South Carolina State of the State

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster delivers the State of the State address at the South Carolina Statehouse, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Columbia, S.C.  AP Photo/Sean Rayford 

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster pledged in his State of the State address to "change everything" to fix South Carolina ailing schools, promising to back administrative changes proposed by the General Assembly this year meant to improve a system long ranked among the country's worst.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, are expected to introduce bills that would eliminate testing seen as a burden to teachers, consolidate some of the state's more than 80 school districts, replace "non-productive" school boards and curb social promotions between grades, McMaster said Wednesday.

"Send me these reforms, and I will sign them into law," he said amid a loud applause from the joint session of the Legislature.

The push to improve South Carolina schools in the Statehouse comes after The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series that detailed how the state's education system is failing students, teachers and businesses.  

"Being perceived as weak in any part of our state in education is not good," McMaster said. "But being perceived as not committed to fixing it is disastrous." 

McMaster repeated his promise from his inaugural address this month that the "'Corridor of Shame' will be a distant memory" — a reference to a term used for struggling rural schools along the Interstate 95 corridor. He said he promised to "change everything" with education after speaking with a superintendent in Lee County, a rural area where many students don't stay to work and live. 

Confidence for education changes is high since McMaster is coordinating efforts with the House and Senate.

The governor and legislative leaders agreed to have state economists develop a new schools funding model after calling the current one "outdated, inefficient and confusing" and one which fails to "provide the accountability, efficiency and transparency." 

McMaster's budget included a 5 percent pay raise for teachers that will push average salaries above the Southeastern average and  $100 million to attract economic development to state's poorest school districts.

"We must provide the spark," he said.

He also is pushing more money to help other state workers. The governor proposed $34 million for pay raises, new hires and bonuses for state law enforcement officers and firefighters and nearly $50 million to cover health insurance increases for all state employees. 

McMaster wants the additional money for education and employees while cutting taxes.

He repeated his call for 15 percent income tax cut that will eventually trim $2.2 billion over five years — the equivalent to 25 percent of the current total state budget. He proposed rebating $200 million in increased sales tax collections from the improving economy, which he dubbed a surplus, and wants retirement income exemptions for military veterans and first responders.

McMaster praised the House and Senate for working to change the state’s tax structure. "Working together, I am certain that we will succeed and keep South Carolina winning," he said.

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McMaster used the address to call for the sale of state-run electric utility Santee Cooper, which saw its debt grow to $8 billion in debt after a failed nuclear project north of Columbia. The governor fears rate hikes for customers, but lawmakers have said they see little appetite to sell Santee Cooper.

"I ask that members of the General Assembly keep an open and objective mind when you receive this information," McMaster said.

On offshore drilling proposed by the Trump Administration, McMaster repeated his objections to the hefty applause from the lawmakers and guests.

"We must stand firmly against all efforts to endanger the future of our pristine coastline, our beaches, our sea islands, our marshes and our watersheds," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, that means we will not have offshore testing or drilling off the coast of South Carolina." 

In the Democratic response, State Sen. John Scott of Columbia shared a message of working together with Republicans while pointedly demanding that McMaster to take action to fix South Carolina's problems.

Scott, who was part of a Democratic ticket running for governor last year, called for some changes that McMaster included in his executive budget released last week — raising teacher and state employee pay, improving public schools, curbing college tuition hikes and boosting development in rural areas.

But Scott added that the governor and other Republicans in the Statehouse should expand Medicaid to help thousands of uninsured South Carolinians, something that GOP-dominated Legislature is hesitant to back.

"Let me use this opportunity to invite the governor and my friends on the other side of the aisle to join us as we launch a new contract for working families," he said. "I’m talking about not having another empty promise or political pledges."

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

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