Scoppe: SC State of the State address might tell us more about state of the governor

Associate EditorJanuary 28, 2014 

BEFORE WE get too far removed from Gov. Nikki Haley’s fourth State of the State address, I think it’s worth talking about three things that were striking about it.

Kinder, gentler

First was the tone. Gone were the in-your-face challenges, slights and insults to the Legislature and legislators that have characterized earlier speeches.

Quite the opposite, she seemed to go out of her way to use inclusive language, even when she talked about the ethics reform legislation that lawmakers seem determined not to take as far as everyone knows it ought to go. Rather than pointing fingers — and boy, were there over-ripe opportunities to point fingers — she reminded lawmakers of what “we all already know” about the need for reform, and asked them to “show the people of this state that we, as their elected representatives, deserve their trust.”

And although this should be unremarkable, a lot of legislators in both parties were listening closely to find out whether she would thank her once-and-future gubernatorial challenger, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, for the bill lawmakers passed the previous day to dismantle the Budget and Control Board and turn most of its duties over to the governor; she did, demonstrating an absence of pettiness that we once could depend on in governors.

Indeed, with the exception of one House member who walked out over her red-meat-to-the-base Obamacare bashing, you didn’t hear even the most partisan Democrats complaining about the way the governor addressed them. They disagreed with her on some points, and questioned her motives on others, but that’s to be expected.

This isn’t simply a matter of niceties. None of us likes to be lectured, talked down to or insulted in public. Legislators are particularly sensitive to even the slightest of slights, real or perceived, and in this state, an insulted legislator has great power to sabotage a governor’s agenda — particularly an insulted senator.

Large parts of her earlier speeches clearly were aimed at the TV audience and blogosphere and not at the people she needs to convince to pass her legislative agenda: legislators. That’s one reason they focused so heavily on Obama bashing.

But aside from the short anti-Obamacare section, this was actually a speech about South Carolina policy, and legislators responded well to that fact. With the exception of Sens. Tom Davis and Lee Bright and Rep. Eric Bedingfield, who applauded her for bashing Obamacare and “standing up to the federal government” (thus demonstrating that they don’t belong in a state legislature), the praises her office sent out to journalists the next day, like the responses journalists collected themselves, focused on what she said about education and ethics and job creation and other state policy issues.

I’d like to think the change of tone reflects a more mature approach to her job, one that focuses less on politics than policy, but I realize it might be simply that she has her base wrapped up and is trying to make sure she can hold moderate Republicans and independents in the fall election. Whatever her motivation, it was a welcome change that could pay dividends.

Education first

The second thing that was striking was the way she talked about education. Her proposal to focus the state’s resources more on the poorest students, with extra funding for reading instruction, technology improvements and general classroom expenses, wasn’t a surprise; she had unveiled it earlier this month. But aside from policy wonks, most people, even inside the State House, didn’t have a good feel for what she was proposing, let alone why.

What was notable here was how effectively she made the case for the sort of changes that up until now have attracted practically no Republican support — citing data that show it costs $1,200 more per child to teach low-income students, pointing out the wide disparities in funding, particularly technology and facilities funding, between poorer and wealthier districts, and offering this challenge: “Are we willing to stand two children side by side, and tell one, that through no fault of his own, he is going to a end up in a school with less, while at the same time telling the other she will have every ounce of support she needs to thrive?”

One senator who is no fan of the governor told me last week that his wife had called him after the speech to tell him how impressed she was with that question. Little wonder. It was the most compelling rhetoric I’ve heard for equity funding in longer than I can recall.

Joblessness reframed

The third striking thing was the way she talked about the unemployed. Let’s listen to a bit of her message:

“Travelling the state, I often heard the complaint that there were too many dependent on government assistance. There was a belief that some of our fellow South Carolinians were choosing to remain on welfare rather than get a job. I don’t believe that.

“We are a proud, resilient people, South Carolinians. Given the opportunity, we want to make a better life for ourselves and our families. But with the old welfare system, that opportunity didn’t always exist.”

Since starting a program in 2011 to help people on welfare get job and other training, she said, more than 20,000 of them have moved from welfare to work.

“We should all remember what this success story proves — that those out there struggling day-to-day, they don’t want to spend their lives on the couch,” she said. “They want a chance for more, to make their children proud. It is our responsibility to give them that chance.”

Of course, she couldn’t resist throwing in a Washington-bashing line, suggesting that the fact that the Congress had not mandated that states establish such programs somehow limited our ability to do so, and of course her motivation here was unquestionable: to brag about a program her administration created. But when you do good things, you ought to get credit.

And the import of this part of the speech was less a particular program than a message: A card-carrying anti-Obama, tea-party Republican was saying in no uncertain terms that most people don’t want to be unemployed.

Yes, that’s obvious to a lot of us, but a disturbing number of people insist that everybody who wants a job can get one, that the only reason people don’t have a job is that they’re lazy and good-for-nothing and think the rest of us owe them. And nearly everyone in our state who believes that is going to vote for Ms. Haley come November.

If they’re willing to hear that message, just because it came from her rather than a centrist or even liberal politician, that could do as much positive to change our politics as the damage she has done with some of her more divisive rhetoric.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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