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Sanford fails to derail progress — this time

LATE WEDNESDAY, I thought I had come up with an excuse to say something encouraging about Gov. Mark Sanford.

Such opportunities come so seldom that I didn’t want this idea to get away from me. I sent a note to my colleagues to enlist their help in remembering: “Should we do some kind of attaboy on the governor using his bully pulpit for this good cause (as opposed to some of the others he is wont to push)?” I was referring to his efforts to jawbone the Legislature into meaningful reform of our DUI law.

Moments later, I read the governor’s guest column on our op-ed page about a flat tax, which was his latest attempt to slip through an income tax cut, which at times seems to be the only thing he cares about doing as governor. This chased thoughts of praise from my mind.

For the gazillionth time, he cited Tom Friedman in a way that would likely mortify the columnist and author. His “argument,” if you want to call it that: Since The World Is Flat, folks on the other side of the world are going to get ahead of us if we take a couple of hours to pull together our receipts and file a tax return. Really. “Rooting around shoeboxes of receipts” once a year was going to do us in. (And never mind the fact that most paperwork is done on the federal return, with the state return piggybacking on that.)

Then, he argued that his plan for cutting the income tax (which was his point, not avoiding the onerous filing) was necessary to offset a proposed cigarette tax increase. The alternative would be “to grow government,” which is how he describes using revenue to get a three-to-one federal match to provide health care for some of our uninsured citizens.

Here in the real world, folks want to raise our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to price the coffin nails beyond the means of teenagers. Everybody who has in any way participated in conversations at the State House about the issue over the last several years knows this. Yet the governor of our state, who seems only to have conversations with himself, can ask this about raising that tax: “(W)hat for, more government or a lower-tax option?” In his narrowly limited version of reality, those are the only considerations.

But enough about that essay from an alternative dimension. What I read on the front page the next morning drove it from my mind: “Sanford: ‘Endowed chairs’ a failure.” It was about his latest attack on one of the few really smart, strategic moves this state has made in the past decade.

It’s the one good thing to come out of Gov. Jim Hodges’ execrable state lottery. (I used to struggle to come up with good things to say about him, too, but this was one such thing.) The scholarships? We were doing that without the lottery, and would have expanded them without the lottery except Gov. Hodges vetoed that bill (because he wanted a lottery).

But a small chunk of the new “chump tax” was set aside to provide seed money to attract some of the best and brightest minds to South Carolina, and put them to work building our economy. Gov. Sanford has never liked this idea, because he doesn’t like the state to invest in the future in any appreciable way apart from land conservation (which is a fine idea, but hardly a shot in the arm to the economy). He believes we don’t need to invest more in education, or research, or even our Department of Commerce, which he takes such pride in having trimmed. His entire “economic development” plan is to cut the income tax. This attracts folks who have already made their pile and are looking for a tax haven in which to hide it, and makes him a hero to the only political entity in the nation that sees him as a hot property: the Club for Growth, whose president showed just how out of touch that group is with even the Republican portion of the electorate by suggesting John McCain pick Mr. Sanford as his running mate.

The thing that made this outburst from the governor particularly galling is that on Wednesday, I had met Jay Moskowitz, the new head of Health Sciences South Carolina — a consortium of universities and hospitals teaming together to make our state healthier, both physically and economically.

Dr. Moskowitz is the former deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, and most recently held a stack of impressive titles at Penn State, including “chief scientific officer.” He made it clear that he would not be here if not for the endowed chairs program. Nor would others. He spoke of the top people he’s recruited in his few months here, who have in turn recruited others, an example of the “cascade of people that are going to be recruited with each of these chairs.”

These folks aren’t just coming to buy a few T-shirts at the beach and leave. They’re here to make their home, and to build their new home into the kind of place that will attract other creative minds. The endowed chairs program is the principal factor that convinces them to pull up stakes and make the effort. “I had a wonderful job in Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Moskowitz, and he wouldn’t have left it without believing that South Carolina was committed to moving forward on a broad research front.

He doesn’t say it this way, but it’s obvious he wouldn’t have come if he had thought Mark Sanford’s “leave it alone” approach was typical of our state’s leadership.

Fortunately, it is not. The S.C. House, led by Speaker Bobby Harrell, rose up in response to the governor’s naysaying and voted unanimously to extend the endowed chairs program.

This is a moment of high irony for me. For 17 years I’ve pushed to give more power to South Carolina’s governor because our state so badly needed visionary leadership, and I thought there was little reason to expect it would come from our Legislature.

But on Thursday, it did. And if the Senate has the wisdom to follow suit, your children and my grandchildren will have reason to be grateful.

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