Nikki Haley’s State of the State — or state of the 2014 election?

ashain@thetate.comJanuary 19, 2014 

SC Governor Civil Rights

Gov. Nikki Haley

ALICE KEENEY — AP

Gov. Nikki Haley will give her fourth State of the State address this week but her first as a candidate running openly for re-election.

Haley, facing a re-election race in November against Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, has a chance to set a foundation for her campaign and impress voters with her successes as governor as well as what she wants next for the state, political experts say.

Based on her recent education initiative and jobs push, the first-term Republican governor from Lexington is focusing on middle-of-the-road issues, University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins said. Without a contested GOP primary to fight, the governor will not be pushed into extreme right-wing stances, he said.

“She can be a unifier,” Tompkins said of Haley’s address.

The governor will discuss what S.C. leaders can learn from the state’s recent accomplishments in luring jobs and agreeing on ways to pay for some road repairs, said Tim Pearson, her senior political adviser and former chief of staff.

“It’s not just talk about what we haven’t done,” he said. “The governor views the success we have had as a learning opportunity. We’re not patting ourselves on the back. But there’s no reason why we can’t celebrate the things we’ve done well that are worth emulating.”

Lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature say they want to hear how Haley will pay for her recently unveiled $177 million education plan, how she intends to get more money to repair the state’s roads and how the state can help South Carolinians in need of health insurance — especially after it rejected Medicaid expansion under the new federal health care plan.

“I agree with the governor and (Health and Human Services) director (Tony) Keck that getting people insurance doesn’t make them more healthy,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter. “We need to try to change patterns.”

Haley will address improvements in the economy, her education reform plan and ethics reform Wednesday, Pearson said.

None of the eight lawmakers or three South Carolinians visiting Haley’s office one day last week, and interviewed afterward, mentioned ethics as an issue they wanted to hear about in her speech.

Nonetheless, ethics “should be a priority,” Pearson said, adding the governor is hearing about the issue while traveling around the state. “It’s important to restore public confidence in what’s happening here (in the State House).”

Money matters

Voters might not remember what Haley says in her State of the State address, but the mood of her message will resonate, Tompkins said.

“They will want to see things are getting better and are you paying attention to the issues that matter,” he said.

Haley will work to create an air of optimism by touting the 43,000 jobs announced during her tenure and a statewide jobless rate that is at a five-year low.

Many of those jobs do not exist yet. But Rep. Smith mentioned how Continental Tire announced and opened a plant in Sumter County that could have up to 1,7000 jobs.

The company praised the governor’s efforts to land the plant. “That‘s a testament of her leadership,” Smith said.

South Carolinians have money issues atop their list.

Most people waiting outside the governor’s office to visit Haley at the State House one day last week said they want to hear more about tax relief and aid for people struggling to find work.

But like many state lawmakers, Grant Hayes, an Aiken college student, wants to learn more about Haley’s education plan.

“I think education goes under the radar,” he said. “It’s historically been terrible here.”

Republicans praised Haley’s education proposal, announced earlier this month, but they also want to know more about how added state money would be distributed among school districts based on new measures of poverty.

Democrats fear the state would have to cut other education programs to accommodate Haley’s plan, which also includes paying for more technology.

Haley gave passing mention to public education — traditionally, a Democratic political theme — in her first two State of the State speeches. Last year, however, she called for starting a conversation about education that became the basis for her reform plan.

“If these were initiatives that she cared about for the future of our state, we’d have heard them the first year,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland. “In South Carolina, we expect leaders to get to work on these things early … and not wait until an election year to trot out something.”

Pearson said the governor needed first to pay attention to reducing the state’s double-digit unemployment rate when she took office. With the improving economy, Haley could turn more of her attention to education, he said.

“She didn’t want to do it willy-nilly. She wanted to be deliberate,” Pearson said. “Governing is about prioritizing.”

Rough roads

Legislators mentioned road and bridge repairs almost as often as education in saying what they wanted to hear in Haley’s State of the State address.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said he is looking for details of sustained spending in what has become a major economic-development issue. The governor has said the state should use the extra revenue declared each spring after state economists revise estimates to pay for repairs.

“The only thing we have heard from Nikki Haley thus far is the ‘hope’ plan: ‘I hope that somewhere money is going to be generated to pay for our roads,’ ” Rutherford said. “That’s not going to fix anything. That’s not any way people run their businesses or their households. It’s not any way to run a government.”

Democrats were not alone in questioning the governor’s commitment to solving the state’s road repairs, which will require an added $29 billion in spending over the next 20 years.

“I just don’t think the governor has shown the leadership to want to fix the infrastructure problems of the state,” said state Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, who has suggested raising the state’s gas tax to help pay for road repairs – a move Haley opposes.

“At some point . . . you have to say, ‘Am I here to get re-elected?’ or ‘Am I here to fix the problems people sent me here to fix?’ ” Cleary said. “I would like Nikki Haley to be a leader like Carroll Campbell was and maybe not necessarily want to be loved and liked but be honest with the citizens.”

Pearson said extra state revenue has been projected each spring in recent years, noting that added money was used last year to help pay for a bond issue for road repairs.

“We do a better job when spending the revenue we have, rather than going back to taxpayers and say, ‘We need more,’ ” he said.

The politics

Even GOP lawmakers admit separating Haley the governor and Haley the candidate will be tough on Wednesday.

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister — who wants to hear details on road, education and tax relief plans — said the state CEO and the politician are intertwined.

“The topics she chooses are significant because those are things she will try to do something about,” the Greenville Republican said. “They are just as significant as the ones she doesn’t mention.”

By making education a main focus of her speech and her campaign, Haley puts her Democratic rival, state Sen. Sheheen, in a bit of a spot, Tompkins said.

Sheheen also has made education a priority with his focus on statewide 4-year-old kindergarten.

That makes education another issue where both opponents agree in addition to ethics reform and government restructuring, which won approval of a key compromise last week in the General Assembly.

With South Carolina’s Republican lean, Tompkins said: “The tie goes to the incumbent Republican.”

Sheheen’s campaign says the candidates are not tied on the issues, saying Haley is not a reformer.

The only unifying Haley has done, Democrats say, is creating disgust among voters over the Department of Revenue data breach, where hackers stole personal information belonging to 6.4 million taxpayers, children and businesses.

“We have heard a lot of talk for three years,” Sheheen campaign manager Andrew Whalen said. “I’m confident, in the State of the State, we’ll hear a lot more rhetoric and failure to see any action.”

State of the State

The governor’s annual address will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the State House. Check The State and thestate.com for complete coverage.

What they want to hear

Three main issues that S.C. lawmakers say they want to hear about from Gov. Nikki Haley in her State of the State speech Wednesday:

Education: Details on the first-term Republican governor’s $177 million spending proposal, including added state money for poorer school districts and more technology.

Roads: How the state can find a stable source of money to fix its run-down roads and bridges. The governor wants to use extra money that usually becomes available each spring, late in the legislative budgeting process, from higher estimates of added revenues that the state will collect.

Health care: With the state rejecting expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, how will it pay the cost of South Carolinians too poor to pay for medical care?

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