MYRTLE BEACH — Three of the four Republicans running for governor spent Monday telling South Carolina tea party members their views on the state's income taxes, power company woes and its aging school bus fleet.
They also spent much of their time criticizing fellow Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who was absent from the Tea Party Coalition Convention.
"The people who've been on (McMaster's) payroll for decades have now been criminally indicted, and some have pled guilty," charged challenger Catherine Templeton, referring to McMaster's former political consultant and Statehouse corruption probe figure Richard Quinn.
"And he didn't prosecute them when he was Attorney General, which means he either didn't know and was incompetent, or didn't care, and he's corrupt too," she told a crowd of about 140 people at the Crown Reef Resort.
The salvo was one of several criticisms raised by Templeton, a former two-time state agency head, current Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill.
All three 2018 hopefuls jabbed the incumbent on several fronts, including his veto of funding for a school bus fleet that has become infamous for catching on fire. That veto was recently overridden by the General Assembly.
"We need to either privatize or let the districts control our buses. But the children who are riding the bus now — we can't risk their safety on this policy decision... the recent veto of the money going to fix our buses was a tremendous mistake," Bryant said.
McMaster earlier told organizers he would not attend the event. Caroline Anderegg, a spokeswoman for his campaign, said in an email "there will be plenty of time for campaign events as we get closer to the (June 12) primary."
She added, "but right now Gov. McMaster is focused on doing his job: being governor."
Templeton was by far the most critical of the current governor and the only one to mention the public corruption probe that has ensnared multiple lawmakers and Quinn, the consultant employed by McMaster until he parted ways with the Columbia kingmaker last year.
Templeton and Bryant, meanwhile, declined to attack each other's policies and agreed on many counts even as recent polls show them competing for the second place spot in the race.
In one poll released earlier this month, the private firm The Trafalgar Group reported that McMaster led with roughly 40 percent, followed by Bryant at 11 percent; Templeton at about 8 percent; and McGill at 3 percent. The results were a surprise compared to earlier Mason-Dixon polling that had indicated Templeton was in second place.
Questions at the forum were selected in advance by the organizers, and candidates took the stage separately, each getting 15 minutes to speak on a few subjects. Chief among them was how to deal with power companies in the state as they deal with the fallout from the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project.
SCANA, the parent company of South Carolina Electric & Gas and one of the partners in the defunct plant, is currently being courted by Virginia-based Dominion Energy in a deal that has been touted by McMaster.
The failed project has left ratepayers paying extra charges for a facility that will likely never be built.
Bryant said that a free market approach to utilities could help lower prices.
"We've learned what government intervention does. It's always a disaster," Bryant said.
McGill also suggested that more consumer choice could help the state's utility markets and said he wanted to hear more from the public.
"I'm of the opinion you listen to the public... I've always believed in referendums and let the public let us know what we need to do," he said.
Templeton, who initially tweeted in support of the Dominion deal, said Monday the deal would primarily benefit SCANA's stockholders instead of ratepayers.
"(McMaster) is supporting a sweetheart deal to give the SCANA executives almost twice as much for their stock prices, and keeps taking from us," she said.
Taxes were top of mind for the fiscally conservative crowd, and forum moderator John Steinberger asked candidates whether corporate tax cuts championed by President Donald Trump would benefit South Carolina.
Candidates praised the cuts and had their own suggestions for what to do with taxes at the state level. McMaster also announced earlier this month a proposal to cut state income taxes by $2.2 billion over the next five years.
McGill suggested eliminating income taxes for people 65 and older, saying it could help a financially vulnerable population.
"That not only would bring in new retirees, but retirees in this state won't be looking to Florida or Texas or other places as far as relocating," he said.
Bryant said he was in support of a Fair Tax, which would abolish most forms of taxation in favor of a uniform retail sales tax.
"Any time a tax collector or a politician comes to you (and says) 'Oh we can't cut taxes, how are we going to pay for it?' I say we pay for it with freedom," Bryant said. "We pay for it with freedom, giving you the freedom to keep more money in your pocket."
Templeton suggested broad state income tax cuts but did not offer specific details on how she would achieve them.
"I'm going to cut your income tax, your personal income tax — I've done the math — down to almost 4 percent," she said.
Though the Trump administration has recently opened up almost all of the continental United States to oil and gas exploration, gubernatorial hopefuls stopped short of offering a full endorsement of that move.
Drilling is largely unpopular among local officials and many residents of the Grand Strand, which drew roughly 18 million visitors in 2016 as the state's most lucrative tourist destination.
Bryant said he was in favor of exploration "so we can make an informed decision."
But, he said, "If they said that we had oil 100 yards off the coast of Myrtle Beach, I'd be opposed to drilling for that."
Templeton signaled support for the president's energy policies but said it was not the right time to drill off the state's coast.
"The juice isn't worth the squeeze, right now," she said.
McGill said that while the jobs from the oil and gas industry might look attractive, "green space" was one of the state's most important assets.
"I just think it would put a scare in the tourism industry all over the state," he said.