2013-14: Looking back/looking ahead in SC politics

December 28, 2013 

Rebirth and redux – we think we’ve seen this before.

Here’s The State newspaper’s annual examination of what transpired this year and what awaits us in the next 12 months.

Looking back

•  Has any S.C. political career ever been more dead than Mark Sanford’s – and then, more amazingly reborn?

In an unprecedented political resurrection, the Republican – who had to ward off impeachment during his second term as S.C. governor after vanishing to visit his mistress in Argentina, and then paid a S.C.-record ethics fine – was elected to Congress last spring, again representing the 1st District.

Sanford’s political rebirth was made possible by a series of improbable events. First, Jim DeMint – aka Sen. Tea Party – resigned from the U.S. Senate to become head of the Heritage Foundation. Then, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley appointed 1st District U.S. Rep. Tim Scott to the Senate, resulting in a special election to fill the 1st District seat. (Scott, incidentally, became the first African-American ever to represent South Carolina in the Senate.) Enter Mark “Lazarus” Sanford, who placed first in a 16-candidate GOP primary in April, a field that included a son of onetime media mogul Ted Turner. Sanford comfortably won the Republican runoff and in June, he beat Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of TV political satirist Stephen Colbert. (Try selling that story line to Hollywood.)

Sanford being Sanford, there were intrigues and complications. First, Sanford said he wouldn’t run for the 1st District seat if his ex-wife, Jenny, was going to run. Then, Sanford tried to get Jenny to run his campaign as she had his other campaigns. (She declined, even though the ever-frugal Sanford said that this time he would pay her.) Then, Jenny lodged charges of trespassing at her new home against her ex-husband, and the national GOP dropped its support of Sanford.

And on election night, Sanford’s mistress-turned-fiancée, Maria Belen Chapur, “surprised” the candidate by showing up at his victory party, being captured in a photo with his sons that was ... uncomfortable. (Hollywood just called back. They said no one would believe the plot.)

How did that all happen? Sanford was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool, and most 1st District voters now think – more than ever – that his concerns about impending financial doom due to federal overreach were on target. (Appalachian Trail? Who cares?)

•  Before the Affordable Care Act’s website blew up, the question was whether South Carolina would expand Medicaid health insurance coverage for low-income and disabled South Carolinians.

In reality, there never was a question. The response in solid-red South Carolina to Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature legislation always was going to be “No.”

The deal cut in Washington promised that the federal government would pay practically all of the cost of the expansion for three years. After that, the state would have to pick up 10 percent of the cost. Advocates said the Obamacare expansion would insure up to 500,000 South Carolinians, bring billions in federal money into the state’s economy and create thousands of health care jobs.

But Haley said the state couldn’t afford to expand Medicaid, and the S.C. House quickly agreed. The state Senate, the only hope of expansion advocates, agreed, even if some leaders sounded almost regretful as they, too, concluded South Carolina just couldn’t afford it. Instead, the state agreed to pay hospitals to steer some poor patients out of expensive emergency rooms to community clinics, which will get more state money.

•  The question of what’s to be done with South Carolina’s battered roads and bridges – in need of $28 billion more in repairs than the state will have on hand to spend over the next three decades – received a partial, small answer in 2013.

Legislators agreed to take $50 million from the state’s general fund and use it to borrow $500 million. It’s a small, one-year down payment on a decades-long problem. But it was a start.

The question now is: What, if anything, will the GOP-controlled Legislature – averse to raising any taxes, including the state’s low gas tax, and wary of further borrowing – do this year to chip away again at the state’s road needs?

Looking forward

•  The 2014 elections promise a rerun at the top of the ballot, with Republican Haley of Lexington again set to face Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden.

Haley defeated Sheheen four years ago by 4.5 percentage points, a narrow margin for a Republican in South Carolina. But Haley was running then after a divisive primary that unleashed unsavory allegations. This time, she may well have the wind at her back. After four years during which she touted every job expansion, unemployment in South Carolina is dropping. Also, Haley has spent much of her first term raising millions for her campaign coffer. And, once ethics-scarred, she now can claim to be a proponent of ethics reform, however mild and cosmetic. Elsewhere, Haley’s foundation has focused its charitable activities on traditionally Democratic rural South Carolina, where the goodwill that it generated could cut into votes for Sheheen. Finally, her husband’s Afghan tour of duty allows her to run, this time, as a military wife.

The more interesting races, in fact, may be for the U.S. Senate. Thanks to DeMint’s 2012 resignation, S.C. voters will have the rare chance to vote for both senators, whose terms normally are staggered.

The state’s senior senator, Republican Lindsey Graham of Seneca, faces four Tea Party-libertarians in the GOP primary, a race that could determine whether moderate conservatives, once the GOP’s mainstream, will play any role in the S.C. Republican Party going forward. Meanwhile, Scott will face a Democratic opponent in the fall, most likely former Obama administration aide Rick Wade. Scott has never won a statewide race. Regardless of who wins, S.C. voters will have elected the first African-American to U.S. senator.

•  Education reform will be on the agenda for both voters and legislators in 2014.

Republican state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais will not seek a second term, opening the door for Democrats to reclaim the last statewide post that their party held. The GOP will field a candidate. The question is: Who?

Education issues also will play a role in the governor’s race. Sheheen wants to expand the state’s K4 program. Meanwhile, after three years in office, Haley will unveil her education reform proposals. Politically, it’s a shrewd move. When successful in the past, Democrats have stressed education as an issue. By signaling her interest in the issue, Haley may be able to peel off more voters.

Having enacted the state’s first private school choice law last year, the Republican-controlled Legislature will be pressed to expand taxpayer-enabled inducements for private education. Next up? Low-income students. Ultimately: all students. Critics also want to see Common Core, which sets national standards for what students in all states should know at certain grade levels, ejected from S.C. schools. They see the standards – originally proposed by states – as a dangerous expansion of the federal government into education, traditionally a function left to the states.

However, efforts to set S.C. standards – grading teachers and ensuring that third-graders can read before being promoted to the fourth grade – could gain momentum.

•  Rising college costs could get lots of political attention in 2014.

How sensitive is the subject? Very. Just ask the University of South Carolina. Earlier this year, USC floated the idea of getting $125 million from the state to renovate the Carolina Coliseum, former home of the Gamecock basketball teams, into space that could be used by the school’s rapidly expanding student body. A week later, the university dropped the idea.

Why? Legislators were incredulous that USC even considered asking for more state money after years of ever-increasing tuition rates, which some see as gouging S.C. students.

Like other public schools, USC notes its state appropriation has been savaged since the start of the Great Recession. In response, the school has increased its enrollment significantly, bringing in more dollars, and, like other S.C. public colleges, raised tuition.

Now, however, some legislators – galled by what they view as less-than-austere college building booms – say the time has come to crack down on rising tuition costs.

Colleges say the state needs a new formula to fund higher education, one that rewards meeting state objectives. Haley agrees a new formula is needed, one that rewards performance on state-set goals. If a new formula is devised, however, it will be about five seconds before the first wounded dog – and local legislator – howls.

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