COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster's first State of the State served as an unofficial launch of the 2018 gubernatorial race, as the Republican governor seeking his first full term took familiar GOP stances on topics ranging from cutting taxes to boosting law enforcement.
It was hard to escape the June primary beyond the governor's 45-minute address.
Standing behind McMaster at the podium was one of his GOP rivals, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant. Giving the Democratic response was state Rep. James Smith, who's seeking his party's nomination. Smith's primary opponent, Phil Noble, live-streamed his own rebuttal. And McMaster's top challenger in the money race, former state agency head Catherine Templeton, tweeted her own criticism.
McMaster made no surprises in his Wednesday night speech, which coincided with the one-year anniversary of Nikki Haley's confirmation as United Nations ambassador and his ascension to the governor's office.
He advocated the tax cuts he laid out earlier this month. While former Govs. Haley and Mark Sanford unsuccessfully pushed similar plans, McMaster argued the federal tax overhaul signed by President Donald Trump late last year makes it "more important than ever" for legislators to cut state income taxes.
McMaster's plan would eventually cut taxes by about $800 million annually following a five-year phase in. He also wants to exempt all pension benefits of retired military veterans, first responders and firefighters from state income taxes, beginning July 1.
"We must act. We must heed the lessons of history. We must respect the right of the people to their own money, for their own purposes, according to their own priorities," McMaster said, insisting that will jump-start the economy.
Appealing to GOP voters, McMaster advocated cutting government spending while encouraging charity and volunteerism, "because government cannot and should not attempt to be all things to all people."
He also took familiar GOP stances against abortion and so-called sanctuary cities. No one knows of any such cities in South Carolina, but McMaster advocates legislation that requires state law enforcement to verify municipalities are following immigration laws.
In his Democratic response, Smith, a Columbia attorney, said nothing in McMaster's speech will change South Carolina's reputation of being at "the bottom of every list we want to be on the top of," and vice versa.
"The State of the State should be about our future, not the governor’s political future," said Smith, whose rebuttal laid out pieces of his own platform.
In his speech, McMaster recognized that a thriving economy in South Carolina depends on an educated workforce. He argues the answers for improving South Carolina's public schools involve investing in charter schools, consolidating districts and putting officers in schools. He touted his proposed $5 million allocation for hiring 75 officers to work in the state's poorest schools.
But the ultimate answer for an "educated society" is for the students' parents to be employed, McMaster said.
"Poverty is the enemy of education," he said twice, to applause.
Smith counters the answers require more money, including increasing teachers' pay, reducing class sizes in elementary classrooms, and increasing high-quality early childhood care and education. He also said the state must make college more affordable.
McMaster touted his proposal to increase a major funding source for public schools, but he never mentioned the amount. His additional proposed $10 million would increase the per-student allocation by $10. Under a 1977 law adjusted annually for inflation, South Carolina is more than $560 million short of what state law requires.
Bryant said the governor didn't go far enough in advocating school choice and tax cuts. He advocates eliminating the income tax, not reducing it.
"The governor did mention school choice, and amen to that, but then focused on charter schools," Bryant said. "I'd like to see universal school choice for every parent in this state."
McMaster's ties to a veteran GOP powerbroker accused of corruption has drawn the fire of his challengers. McMaster was a long-time client of Richard Quinn until last year.
The governor reminded listeners he co-chaired an ethics study committee Haley created and called on legislators to pass more of the recommendations, as he chided them for not abiding by the state's public records law. Currently, their correspondence is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
"That destroys public confidence. This exemption must end," he said.
He also asked legislators to extend the definition of lobbying to anyone trying to influence any government body, not just the Legislature.
Templeton suggested McMaster could have addressed legal issues raised with Richard Quinn and his son, former state Rep. Rick Quinn, when he was attorney general from 2003 to 2011.
"Did he not know about the Quinns or not care?" Templeton tweeted. "Tonight, he sat in a glass house and threw a large boulder."
Noble added, "listening to McMaster talk about campaign finance reform and ethics is laughable and the height of hypocrisy."
The last part of McMaster's speech dealt with last summer's abandonment of the two nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer north of Columbia. Customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas and state-owned Santee Cooper, the minority partner, have been paying for the debacle since 2009 under a state law that allowed up-front collections.
McMaster reiterated his promise to veto any bill that allows customers to continue to be charged to pay off the $9 billion debt. The failed project accounts for 18 percent of SCE&G customers' bills.
McMaster was initially noncommittal on whether the 2007 state law should be repealed following Dominion's offer to buy SCANA, SCE&G's parent company. The offer, which included a partial refund to customers, hinges on the law remaining in place so the utility could continue billing customers for two decades, instead of the 50 or 60 years SCE&G proposed.
But McMaster took a firm stance after an analysis released last Friday found it unlikely SCANA would go bankrupt as its lobbyists and Dominion's insisted it would without the law.
"The interest of the ratepayers must come first," McMaster said in his speech.
As for customers of state-owned Santee Cooper, he repeated, "the only feasible solution suggested so far is the sale." Without giving any specifics, he told legislators some companies have made proposals for buying the utility. That would require the buyer to take on its $8 billion debt — about half from the failed project — and pay taxes on property currently exempt.
"I have informed all of these interested purchasers that the state will not consider any proposal which saddles the customers or taxpayers with Santee Cooper's debt," he said.
Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.