It wasn’t hard to tell Henry McMaster is an ally of President Donald Trump. That was clear in the governor’s State of the State address this past week as he painted an optimistic picture of the future and played to the people on key issues such taxes and immigration.
Since taking over as chief executive when Nikki Haley became U.N. ambassador, McMaster has been running hard for a full term as governor. Not surprisingly, he sounded themes of success, saying South Carolina is at the “dawn of a new prosperity.”
McMaster is taking from the Trump playbook. He wants state tax cuts in the wake of federal tax reform. The governor is calling for $2.2 billion in cuts over five years.
“We must act. We must heed the lessons of history. We must respect the right of the people to their own money, for their own purposes, according to their own priorities,” McMaster said.
McMaster didn’t miss addressing immigration, another key Trump issue.
In backing legislation to create an enforcement mechanism to register compliance, the governor said there will be no “sanctuary cities” in South Carolina. The rule is "trust, but verify."
“We also face threats from inside our prisons,” McMaster said, calling for continuing the fight to repeal a federal law prohibiting jamming signals on cell phones that prisoners can use to “practice extortion, conduct blackmail, plan and execute ‘hits,’ operate drug rings and run any number of fraud schemes.”
He also offered a Columbia version of “draining the swamp” on ethics and the public’s right to know. McMaster called for “stronger and expanded investigative authority for the State Ethics Commission -- to obtain, verify and investigate campaign finance disclosures and statements of economic interest.”
And he said the state’s Freedom of Information Act should not exempt legislators. “Today, the legislature is shielded from Freedom of Information Act requests. That destroys public confidence. This exemption must end.”
McMaster addressed education, calling for better than “minimally adequate,” emphasizing improvements in rural and poor schools through district consolidation, support of charter schools and expanded school choice.
McMaster did part ways with the president on the issue of offshore drilling for oil, a plan that does not sit well with South Carolinians.
“Oil spills, like hurricanes, can disrupt and damage a state's economy. We cannot stop hurricanes, but we can avoid oil spills. We cannot take a chance. We must do whatever it takes to preserve this economic paradise we call ‘the beach, the marsh, the coast and the lowcountry.’ It is made of gold.”
The governor is facing another dispute with Trump and his administration over tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines, a move that could damage Samsung and its news facility in the state as well as curb the rapidly expanding solar industry here. McMaster did not reference the tariffs in his speech.
But the governor did not miss the opportunity to address an issue that is front and center in the General Assembly and with many South Carolinians: the future of SCANA Corp. and Santee Cooper in the wake of the failed nuclear project in Fairfield County.
He said SCANA and its stockholders are to bear the fiscal responsibility for corporate failure. He said he will veto any legislation that continues to charge ratepayers for any aspect of the nuclear project.
“It is plainly irresponsible to allow SCANA or any prospective purchasers to continue collecting money from customers for this project. Send me a bill that replaces the Base Load Review Act (by which the state gave its OK for such charges) and prevents ratepayers from being charged in the future for the abandoned reactors, and I will sign it. Send me a bill that continues to place the financial burden of this corporate failure on South Carolina ratepayers, and I will veto it.”
He echoed a McMaster call that the state-owned utility Santee Cooper be sold to avoid customers having to pay for its debt from the nuclear project.
While the governor’s position may be popular with consumers and even lawmakers staking out similar positions, it is leaving little room for compromise that could ensure the health of two key players in state development. Nothing is more vital than healthy utilities.
The governor should not dismiss as rhetoric his own words from Wednesday night: “South Carolina's bright economic future and continued job growth require an abundant supply of clean and affordable energy. Without it, we are at a competitive disadvantage.’
Gambling and losing with opposition to SCANA being purchased and support for the sale of Santee Cooper could be disastrous for the state and ratepayers of both utilities.
Tax cuts, immigration, education, crime and punishment, offshore drilling, consumer protection: Gov. McMaster with this first State of the State did not hurt himself in conservative South Carolina. But the real test of his governing ability will come not in staking out popular positions but in a willingness to be pragmatic and solution-oriented on key issues facing the state, even in an election year.