McMaster black caucus

Gov. Henry McMaster met with the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, to hear concerns about education and rural issues. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster told a group of black state lawmakers Tuesday that he welcomes their input amid concerns about rural development, education reform, energy and other issues working their way through the Legislature.

"I've got an open door," McMaster said during a meeting with the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus. "No matter how long you're in whatever kind of work you're in, you never know it all, so we're always looking for ideas and answers."

The meeting came as black lawmakers have expressed increasing frustration recently that they feel left out of key decisions and policy debates, with some saying they are "going to call people out" if they continue to be disrespected.

Several lawmakers raised concerns about the limited nature of proposals to address the state's struggling education system, an issue that has dominated the legislative session so far this year.

State Sen. John Scott, D-Columbia, said he feared a 5 percent teacher pay raise would do little to address the plight of rural school teachers, who he said need more incentives like housing assistance and debt forgiveness to remain a part of their communities.

McMaster promoted his proposal for a rural school district economic development closing fund of $100 million, which would allow the state to spend the money on improving schools in areas where companies are considering investing.

"Those are all good points of course," McMaster told Scott. "But we must make a start somewhere, and I think the start, something that is core, is that rural school district economic development closing fund and teacher pay. Those are the two core things without which the rest of this is not going to happen."

State Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Hopkins, said she has heard complaints from teachers, parents and principals in her district that they have not been included enough in the process as top lawmakers devised the sweeping, 84-page education reform proposal.

She also voiced concerns about a proposed "Zero to Twenty Committee," a 10-member group that would be appointed by lawmakers and the governor to keep track of how various education agencies are working together and feature an education "tsar" to report back to the governor.

"We do not want to create another layer," McMaster said. "The way I see that is an advisory group that has no executive function, but instead looks to see how all the pieces fit together from K through college and see what things we're missing, where we're weak and where we're strong, and report on that."

Lawmakers also voiced frustration with Dominion Energy, which recently took over one of the state's major utility companies, South Carolina Electric & Gas.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said his constituents have been confused about why they are no longer going to receive $1,000 checks, as the Virginia-based power company initially advertised, after the merger deal changed to instead offer lower rates.

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"They should have at least issued an apology or something," Gilliard said.

McMaster agreed that the company could have done more to clear the air.

"The publicity was all about the first part and not about the second part," he said.

But McMaster stood firm in his opposition to Medicaid expansion, as state Rep. Ivory Thigpen, D-Columbia, asked if he would consider supporting a bill to ask voters whether they support the idea, as several other conservative states did last year.

The governor, who has long rejected the federal expansion due to fears about the state's portion of the costs, said he prefers focusing on economic development to lift up the state's poorer communities.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.