacking.
Modernizing state government
Haley has exerted considerable political capital in support of legislation creating a Cabinet-level Department of Administration that would assume much of the day-to-day functions of state government currently handled by the State Budget and Control Board. Although the Legislature came close to passing the bill last year, senators effectively killed the bill by allowing since-ousted Sen. Jake Knotts to run out the clock on the bill on the last day of the legislative session. Friction between Haley and the Legislature has left some lawmakers hesitant to deliver Haley a victory on the issue.
Haley also pledged that she would back efforts to reduce the number of statewide constitutional officers from the current nine closer to the national average of four. Granting her the authority to appoint the state superintendent of education is particularly critical for implementation of her education policy, Haley said. The full Legislature has not passed bills proposing the elimination of constitutional officers since Haley took office.
In March 2011, Haley issued an executive order creating a state-level inspector general post tasked with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse.
Haley pushed for caps on punitive damages in certain civil cases, saying the limits would help bring business to the state. She signed a bill into law in July 2011 that implemented caps.
Fighting the Affordable Care Act
Haley has declined to implement a state-run health insurance exchange, a key element of the 2010 health overhaul. Haley also opposes an expansion of Medicaid under the legislation, saying the state can't afford the growth of the program over the long term.
Haley signed a tougher new immigration policy into law in June 2011 that granted more power to police to check whether people are illegal immigrants. Parts of the measure were initially blocked, but a federal judge has upheld the controversial status check provision.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.