Nephron

Flanked by Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy announced Wednesday that employees would receive a pay raise as a direct result of the tax cut bill that passed through Congress. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

WEST COLUMBIA — Nephron Pharmaceuticals announced Wednesday the company's 640 South Carolina employees are receiving a five percent pay raise, attributing the move to the tax bill passed by Congress this month.

Flanked by several of South Carolina's top politicians, Nephron chief executive Lou Kennedy said the company wanted to pass along business savings from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent.

As a result, Kennedy said, the company decided to give all employees, except those who work on commission, a year-end raise.

"How about that for a great way to start your new year?" Kennedy said to a standing ovation.

The raise will bring the average Nephron salary to $70,000 a year, Kennedy said, with a base wage of $15 an hour.

The news came with much fanfare. Cheerleaders, a brass band, balloons and an America flag adorned a large tent outside the company's headquarters for the announcement.

Prominent South Carolina officials in attendance included Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, Attorney General Alan Wilson, state Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and state Treasurer Curtis Loftis — the type of lengthy guest list that would ordinarily be reserved for a major new factory or company headquarters relocating to the Palmetto State.

The political VIPs lauded the announcement as an example of the benefits that tax cuts will bring to the state.

"When taxes go down, everything gets better," McMaster said. "What it means is more paychecks, bigger paychecks, and that's what we're looking for. And as Frank Sinatra and all the rest of the people said, 'you ain't seen nothing yet.' "

The move adds Nephron to a growing list of companies around the country that have doled out new benefits to employees in the wake of the tax bill's passage.

Comcast, AT&T, Fifth Third Bancorp, Boeing, Wells Fargo and Washington Federal all announced raises or one-time bonuses in the days since President Donald Trump signed the bill into law.

Trump has touted the development as a swift reward from the tax bill.

"Our big and very popular Tax Cut and Reform Bill has taken on an unexpected new source of 'love' - that is big companies and corporations showering their workers with bonuses," Trump tweeted last week. "This is a phenomenon that nobody even thought of, and now it is the rage. Merry Christmas!"

Skeptics argue the strong economy could have led to salary increases even before the tax bill passed, raising suspicions that the public pronouncements are done in part to curry favor with the Trump administration and congressional leaders.

"The Republicans in South Carolina haven't done a thing to help the business community, including Nephron or its workers," said Phil Chambers, a spokesman for the S.C. Democratic Party. "This tax bill might feel good today, but it will further stagnate wages, grow the deficit and will not lead to reinvestment in our business and communities."

Kennedy said she was "cheering from the rooftops" when Congress approved the tax cuts, which she described as critical for helping the company grow.

The respiratory drug manufacturing company, which launched 34 new products in 2017, currently employs 640 people at a West Columbia plant and plans to add 125 more by June 2018 after a $12.5 million expansion.

Graham, R-S.C., joked that the tax bill offered a rare instance of the federal government helping the state. The measure did not come easy, he said, as Republicans had to haggle for months before agreeing to a final product that could pass through the House and Senate.

"Here's the question: How do you grow the economy?" Graham said. "The Democrats don't understand. The answer is you help business. You help businesses who will help their employees."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.