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South Carolina Commerce chief Lightsey pledges transparency

Harry Lightsey
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Commerce Secretary Harry Lightsey stands in his office on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. Lightsey, who took over the agency in June, says that his dual-tracked background in telecommunications and the automotive industry will help him in a changing business climate. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Reflecting on his first months on the job, Commerce Secretary Harry Lightsey says his dual-tracked background in the automotive and telecommunications industries will inform his tenure leading the agency tasked with growing and maintaining South Carolina's business development engine.

And as he grows into the role, Lightsey also pledged a commitment to transparency in terms of the millions of tax dollars in incentives his agency uses to persuade corporations to do business in the state.

"I started in telecom when it was a landline telephone monopoly, and when I left was about a year and a half after the introduction of the iPhone," Lightsey told The Associated Press in an interview.

"I've gotten to see how technology impacts business and get a sense of the key elements of some of these transformative technologies that are going to be impacting our existing businesses in South Carolina."

Lightsey took over this summer following the retirement of Bobby Hitt, who spent a decade running the agency. A veteran of BMW, Hitt oversaw major investments in South Carolina, including projects by Volvo, Boeing and Mercedes-Benz, during the administrations of Govs. Nikki Haley and Henry McMaster.

Nominating Lightsey in June, McMaster said the longtime business executive's "vast experience" would keep the agency, and state, prosperous. The Senate subsequently gave him unanimous approval.

Lightsey, 65, has served in executive leadership roles for several corporations, including as president of BellSouth Telecommunications for South Carolina prior to their merger with AT&T. Afterward, he became president for AT&T's Southeast region.

He also worked as director of federal government affairs and emerging technologies for General Motors Corp., has been principal with the consulting firm Hawksbill Advisors, and board member for the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, Virginia.

Much of Commerce is a sales job, impressing upon investors why they should locate facilities in South Carolina. The pandemic complicated this work, but the agency got creative, using such tools as drones and teleconferencing, Lightsey said.

"Without having to travel here, they could see drone footage of the site, and both businesses and our economic development partners throughout the state have found that program to be very, very worthwhile," Lightsey said. "And as we come out of this pandemic, hopefully soon, we're in a great position to capitalize on the fact that we're already going pretty good."

At Commerce, Lightsey said recruitment was already higher in September than all of 2020, continuing so rapidly that more program managers were needed to track new projects.

"We've got things coming in the door, at a record pace," he said. On Thursday, Lightsey announced that agency veteran Ashely Teasdel would serve as his deputy, charged with implementing agency-wide programs and initiatives.

There have been some bumps. After Lightsey's nomination, a number of lawmakers said they wanted Commerce to be more transparent about incentives promised to prospective businesses, and proactive in seeking broad recruitment policies, rather than retroactive incentives tailored to specific companies.

As for that critique, Lightsey said he favors transparency with public money on principle, but argued that the state's competitive edge may lie in keeping some of those incentive details under wraps.

"The public is entitled to know how its money is being used," Lightsey told AP. "On the other hand, it is in the best interest of the public that South Carolina can be competitive, to create as many jobs as we can in the state."

Last year, a Legislative Audit Council report found little transparency or accountability in Commerce's practice of using tax incentives to lure companies to the state, and noted that the agency "does not conduct any fiscal impact analyses after the initial cost-benefit analysis performed prior to an award to determine if the projects were successful."

Also that year, a judge ruled that Commerce had violated the state open-records law by keeping from the public details about millions of dollars in state grants and corporate tax incentives. State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat who sued the agency and requested the LAC audit, told the Post and Courier, "There's no other state agency that gets a pass like this on how they spend money."

Commerce has appealed that order, but Harpootlian told AP on Thursday that he hopes both sides can work out the situation, and that he's optimistic about Lightsey's commitment to transparency.

"Clearly his heart's in the right place," Harpootlian said. "The question is whether or not the agency will live up to his promises. ... As I've said before, the CIA 'black budget' is more transparent than what happens at the Department of Commerce."

Saying the agency has already implemented some changes, Lightsey vowed that increasing transparency while staying competitive would be a constant theme of his tenure.

"We're going to look at things that we can do perhaps differently, but then provide more clarity and more insight to the public about what we're doing and how companies are being brought to the state," he said. "I think it's kind of a never-ending look at it, but we'll continue to develop that."


Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.