Gov. Nikki Haley made compelling arguments for education equity and ethics reform in her State of the State speech on Wednesday night. It should be a simple matter for the Legislature to heed her "call to conscience."
The governor touted the successful jobs growth that has been the signature initiative of her administration. She said economic development efforts have brought 43,000 new jobs and $10 billion in new investment since she took over as the state's chief executive.
South Carolina, she said, has become known as the "Beast of the Southeast" for its roaring economic growth. "We now have the fastest growing economy on the East Coast," she said. Job growth and investment have been enjoyed in 45 of the state's 46 counties.
And she stressed that economic development will be bolstered by ongoing efforts to provide additional funding for infrastructure.
She cited last year's legislation that increased the funding for roads and bridges by $600 million and recommended that another $106 million in new revenue be allocated to that effort this year.
But she insisted that the state's road and bridge shortcomings must be addressed without raising the gas tax - a comment that drew applause from lawmakers.
The governor and the Legislature should rethink their opposition to having those who use the roads pay their fair share for construction and maintenance, particularly when out-of-state motorists pay 40 percent of the gas-tax total. And especially with $29 billion in unmet road needs.
Mrs. Haley spent much of her State of the State addressing the inequity of public school funding and the impossibility of raising the bar in impoverished counties without more money. Part of the governor's plan would be modeled after a successful Florida campaign undertaken by former Gov. Jeb Bush to improve reading in the elementary grades.
Citing South Carolina's abysmal national ranking of 42nd in fourth grade reading scores, the governor pledged to offer every elementary school a reading coach "to make sure that no child leaves the third grade unable to read."
Moreover, summer camps focused on improving reading skills would be expanded in poor districts. And she called for an end to social promotion, which can allow children to advance in grades without having made the requisite academic progress.
Education funding would be increased by 20 percent - or $100 million - to school districts where the need is greatest, based on the number of students at or below the poverty level.
While Democratic critics contend that the governor has conveniently discovered education reform in a re-election year, she made the point that much of her school agenda was developed in consultation with a bipartisan group of legislators, assisted by teachers and administrators statewide.
On the ethics front, the governor urged the Legislature to finally approve a strong reform bill based on the work of the committee chaired by former attorneys general Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock.
"We know that the ethics laws we have are not good enough," she said. "We know that the public deserves better than the government we are giving them. We know that South Carolina needs stronger and clearer ethics laws, and we know we need it this year."
She said the state must have an ethics law that will provide for independent investigation of ethical complaints against legislators. To be complete, it also should require independent adjudication of those complaints - the same as for other elected officials in the state.
She also cited the importance of full income disclosure for elected officials.
At the outset of her State of the State, Mrs. Haley praised the Legislature for its passage Tuesday of the Department of Administration bill, giving greater power to the executive branch over personnel, property and fleet management, and information technology. That legislation was achieved after an agonizing process spanning years.
Ethics reform shouldn't be allowed to die or be weakened in the legislative process this year. It's been two decades since the last reform bill was approved, and the need for more disclosure and transparency is clear. And lawmakers must improve citizen access to the public realm by essential reforms to the state's Freedom of Information Act.
As the governor said, in regard to the ethics bill, "We should have nothing to hide from the people we serve."
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