COLUMBIA — More than a week ago, Gov. Nikki Haley left her office and marched up to the state Senate to berate Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster over a ruling he was about to make on the ethics reform bill.
It was a rare appearance in chambers’ library by the governor, who usually leaves the second floor of the Statehouse to lawmakers. But by all accounts, she was mad.
The question is: Why?
Few of the senators pushing for the proposal disagreed with McMaster’s ruling. Behind closed doors, none could explain why Haley confronted McMaster or would later vilify him on social media as having killed a portion of the ethics reform bill.
McMaster, after all, has long been Haley’s ally.
Many lawmakers will tell you that’s just how she operates. Haley has had public disagreements with many of the Legislature’s leaders, including former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, former Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell and most recently with Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
This time, McMaster just happened to be in the line of fire and the rift was likely a one-time spat. Yet the common theme among veteran lawmakers and political observers is that Haley is concerned about her legacy. The 2016 legislative session is probably Haley’s last chance to push through key legislation before assuming lame-duck status in 2017.
“Once she’s in the last two years of the term, it does become more of jockeying for the next person and trying to wait the governor out,” said Gibbs Knotts, political science professor at the College of Charleston. “This is really the time she is most effective. It becomes a little bit harder as you’re about to leave office.”
In the wake of motorist Walter Scott’s shooting, the Emanuel AME Church attack and the resulting Confederate battle flag debate, Haley was thrust into a national spotlight that few governors could imagine. It helped her regain the national media’s attention that shone on her when she was first elected five years earlier and labeled a rising star in the Republican Party.
Yet that acclaim has rarely carried into the Statehouse. Because of the way South Carolina’s constitution is written, legislators have more power than the governor. David Woodard, political science professor at Clemson University, said that can leave the governor in a secondary role.
“It’s not really her fault,” Woodard said of Haley. “It’s just how things are done in South Carolina.”
Most voters don’t understand that the position holds less power than legislators, unlike other states, Woodard added. And that leaves Haley with just the bully pulpit — and a growing sense of urgency — to get stuff done.
“She’s in her second term and wants to point at her accomplishments,” Woodard added. “Her influence is going down the longer it takes to get something done.”
Though Haley points to key pieces of legislation she’s fought for — education reforms, the restructuring of the Department of Administration and requiring roll call voting on legislation — the General Assembly has failed to rally behind a unified measure concerning roads funding for years, another of her reform projects.
Another supposed setback came on Wednesday when the House refused to agree with the changes the Senate made to the roads bill. The governor took to Facebook to lambaste lawmakers for this legislative gridlock.
That came a week after she accused McMaster and Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, of killing a portion of the ethics reform bill that aimed to have lawmakers disclose their sources of income.
Haley has been calling for ethics reform for at least four years, and though the Senate this week passed income disclosure requirements in a separate bill, Haley has remained mum on the effort.
“Ethics and roads seem to be the issues that have this legislature bogged down,” Knotts said. “It’s hard to know for sure why. Certainly, the political battles are unfortunate because it’s such an important issue for our state; the ability of people to have some confidence in their elected officials and to have mechanisms in place to at least not prevent corruption, but to make it less likely.”
Both are issues Republicans and Democrats should be able to come together on, Knotts added.
Though it seems like Haley is fighting an uphill battle with ethics reform and roads funding, she still has an incentive to encourage lawmakers to pass legislation she feels is important. In February, Haley’s top adviser, Tim Pearson formed the political advocacy group “A Great Day SC.” Its purpose is to raise money for pro-Haley issues and candidates. All of the Legislature’s 170 seats are up for re-election this year with the party primaries less than two months away.
But Pearson rebuffed the notion that legislators should be in fear of the organization’s efforts. If legislators are voting in favor of issues that are not in line with their constituents’ desires, lawmakers should re-evaluate their votes, Pearson said.
“The point of the governor and what the organization is trying to do is making sure that people understand what is happening at the Statehouse so that they can make decisions on who is actually representing them,” Pearson said.
He added that it’s always been Haley’s desire to leave the office and South Carolina better than it was when she was elected. The organization will do what it needs to ensure the state is better two years from now, Pearson said.
“Everything that the governor has fought for has been about moving things forward,” Pearson said.
Reach Cynthia Roldán at 843-708-5891.