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SC governor in State of State: More money and bold actions

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster approaches the podium in the state House chamber ahead of his State of the State address on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)
Meg Kinnard/AP
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster approaches the podium in the state House chamber ahead of his State of the State address on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Gov. Henry McMaster said Wednesday that a booming economy and billions of dollars of extra revenue and federal COVID-19 relief money gives the state a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take bold steps to transform South Carolina.

The Republican governor used his fifth State of the State speech to call for some longtime goals like an income tax cut and a police officer in every school. He also called for new objectives like more than $1 billion for roads and bridges and an overhaul of the formula used for state funding for education.

"Let us seize this moment by thinking big, by being bold, confident and by making transformative investments. In this way, I believe we will set our state on a course that will provide the opportunity for prosperity, success, and happiness for generations of South Carolinians," McMaster said.

Democrats pointed out many of the governor's proposals are only backed by fellow Republicans and said if he really wants bold change, he should reach out to the other party about proposals like expanding Medicaid or protecting public education.

"The people of South Carolina are watching our actions. While the governor's words paint a picture of trying to solve problems that have existed for decades, his actions often focus on political extremism," Rep. Spencer Wetmore of Folly Beach said as she delivered the Democratic response to McMaster's speech.

In his speech, McMaster took time to accuse Democratic President Joe Biden's administration of overreaching by fighting the governor on allowing religious groups to provide foster care and backing groups that sued after South Carolina passed a law that would likely ban almost all abortions.

The governor praised his staff for an unemployment rate well below the national average and a stream of new companies looking to locate in the state. South Carolina has an additional $1 billion to spend in this budget because of faster than expected growth,

"South Carolina's state government is in the strongest fiscal condition ever. We have the largest budget surplus, the largest rainy day reserve account balance and the lowest debt in our history," McMaster said.

Many of McMaster's proposals were not new. He wants to spend nearly $1.3 billion spread between surplus revenue from previous budget years, COVID-19 relief money and ongoing tax collections on roads. The money would fix bridges and also jumpstart the widening of a number of highways, like Interstate 26 between Charleston and Columbia and the remaining two-lane stretches of Interstate 85 in the Upstate.

"There is no infrastructure more in need of big, bold, and transformative one-time investments than our state's roads, bridges, highways and interstates. Our booming economy and rapid population growth have outpaced the state's ability to keep up with improvements to our transportation infrastructure," McMaster said.

The governor touted a proposal in his budget that would change how the state allocates its portion of education money, changing a confusing array of formulas into a system that sends money based on student-teacher ratio and minimum teacher salaries. Schools with more students in poverty or in special education would get a greater proportional share.

Districts would have more flexibility on how to spend the money, whether it be on administrators, raises for teachers or smaller class sizes.

"This information must be published online by the state Department of Education, so parents and taxpayers will know where their money is being spent," McMaster said. "In the classroom? Or is it being spent on administration? Or overhead? Or somewhere else?"

In the Democratic response, Wetmore spoke about a few things that the Republican governor did not mention. She called for passing a medical marijuana law that the state Senate will likely take up later this month and repeated a call Democrats have made in their State of the State responses for more than a decade.

"While other states have expanded Medicaid, South Carolina continues to fail our working families," Wetmore said. "Let's face reality — when our neighbors don't have health insurance, we all pay."

But there was a point of agreement from Wetmore on taxes, even if chances are Democrats and Republicans won't agree on the details.

"Let's start by working together to provide tax relief to working families who actually need it," Wetmore said. "And let's do it this legislative session."