COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) – South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster painted a picture of a booming economy in the state during his annual State of the State speech Wednesday night, while also recognizing two Medal of Honor recipients and three police and fire personnel who died in the line of duty.

The governor also touched on a variety of other important topics, including broadband access, education, law enforcement, infrastructure, tax reforms and others.

“People from all over the world are visiting and falling in love with our state,” McMaster said. “Employers are creating new jobs, entrepreneurs are opening new businesses, and companies are deciding to relocate here. Our business and family-friendly environment has produced historic gains in new jobs, capital investment and population growth.”

Since January of 2017, McMaster said the state has announced 58,803 new jobs with more than $17 billion in new capital investment, including 15,000 new jobs and $4.3 billion in new capital investment during the past years.

As of November, the Republican governor said there were 18,000 more South Carolinians employed than in February 2020.

“Our gross domestic product increased 10% during the COVID-19 pandemic and has increased 26% over the last five years,” he said, adding that the state’s unemployment rate remains well below the national average and has improved every month of 2021 – falling to 3.7% in November. The 2020 U.S. Census data shows that South Carolina is the 10th  fastest-growing state in the nation,” he said.

Lance Cp. Melton “Fox” Gore of the Horry County Police Department and Lt. Lieutenant John Stewart of the Lake City Police Department were among those killed in the line of duty who were recognized by the governor. He also recognized Chief William Edward “Eddie” McNeill Jr. of the Campobello Fire Department.

“To the families and loved ones of these men, with all our hearts, we offer our condolences,” McMaster said. “We are eternally grateful for their service.”

In his speech, McMaster paid his respects to two South Carolinians who were recently awarded the Medal of Honor:

  • Sgt. Major Thomas Patrick Payne, who now serves in the Army Special Operations Command as an instructor. He received the honor for his actions during a hostage rescue mission in an area of northern Iraq controlled by the Islamic State
  • Christopher Andrew Celiz, a Sgt. First Class in the Army who attended The Citadel before enlisting in the Army in 2007. Celiz was killed on his fifth deployment when he willingly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire to direct and lead a medical helicopter evacuation of wounded troops, McMaster said.

In his speech, McMaster also focused on “challenges and opportunities” in the state and highlighted several economic projects that will bring jobs to the state.

  • Oshkosh Defense plans to invest $155 million and employ more than 1,000 Upstate residents to manufacture the U.S. Postal Service’s new fleet of electric mail trucks.
  • In Chester County, the Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery will locate its first bottling and cannery facility outside of California, a $423 million investment with almost 500 new jobs.
  • In Edgefield County, Generac Power Systems will build a new facility to manufacture commercial and residential power generators and has already announced an expansion. These projects will create a combined 750 new jobs.
  • Walmart continues has announced the construction of a new distribution center in Spartanburg with a $450 million investment that is expected to create more than 400 new jobs.
  • In Kershaw County, Prestage Farms will open an agribusiness processing and canning facility investing $150 million and creating almost 300 new jobs.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, many states shuttered their economies, closed businesses, and enacted draconian restrictions, many of which continue to this very day,” McMaster said. “We took a better approach.  We never closed.  Through our reasonable steps of limited, measured, and temporary actions, we have been able to combat the virus without crippling our economy.”

He said the state has also been able to avoid cutting services, raising taxes, or borrowing money during the pandemic and has ”a large amount of new surplus revenues in 2021.”

“Today, South Carolina’s state government is in the strongest fiscal condition ever,” he said. “We have the largest budget surplus, the largest rainy day reserve account balance, and the lowest debt in our history.”

However, McMaster hurled an attack at the “the dangerous, irresponsible, and sometimes unconstitutional behavior of the federal government.” He cited the cancellation of immigration policies and the halting of construction of the border wall, both projects of former president Donald Trump.

“The resulting lawlessness and chaos required us to deploy troops from the South Carolina National Guard to defend the border, and to protect our state and others from the danger posed by the cartels and traffickers,” McMaster said.

He said the Biden administration has also taken aim at South Carolina’s pro-life and pro-family policies by challenging his policy of preventing taxpayer dollars from going to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, which sued to overturn a Heartbeat Law.

“They attacked South Carolina’s faith-based foster care providers like Miracle Hill, despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right of faith-based foster-care providers who choose to work with parents holding similar religious beliefs,” he said. “They even canceled South Carolina’s requirement that Medicaid recipients must work, volunteer, or attend school to receive benefits.  While at the same time, the Biden administration was paying people on unemployment to stay at home rather than return to work or get a job.”

He also pointed out that the administration sued the state to force it to adopt universal mask mandates in public schools, “despite clear constitutional authority to the contrary.” The administration has also “illegally attempted to impose vaccine mandates on private citizens all across the country, in clear violation of constitutional authority and of common sense,” McMaster said.

McMaster also praised the state’s AccelerateSC task force, which he said has played a major role in the state’s response to the pandemic. He said the task force conducted complete review of the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act and made spending recommendations to his office. 

McMaster said the state is in a strong position financially, with nearly $3 billion in surplus revenue, along with the $2.4 billion in ARPA funds. He called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“We know that the competition for jobs and investment is fierce, both nationally and globally,he said. “We cannot be complacent. We must act.  We must make big, bold, and transformative investments in the areas of education, infrastructure, workforce, and economic development to strengthen the foundations of our prosperity for generations to come.”

In addition, McMaster said his new executive budget includes $500 million for the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund. He is asking the General Assembly to consider maintaining a minimum balance in the rainy-day reserve account equal to 10% of the total amount of funds available to be appropriated in any year.

“By saving this money instead of spending it – something that served our state well last year – we will double the size of our reserves and will be prepared for any future economic uncertainties, should they arise.” 

The governor also touched on taxes, saying the state’s marginal income tax rate of 7% is the highest in the southeast and the 12th highest in the nation, something that makes it less competitive for new jobs and capital investment. 

As a result, for the fourth straight year, McMaster said he’s proposing a 1% rate reduction over five years for all personal income tax brackets, starting with an immediate $177 million cut. The goal is to put “more money in the pockets of our people to spend is a catalyst for even more economic growth and prosperity,” he said.

“Our work will not be done this session unless I am able to sign an income tax cut into law,” he said.

McMaster said it’s also time to re-examine those things that that make the state less competitive and harder for businesses and entrepreneurs to succeed.

One of those is infrastructure.

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

He is recommending that the state use a combination of $660 million in federal ARPA funds and $600 million from surplus revenue to provide no less than $1.26 billion for construction, expansion and other improvements. This will allow the Department of Transportation to accelerate work on several high priority projects, including the widening of Interstate 26 to six lanes between Columbia and Charleston, the widening of Interstate 95 to six lanes in the Lowcountry, lane widening on Interstate 85 in the Upstate and the long-awaited start of construction on I-73 from the Pee Dee to the Grand Strand. 

McMaster also pledged to continue education reforms he started three years ago, including reforms to K-12 education.

“Today, we have fully funded full-day, four-year-old kindergarten programs for every Medicaid-eligible child in South Carolina,” he said, adding that 4K enrollment has increased 47% or by 4,600 children. There are also 50 new private, nonprofit, and faith-based providers who have opened 66 new 4K classrooms. There are also 120 new 4K classrooms.  

The governor also addressed the mental-health crisis that’s gripping the state.

“We must also recognize that a mental health crisis exists in South Carolina, especially among our young people who have weathered two years of disruptions, virtual instruction, isolation, and constant changes to normal routines,” he said. “This crisis is here, right now.  Students must have access to professional mental health counseling and services.

Citing statistics that say 60% of the state’s children are served by Medicaid, McMaster said he has directed a review of our state’s behavioral health funding and delivery system.

“Time is of the essence,” he said. “We must do better. The cost of doing nothing is unimaginable.  And the damage, well, the damage will likely be immeasurable.”

He also suggested that it’s time to evaluate whether the state should privatize behavioral health services currently provided by the Department of Mental Health. 

On the education front, McMaster said called the state’s funding system “archaic, confusing, and inadequate.” 

“The way we fund K-12 education must be simplified and it must be transparent and accountable,” he said. “State funds must follow students directly to the classroom.  School districts must be held accountable for how they spend the taxpayer’s money – and graded on their results.”

He has proposed funds for K-12 education be appropriated “in a manner that is simple and easy to understand.” School districts will receive the funds necessary to support an average ratio of 11.7 students per teacher, with an average salary of $66,524 including benefits, he said.

His executive budget would also raise the minimum salary for a starting teacher from $36,000 to $38,000, up from $30,113 five years ago. 

When it comes to charter schools, McMaster said the state is expected to authorize 67 charter schools for the school year starting in August, adding that his executive Budget provides an additional $60.2 million “to meet the growing demand of parents seeking new educational opportunities and in-person classroom instruction for their children.”

The governor also proposed $20 million for education savings accounts.

McMaster also addressed the labor crisis affecting most of the U.S and asked announced an innovative public-private initiative designed to fill those open jobs. SC Future Makers is a first-in-the-nation program that connects students and individuals with internship, apprenticeship, and career opportunities throughout the state, he said.

The program has reached virtually every high school, is available to all 16 technical colleges, and is now engaging our state’s military community to connect our servicemen and women with the many opportunities available in South Carolina.

In addition, McMaster is asking the General Assembly to invest $124 million to expand Workforce Scholarships for the Future, a program that allows residents to earn an industry credential or an associate degree in high-demand careers.  Careers in manufacturing, healthcare, computer science, information technology, transportation, logistics, or construction. 

McMaster also said his executive budget freezes college tuition for in-state students, in exchange for an indexed appropriation based on the number of in-state students enrolled at each public institution and said that every South Carolina resident who qualifies for a federal Pell Grant will be eligible for 100% of their tuition to be paid for with a grant at any in-state public college, university, or technical college. 

He also wants to invest an additional $4.3 million in lottery proceeds to enhance scholarships for the college transition programs offered at Clemson, Coastal Carolina, the College of Charleston, the University of South Carolina, and Winthrop University.

McMaster also proposed help for the state’s aging rural water, sewer and stormwater system in the form of $500 million in federal funds and stressed the importance of broadband access. He asked lawmakers to approve $400 million in federal funs for the state’s Broadband Infrastructure program.

He also prioritized law enforcement in his speech.

“Our state law enforcement agencies continue to lose valuable and experienced personnel because they are unable to remain competitive with pay and benefits,” he said.” My executive budget dedicates $31 million in new dollars to law enforcement, public safety, and first response agencies for recruitment and retention pay raises.”

He also proposed $21 million for grants to local law enforcement agencies for additional body cameras and bulletproof vests.

The governor also called on the General Assembly to eliminate all state income taxes on the retirement pay of career military veterans and South Carolina law enforcement officers, firefighters, and peace officers. 

He also wants to increase pay for state employees and proposed directing $46.6 million to be used instead for merit-based pay raises. 

“Across-the-board pay raises for state employees are less effective than those based on performance, merit, success, or longevity,” he said. “Agency directors should be empowered to incentivize their personnel.” 

The right to vote is also a critical issue facing state residents, McMaster said.

“In 2020 we learned that our state’s election laws were not being applied properly and consistently by county election officials,” he said. “Speaker Jay Lucas has sponsored legislation to standardize and ensure the uniform and legal conduct of elections in all 46 counties.”’

He also is proposing the creation of a new Election Integrity and Compliance Audit Program at the State Election Commission. Teams of auditors, working for the state would conduct regular and routine examinations to confirm the integrity of elections conducted on the state and local level, he said.

The governor also has asked the Law Enforcement Training Council at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy to develop and conduct annual ethics training for every county sheriff.

DEMOCRATIC RESPONSE TO STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESS

State Rep. Spencer Wetmore, D-Charleston, delivered the Democratic response to McMaster’s State of the State speech, saying she and the governor share many of the priorities for the state’s families and children as the state tries to bounce back from the pandemic.

“I can’t remember a tougher two years for our state than the ones we’ve all been living through,” Wetmore said. “Parents of young children who were home from school can tell you what a renewed appreciation we have for our schools and teachers. We were all reminded that we can’t live without our local businesses and restaurants, and we are thankful for the state’s economic drivers, big and small, that bring good jobs for our families and neighbors.”

However, Wetmore said the governor’s actions often don’t match his words.

“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,” she said. “We need real results for South Carolina families, instead of wasting valuable time on fear and division. It’s time to drop the tiresome grandstanding and remember that we represent all South Carolinians, not just the less than 20% who vote in Republican primaries. We need to fight for the hard-working families of South Carolina. In other words, the majority of us.”

Going forward, the freshman House member urged her colleagues to “reject bitter partisanship, extremism and the harsh rhetoric. that comes with it.”

“These are strategies of yesterday, and we need leadership for tomorrow,” she said. “It’s time to stop focusing only on the next election and instead focus on getting things done for this state and for the people who live here.

Wetmore focused on tax relief for working families and the need to address critical infrastructure needs across the state.

“Nothing illustrates a broken political system more than crumbling infrastructure, and it’s disgraceful how far South Carolina has fallen behind,” she said. “We’re fortunate to have received federal money this year, but we need to invest even after the federal money is spent. Let’s invest in the roads and bridges that get us to school and work in the mornings, the water systems that give our children clean drinking water, the sewer systems that keep our waterways clean, the broadband infrastructure that keeps us connected, and the stormwater systems that keep our homes from flooding.

“Let’s work together to protect our beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers, marshes, and beaches. Pollution, over-development, and yes, climate change all present serious threats to our environment. These natural resources are what we love about our state. This beauty is the heart of our recreation, our tourism, our economy, and our way of life. We have a responsibility to steward these resources, and partisan bickering is only a waste of precious time.”

Wetmore also said it’s time to help rural areas, calling them the “heart and soul” of the state.

“Many of these areas need more industry, better jobs with good benefits so that young people who grow up in these communities have the option of staying there to raise their families,” she said. “High-speed internet access, aid to small businesses, and support for rural hospitals are vital for small-town South Carolina.”

Approving medical marijuana, expanding Medicaid and improving the state’s schools are also vital concerns, Wetmore said, adding that lawmakers should reject the latest school-voucher bill.  

“It takes money out of our public school system to fund private academies,” she said. “I have no objection to private schools, but public money should be spent on public schools. Parents should be given more choices within the district for innovation, enrichment, and wraparound services. And our teachers deserve respect and raises instead of kind words and coffee mugs. We still have a long way to go to ensure consistent equal funding for public schools throughout South Carolina.”

Wetmore also pointed out that South Carolina experienced its highest murder rate in recorded history last year.

“The state is failing to adequately address this deadly situation,” she said. “As a former prosecutor, I can assure you that supporting law enforcement needs to be more than a bumper sticker. And let’s be clear – one can both support the police and hold them to the high standards the profession demands.”

Wetmore also said it’s time to strengthen the state’s ethic laws to help fight government corruption.

“We need more transparency in state government, and we need to ensure that our ethics and election commissions and staffs are as independent as possible and free from partisan pressure of all kinds.”