January will be a time of longing for state Sen. Wes Hayes, who – for the first time in three decades – will not be returning to the S.C. State House for a new legislative session.
But the Rock Hill Republican has some thoughts on how best to move the state forward after his 31 years under the dome, which he shared with The Buzz when we called for an exit interview.
Q: How has the Legislature changed since you were elected?
The biggest change, Hayes said, was the transformation of the state Legislature to a Republican majority from a Democratic majority. Like some old-timers now in the GOP, Hayes first was elected as a Democrat. He switched parties in 1994 because, he says, he was voting more with Republicans and felt more aligned with them philosophically, especially on social issues, including opposing abortion.
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And, he added, “Bill Clinton was president at the time, and I did not want to be aligned with him.”
Q: How has politics changed since you were elected?
“You have some outside groups — like Club for Growth or Americans for Prosperity or (Gov. Haley’s) PAC, A Great Day SC — and those groups are participating in spending money at the local state House and Senate level a lot more than you used to see,” Hayes said. “You had hotly contested races, and you had some negativity all along. That’s politics. But you didn’t have so much of the outside groups getting involved.”
Q: Is that outside influence good or bad for politics?
“I would prefer not to see it, but whether it’s been good or bad, that’s a matter of opinion. Having been on the receiving end of it, I’m not sure I can give an unbiased opinion. (T)hings should be left to the locals to fight their own battles and make their own decisions.”
Q: What has been the most challenging part of your time in office?
Banning “video poker was hard because it took us 10 years to do it and it was almost unlimited resources on the other side,” advocating for gambling, Hayes said. “That was a difficult battle against gambling coming into the state. The ongoing battle on gambling is going to be difficult because people kind of look on it, sometimes, as it’s easy money, but I think it changes the character of the state.”
Q: What work as a lawmaker makes you most proud?
▪ “(T)he area that I have worked hardest on is education,” Hayes said, citing the expansion of free 4-year-old kindergarten for at-risk children, a statewide reading law and charter schools, among other initiatives.
▪ Hayes also said he worked with then-Attorney General Henry McMaster to sue North Carolina over withdrawals of water from rivers flowing into South Carolina.
“We’ve had water wars. I had a bill to require, for the first time, any withdrawals for surface water had to go through the permitting process. That is a limited resource, and that was a tough battle to get that done. It’s important to protect that resource because it belongs to everybody.”
▪ Hayes also said he authored a law to give tax credits to revitalize former textile and cotton mills.
“Around the state, you had a lot of old textile mills that were basically eye sores and a source of crime. In Rock Hill, we’ve done some great things,” he said.
▪ Finally, Hayes said he authored a law that allows counties to enact a local-option penny sales tax to pay for road improvements. York County, where Hayes is from, was the first county to use the new law.
Q: What are the top things legislators can do to improve South Carolina?
▪ To help poor, rural school districts pay for building improvements, lawmakers should pass a bill that, for the first time, would commit state money to help districts pay to replace or rebuild aging facilities, he said. After passing the House, a bill to do that landed in Hayes’ Senate K-12 spending subcommittee near the end of legislative session. But it did not pass. However, senators pledged to pass it in 2017, saying they ran out of time this year to make necessary changes.
▪ Forcing so-called “dark money” groups into the light is the next big priority in reforming the state’s ethics laws, Hayes said. The change — forcing secretive groups to name their donors — would complement improvements lawmakers made this year, requiring public officials to disclose the sources of their private income and end the practice of investigating themselves, said Hayes.
▪ Other recommendations from Hayes? Find a long-term solution to fixing the state’s roads, and get rid of the lengthy, litigation-prone process that the state uses to decide who gets to build or expand hospitals.