COLUMBIA -- Nearly three weeks before the traditional launch of the fall election season, South Carolina's gubernatorial race is heating up, with the Democratic nominee criticizing his opponent's support of private school choice, and Republicans pressing the abortion issue.
Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen on Wednesday blasted state GOP Rep. Nikki Haley's long-standing efforts to help parents send their children to private school, saying the idea would further damage public schools already hurt by deep budget cuts and teacher layoffs.
The Legislature has been bogged down in the issue for too long, and it's time to move on, he said.
"For the last eight years we've spent our time talking about vouchers when we should be talking about how to improve public education," said the Camden lawyer, adding that he would veto any bill that uses tax credits to help parents afford private tuition. "Enough is enough, and I'm standing today for public education."
Haley has been a strong advocate of private school tax credits and scholarships, an idea that has divided GOP legislators since Gov. Mark Sanford began pushing it in his first term. The Legislature has repeatedly rejected its different versions.
In the primary race, Haley would not back a specific choice plan. However, she said that, like Sanford, she would veto a bill to expand public education options unless it included help with private tuition.
She agreed with Sanford that it must be all or nothing, saying otherwise the Legislature won't return to the debate.
In response to Sheheen's criticism, Haley's campaign accused Democrats of wanting to spend more on bureaucracy.
"Vince Sheheen and the liberal Democratic establishment have presided over South Carolina's failing school system for years," said Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey. "As the mother of children in public schools, Nikki Haley knows our children deserve first-class schools, and that means getting our education dollars into the classrooms."
Sheheen, in turn, blamed the past eight years of a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature, and what he called a hostility to public education.
He noted that state budget cuts to education could disqualify South Carolina from receiving $143 million in additional stimulus money that Congress approved this month. State school officials had expected the money to save more than 2,000 teacher jobs next school year.
Last year, districts cut 1,400 teaching jobs, and as many as 2,500 more could be gone this year. Even with federal stimulus received so far, there is a $500 million gap in education funding compared to two years ago, according to budget officials.
"It shows how far this state has been driven into the ditch the last eight years," Sheheen said.
Sheheen and Haley have said they will work to revamp education funding. The Legislature has talked for years about changing the piecemeal, decades-old education funding systems without making any progress.
A hundred miles away in Spartanburg, Sanford held a ceremony to sign, for the second time, a bill increasing a woman's wait time for an abortion from one hour to a day after she receives information on the procedure. He actually signed it into law two months ago.
House Republicans had wanted to require women to make two trips to the clinic. Under the compromise, women can download time-stamped material from a state website to meet the 24-hour rule, but still must wait an hour at the clinic after an ultrasound.
The news conference gave Haley's campaign and the Republican Party an opportunity to blast Sheheen for not taking a stand on the issue.
During the primary contest, Sheheen sidestepped questions about abortion, saying that, personally, he does not believe abortion is the right thing to do, but he would not fall into a trap on the divisive issue.
On Wednesday, Sheheen declined to respond to questions about the new law.
"Vince Sheheen is caught hiding his views on an incredibly important issue. Would he sign bills aimed at ending abortions in South Carolina? Will he stand for the lives of the unborn?" state GOP Chairwoman Karen Floyd asked in a news release.
Haley strongly opposes abortion.
This year she voted to end abortion coverage in the state health plan for employees who are victims of rape and incest, and she has said she would sign a bill outlawing abortion should the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturn the 1973 decision that legalized it in the United States.
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