COLUMBIA — In her final State of the State address, Gov. Nikki Haley struck a somewhat sentimental chord Wednesday night at the Capitol, calling her time in South Carolina’s highest elected office “the greatest honor of my life.”
Wearing a royal blue dress and stopping to take selfies with lawmakers as she made her way to the podium, Haley delivered her farewell without any pause or sign that she might lose her composure.
And while the short-term governor did address public education and took time to remind those in attendance of her work as a so-called jobs governor, she did not mention transportation and roads funding, or the ethics probe hanging over the Legislature, the state’s ailing pension system and many of the issues lawmakers will undoubtedly grapple with in the next few months.
“The state of our state is blessed,” Haley said after spending several minutes thanking her family, friends, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster and even the Clemson University football team, who won the national championship in stunning fashion Monday night.
She went on to say the Palmetto State is not the late-night comic target others saw before.
"South Carolina was never the state it was portrayed to be,” she said. “We are so much more than the punchline of a late night joke. We always have been. It was time for the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, to see South Carolina as she truly is — a state of unlimited potential and unrivaled beauty populated by good, faithful, hardworking people.”
Haley’s goodbye was clocked at 27 minutes, significantly shorter than last year’s address.
She is expected in Washington, D.C., next Wednesday for a confirmation hearing in front of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on her nomination to become President-elect Donald Trump's U.N. ambassador.
Her nomination isn't expected to face stiff challenges, though some critics have questioned whether Haley has the foreign policy experience necessary to perform the duties of the ambassador's post.
Public education, economic development
While Haley appeared to avoid some of the more serious, lingering issues facing South Carolina’s Legislature, she did spend a good chunk of time Wednesday evening tackling the always-contentious issue of public education.
“For as long as most of us can remember, our public schools have not been good enough. That is no secret to anyone inside or out of this chamber,” Haley said. “We simply haven’t done enough to prepare South Carolina’s children for the future.”
Haley said the state’s public education system – which she proposed receive $2.9 billion in state appropriations in the upcoming fiscal year – faces problems on both a “practical” and “moral” level.
“With South Carolina’s economy booming and new jobs springing up all across the state, we have to be able to produce a workforce that can fill them,” she said of the so-called practical issue. “If we don’t, if companies cannot find the talent they need to be successful in South Carolina, they will go somewhere that they can.”
Haley said “every South Carolina child … regardless of where he or she is born and raised,” should have access to a quality education where they live.
“As the elected leadership of the state, it is our obligation to give it to them,” the governor said. “We failed in that obligation for too long.”
Haley took time to tout the economic development victories that became the hallmark of her time in office.
“We have announced 85,613 jobs. We have celebrated 672 projects—more than half of which were expansions,” she said. “We have seen $21.5 billion in capital investment. Our unemployment rate is now 4.4 percent. Every single one of our 46 counties has seen new jobs. Every one."
‘I will remember’
As Haley ran through her relatively brief address, the departing governor took a moment to consider her evolving legacy as the state’s 116th governor, as well as to look back at the difficult moments that dotted her time in office.
“I will remember that we brought a level of accountability to state government that never existed before, and that legislators now show their votes on the record, disclose who pays them, and no longer police themselves,” Haley said. “I will remember that we changed the structure of a state government that was antiquated and broken and that future governors will choose their running mate, their adjutant general, and have the full benefit of a Department of Administration that drives responsibility, efficiency, and better service to our citizens.”
Haley also took time to remember the tragedies of her time in office, which were not few nor far between.
“I will remember the devastating fire in Georgetown, the two winter storms, the shooting of an unarmed man by a North Charleston police officer, the hate-filled atrocity committed against 12 faithful men and women in the most sacred of places, the 1,000-year flood, the loss of a precious child to a school shooting, and Hurricane Matthew,” she said.
“But above all, I will remember how the good people of South Carolina responded to those tragedies, with love and generosity and compassion, and what that has meant for our state.”
First gentleman Michael Haley was in attendance but the governor's two teen-aged children were not. Her daughter, Ren, now 18, was in Clemson, starting her spring semester. Son, 15-year-old Nalin, "is getting used to his new school in New York," Haley said.
The governor's address was almost universally described as nostalgic – even bordering on saccharine – but there were some very obvious omissions, according to her critics.
One of the more common refrains from lawmakers who saw holes in Haley’s farewell was the omission of addressing transportation and road needs.
Democratic state Sen. Thomas McElveen of Sumter, who delivered his party's pre-taped rebuttal, said the state’s “failing transportation system … crumbling roads and bridges” were top priorities to him and other lawmakers.
“South Carolina spends less per mile on state road maintenance than any other state in the country, and it’s become painfully obvious to just about everyone that we are getting exactly what we pay for,” McElveen said.
“It’s time for our legislators and our soon-to-be new governor (McMaster) to zero in on a plan that will include a stream of revenue that’s exclusively dedicated to restoring, improving and maintaining our infrastructure.”
Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus, said he was “happy” for Haley but also expressed relief that she is on her way out of the state.
“Because with her divisiveness with the legislators, I think that we’ll be able to have a better relationship with the new governor [and] that we can start advancing some things in this state that better all South Carolinians, he said.
King said he thought Haley should have used her final address to inspire lawmakers to work on addressing the continuing needs of the state, rather than spend so much time reminiscing.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get that tonight,” he said. “She’s leaving South Carolina with crumbling roads and bridges and no solution to fixing the roads and bridges of South Carolina. We have not fixed the court decision of Abbeville (the K-12 school funding lawsuit) and making sure that we fully fund education in South Carolina.”
Other lawmakers expressed hope in a change in governor.
“I am excited about turning the page,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “I think Gov. Haley was very clear on what she would and would not do. I am hopeful that (soon-to-be) Gov. McMaster might not be as rigid in his thoughts about direction and what public policy issues we ought to deal with and not deal with."
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, was more diplomatic as he assessed Haley’s performance Wednesday night.
“It was a farewell, but it was also a nice touching ‘thank you’ from a small town Southern girl to give her the opportunity to be the governor and give her the opportunity to have an impact,” Massey said. “And Nikki Haley has definitely had an impact on South Carolina.”
Massey said Haley has been effective at urging lawmakers to tackle certain issues, including roads funding or ethics reform, during her career and didn’t criticize her for failing to mention them Wednesday night.
“Part of leadership from the executive is to inspire and to tell people these are some things that we really need to be focused on and to try to encourage legislators to move in that direction and to encourage the public to get behind moving on those issues,” he said.
McMaster, who has not publicly addressed many of the issues facing the state since news of Haley’s ambassador nomination first broke, agreed with the governor’s take on their similarities, which Haley pointed out in her opening remarks.
“We both love the state, we both love music,” he said. “It was a very good speech. We’re going to miss her.”