Democrat state Rep. James Smith and Republican Gov. Henry McMaster. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — How will you choose the next governor?

Is it how they would fix taxes or reduce gun violence or relieve the teacher shortage? How about how they would ease flooding or where they stand on medical marijuana? 

We asked the candidates, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith, for their opinions on these issues and a few others ahead of their first debate on Wednesday.  

Here are highlights of answers from the pair of Columbia attorneys to a few of our questions. Read more details and find their responses to additional questions, including how they would handle the state pension deficit and college tuition hikes, at

Fixing taxes: They shared some general thoughts on improving the state taxes but offered few details.

McMaster backs trimming taxes, already proposing a 15 percent across-the-board cut.

Smith wants to "make South Carolina more business-competitive," but offers no details except supporting "pro-growth tax credit initiatives," like a law he backed that offers tax breaks for redeveloping abandoned buildings. Smith also wants new tax incentives to spur construction of affordable housing.

Both candidates suggest eliminating some of the state's tax exemptions, though neither gave examples. McMaster wants changes "to simplify our tax code," while Smith said he plans a review "in order to make the system fair."

Both also want to "comprehensive tax reform" but — again — provided no specifics.

Easing flooding: After rivers overflowed with Tropical Storm Florence and downtown Charleston flooding worsens, they both acknowledge fixes are needed.

McMaster suggests using "smart" stormwater practices in coastal management and city development plans. He offered no details other than "working with stakeholders and experts."

Smith says climate change threatens the state with stronger storms coming each year. He would push to restore local government funding from the state to help cities upgrade storm drains and sewer systems.

Reducing gun violence: After seven police officers were shot in a Florence gunfight this month, Smith said he would work with Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly to close the loophole that allowed Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof to get a gun despite his criminal record, allow wider background checks and prevent a law that would allow open carry of weapons.

McMaster said the state should enforce the existing guns laws and support mental health efforts to reduce gun violence, though he offered no plans.

Handling the teacher shortage: Smith said he would work to reduce class sizes and ease testing requirements with guidance from a task force. He would push for reforms suggested by a legislative panel that calls for forgiving college loans for some teachers and offering help to pay for housing. He also wants to place mental health counselors in all the schools by 2022.

McMaster takes a different tack, calling for investment in rural communities to attract teachers through a program passed in last year's congressional tax plan that offers incentives to invest in poor areas. "Time and again I have heard from superintendents and principals in these areas that job creation and economic growth would have a tremendous impact on their ability to recruit and retain teachers," McMaster said.

Like Smith, McMaster sees a need to pay teachers more, and like his challenger, the governor did not provide details. 

Protecting religious freedom: Asked if a religious freedom law is needed, McMaster noted the country and state already have laws protecting religion. Still, he added that he issued an executive order that allowed a Greenville foster child placement agency to not work with non-Christians and anyone who is gay and ordered cabinet agencies to review policies to ensure "appropriate protections for religious freedom."

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Smith did not address McMaster's executive order but said, "To enact laws that restate those rights and freedoms that are inalienable and granted to us in our founding documents is tantamount to acknowledging that we don’t believe those documents are strong enough to protect these freedoms."

Legalizing medical marijuana: This is an issue where the candidates differ. 

Smith backs legalizing medical marijuana because of its help in treating PTSD, easing nausea from chemotherapy treatments and control epileptic seizures. If approved, he wants strict punishments for any grower who sells medical marijuana for recreational use.

McMaster, a former state attorney general, is firmly against it: "Law enforcement officials have made it clear that we are not in a position to appropriately regulate medical marijuana."

Dealing with Donald: Asked about the impact of the Donald Trump movement in South Carolina, McMaster said he has been doing the same thing as the president — cutting taxes and red tape to create "a tremendous positive impact here and across the country."

"People are excited about this record-breaking growth and the bright economic future ahead under our Republican leadership," McMaster added.

Smith questions how much McMaster's friendship with the president has paid off for the state since tariffs have the possibility of cutting jobs and he cannot get a waiver from the White House on offshore drilling.

"But beyond that, we do not believe that support for Trump equates to support for McMaster," Smith said. "Many Trump supporters were frustrated with the establishment, with the same people who have always been in power keeping us in an unsatisfying and harmful status quo. Henry epitomizes this good old boy status quo that many Trump supporters have sought to get away from."

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