COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster used his fourth State of the State address to tout his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and paint a hopeful future for a state that "slowed down" but never completely shut down due to decisions criticized by Democrats.
The Republican governor framed his 50-minute speech Wednesday with calls for unity, opening with a prayer for the nearly 6,000 South Carolinians who have died with COVID-19 since March — "who will no longer brighten our hearts with their smiles, their love, and their friendship" — and concluding by condemning the violence that has divided Americans.
"We all know this has been a tumultuous year, with shocking and disturbing displays of violence, lawlessness, anger and rage all across the country. We recently witnessed the shocking and sad desecration in our beloved Capitol in Washington," he said. "The voices and volume have become so loud that many Americans are not listening to each other. But this too shall pass. It will."
But in a speech given hours after the U.S. House impeached President Donald Trump for egging on last week's mob, McMaster never mentioned Trump, after years of broadcasting his ties. By making Nikki Haley his United Nations ambassador, Trump is the reason McMaster, then the lieutenant governor, was vaulted to governor in 2017. Trump's campaigning for McMaster in 2018 GOP primary helped him win election as the state's CEO.
Instead, McMaster repeated a sports metaphor from his inauguration two years ago, saying the idea of all South Carolinians being on the same team, no matter their political beliefs, is "more appropriate now than it was then."
If politics is a game, lots of the players were visibly absent Wednesday.
Most Democrats declined to attend the joint session of the House and Senate held in the House chamber. And the balcony was largely void of the guests that normally take up a good chunk of the speech in recognitions and congratulations. Exceptions included former Gov. David Beasley, who last month accepted the Nobel Peace Prize as director of the U.N. World Food Program.
Even those kudos carried on the COVID-19 theme.
While the governor didn't mention it, Beasley also holds the distinction as being one of the first South Carolina officials who tested positive for the virus, back in March. McMaster also didn't mention that he and his wife were among the more than 365,000 South Carolinians infected in the past 10 months.
The senators who did attend his speech socially distanced from the balcony, instead of crowding around their House colleagues on the floor as they normally do.
Amid increasing bipartisan frustration at the slow rollout statewide of COVID-19 vaccines, McMaster called for splitting up the agency tasked with responding to the worst worldwide health crisis in a century, which has been without a permanent director since June.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control should at least be put under direct control of the governor's office, McMaster said.
"It is a massive agency with thousands of talented, experienced employees but two different and equally complex missions — health and the environment. A jack of all trades is the master of none," he said.
In the Democratic response, state Sen. Mia McLeod said the idea is nothing but a blame game, noting that, while DHEC is not a cabinet agency, the governor appoints its chairman and all other members of its governing board.
It's the governor who deserves the blame for the state's abysmal vaccine rollout, the Columbia Democrat said in her pre-recorded response. She was among legislators who didn't attend.
"With all due respect, Governor, because you’ve failed to lead us, the current state of our state is bleak," said McLeod, adding she "knows all too well," as someone who suffers from sickle cell anemia, the concerns and struggles of people in high-risk categories.
She accused McMaster of putting the economy over people's health. And she blasted his repeated refusal to issue a statewide mask mandate and continued push — which he again called for in his speech — that public schools offer a full week of in-person learning.
"Our state can’t be 'open for business' until COVID-19 is 'out of business.'" she said.
McMaster didn't directly address criticism from the left for being the last governor east of the Mississippi last spring to issue a stay-at-home order — which didn't apply to South Carolinians working or shopping in businesses that could remain open — being one of the first states to re-open those he forced to close, and refusing to clamp down again.
But he pointed to the restrictions and budget deficits in other states as evidence of that being the wrong approach.
"Political leaders in many states have gone too far. They have infringed on the Constitution and trampled personal freedoms. In Los Angeles, they set up a hotline to inform on neighbors for gathering together. In Chicago, they told people to cancel Thanksgiving. In New York, they tried to ban citizens from attending church. In San Francisco police were forced to stop a wedding before the couple could say 'I do,'" McMaster said.
"We took a road less traveled — a better road," he continued, contending the "reasonable steps" taken by him and the committee he tasked with making reopening decisions "allowed us to combat the virus without crippling our economy."
He thanked legislators for freezing state government spending last year and not writing a budget as the pandemic sent the economy on a tailspin. While other states are forced to slash budgets, he noted, South Carolina is projected to have an additional $1.2 billion to spend in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Much of his speech repeated what he laid out in his budget proposal last week. That included calling on legislators to sock an additional $500 million into a rainy day fund for future economic uncertainties, send small businesses $123 million in relief, spend $80 million to cover college tuition for poor students and set aside $60 million for job training.
He also renewed many of the requests he laid out last year, before the pandemic cut the legislative session short.
That includes finally expanding state-paid, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten statewide — something legislators pledged to do in a 2014 law that set no timeline — and paying the college tuition for every active duty Army and Air National Guard member in South Carolina.