Haley to address S.C. Legislature, as governor and candidate

  • Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 9:26 p.m., Updated: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 12:22 p.m.

When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley addresses a joint session of the Legislature Wednesday, there will be fewer differences than usual between the governor as executive branch leader and as a candidate seeking a second term, political observers say.

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In her fourth "State of the State" address, Haley plans to address education, ethics, and the economy, among other topics, said Haley aide Tim Pearson. The governor plans to "take a look back at what has been successful and use those as a blueprint for the things out there that needs to be tackled," Pearson said.

For Haley, the speech comes at an opportune moment, as the Legislature passed a government restructuring act Tuesday that hands her more power and the Legislature broad authority to investigate executive branch agencies, among other reforms. Such action has been debated for years, and Haley has talked extensively about the need for such reform. Pearson called it "the biggest piece of government reform in 20 years."

Democratic Rep. James Smith of Columbia will deliver the Democrats' response to Haley's address immediately afterward. A release said that Smith will present the Democratic vision for greater accountability and responsible leadership for the state.

In recent days, Haley has rolled out plans for expanded investment in primary school education, particularly in poverty-stricken areas. Political experts say that without a primary fight, the move indicates that she doesn't have a challenge from the political right and can look to win over moderate Republicans and swing voters.

"Improving education is not ordinarily an issue used on the Republican side," said Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University politics professor. "It's not the Republicans she's got to worry about, and she's not going to get many Democrats, it's those swing voters in the center."

Pearson said the press makes a bigger deal out of the political importance of the speech than it does the governor. "The governor has always said if she does a good job as governor everything else will take care of itself," he said.

She may also take the opportunity to win over skeptics on her education plan. Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Charleston, commended the governor for taking on education with a $177 million proposal. But he said that money generally solves few problems when it comes to education.

"Until we have parents, grandparents . who say education is important, there's very little that policy and government can do," Bennett said.

Others will need less convincing. Sen. John E. Courson, R-Columbia, a Senate leader, said he supports Haley's plan to equalize funding among school districts, but a wide disparity now exists. "It's very fascinating to see a governor who is taking an interest in K-12 education," said Courson, who said South Carolina rarely debates the subject.

"I commend her for doing that," he said.

Thigpen said he and others are interested to see how Haley will address ethics reform. The governor has called for reforms that would, among other things, set up an independent body to investigate members of the Legislature. Haley was criticized early in her tenure over whether she illegally lobbied for a hospital while a state representative, and, as governor, whether she should have traveled on the state's dime when she raised money for her campaign.

Haley's lawyers had denied that she improperly lobbied on behalf of a Lexington hospital while in the Legislature. Haley's campaign paid $1,179 for the miles she rode to and from her in-state fundraisers between January 2011 and June 2013, according to an Associated Press story. "This ethical stuff has hung over her head from almost the moment she took office," Thigpen said.

Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston politics professor, said that Haley has to be careful not to overpromise. "It's going to be the kickoff to her campaign," Knotts said. "She has to be careful not to over-promise, but to ... define the issues she's going to be running on in 2014."

Reach Jeremy Borden at 843-708-5837

Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly quoted an Associated Press story about Gov. Haley's reimbursement of money spent on trips for campaign fundraising. The Post and Courier regrets the error.

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