Politics & Government

McMaster campaigning, not governing, lawmakers say

This is not the Gov. Henry McMaster that S.C. lawmakers expected — or wanted.

Three months ago, legislators welcomed McMaster, when he succeeded Gov. Nikki Haley, who resigned to join the Trump Administration. Legislators were convinced McMaster would work with them to fix the state’s roads and on other critical issues, unlike former Govs. Mark Sanford — who carried pigs into the State House to protest what he saw as pork-barrel spending — and Haley — who flung letter grades and other insults at legislators.

But with nine working days left in this year’s legislative calendar, there is trouble at the State House.

Fixes for the state’s deficit-ridden retirement system, aging college and university buildings, and – most pressing – a cash-strapped and crumbling roads system are hanging in the balance.

And McMaster is part of the problem, lawmakers grumble.

The new governor has been accessible – meeting with legislators in his office, inviting them to the mansion and visiting their caucuses, legislators say.

But the governor is partly responsible for the lack of action on roads, S.C. House leaders said Tuesday. And Senate leaders agree.

McMaster, a Richland Republican, has said he will veto any bill that raises the gas tax – the plan passed by a super-majority of the overwhelmingly GOP House. McMaster also says he will veto a borrowing plan to fix buildings at colleges and universities.

That is not the McMaster that lawmakers expected, Republican and Democrat legislators told The State this week.

Instead of governing, some say, McMaster is focused on winning the GOP primary for governor and getting elected to a four-year term in 2018. To do that, they say, McMaster is appealing to GOP activists, fighting the gas-tax hike proposal in the Senate, who rule Republican primaries. And, in state that elects Republicans by wide margins, the next GOP primary likely will decide the next governor.

“It’s one thing to be principled and take a stand. It’s another thing to see which way the political winds are blowing,” state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, said of McMaster’s opposition to raising the gas tax and pushing to borrow money for roads instead.

“Optically, it’s the safe position.”

McMaster’s office says the governor is just following his beliefs, which run contrary to the General Assembly, which “wants to raise taxes,” borrow $500 million for state buildings and refuses to reform how state transportation dollars are spent.

"Gov. McMaster does not believe in raising taxes,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said. “He believes fixing our roads takes priority over government buildings, and DOT must be allowed to spend taxpayer dollars more efficiently. It’s as simple as that."

‘Fiscally imprudent ... dangerous’

A week after taking office, McMaster reported raising $160,000 for his 2018 governor’s bid.

It took two weeks for the new governor to say anything about roads.

McMaster still was getting his bearings, lawmakers said at the time, giving his silence a pass.

Now, some lawmakers are changing their tune. Republican leaders in the House and Senate have blistered McMaster’s borrowing plan as a bad idea. Democrats and, quietly, some Republicans say the governor is in campaign mode and is failing to lead.

Tensions escalated Tuesday when House and Senate leaders took aim at the governor’s proposal to scrap a plan to borrow money to repair aging buildings at the state’s colleges and universities and use that borrowing for roads.

“That’s one of the most foolhardy things I’ve ever heard,” Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said of McMaster’s proposal.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, called McMaster’s plan “not only fiscally imprudent, it’s dangerous to the state’s finances.”

Lucas had called a press conference to urge the S.C. Senate to pass the House-passed road-repair plan.

Lucas said he would like more support from the governor as the two legislative chambers rehash an old disagreement over whether a gas-tax increase should be offset by income-tax cuts.

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, said House Republicans have “done the math” – the state must come up with more money to fix the roads. Reforming the state’s highway agency and redirecting existing gas-tax dollars won’t do the job, they say.

Paying more at the pump is the best way to create a steady stream of money for road repairs while ensuring all drivers – not just S.C. taxpayers – pay for the roads, the bill’s supporters say.

Republicans who support the gas-tax hike say all they hear back home is “fix the roads.”

“People thank me for voting for a plan that actually works,” said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland.

“I haven’t heard one person suggest, ‘Oh, by the way, while you’re at it, give me a tax cut,’ ” Clary of Pickens said.

House Ways and Means chairman Brian White said McMaster has been helpful on some issues but has been “lacking” in providing details of what he hopes to accomplish.

“I would like to see a more definite line of ‘This is where I would like to be,’ ” the Anderson Republican said.

“We’re kind of operating in the dark. We’re operating on our plan,” White said of the House roads bill. “He did come out and say, ‘Borrow the money.’ That is his plan.”

The governor’s office says the GOP-controlled Legislature is wedded to its plan to raise the gas tax, no matter what.

‘Stop worrying about re-election’

Democrats have harsher words for the governor.

“He’s not doing the job. Every major challenge facing the state, he’s come out against: the roads bill. He’s come out against the (higher education) bond bill,” said state Rep. James Smith, a Richland Democrat weighing whether to run for governor.

“The view must be vastly different from the back seat of a limo than what other people see on a daily basis here in South Carolina,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, speaking at at the pro-gas-tax press conference that Lucas called Tuesday.

With more than half the House’s members standing behind him, including the Republican speaker and other GOP leaders, Rutherford opened fire.

“Gov. McMaster, please be the governor of this state, and stop worrying about re-election.”

Before his endorsement of bombastic billionaire businessman Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, McMaster was known as a pragmatic, mainstream Republican, said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

Since taking office, however, McMaster’s views have been “more in line with the further right fringe,” Hutto said, noting the new governor also has endorsed a bill that would allow gun owners to carry firearms openly without a permit – a position Hutto said was “out of the mainstream.”

McMaster could be taking anti-tax, far-right positions to “gain favor in an upcoming GOP primary,” Hutto said. But, he added, McMaster is “missing an opportunity to be a consensus builder” on roads, where he could take credit for solving the state’s biggest challenge.

Instead, McMaster has “interposed himself as an obstacle.”

Gov. McMaster’s agenda?

A look at where the Republican governor stands on some issues facing the state:

On roads: Has asked President Donald Trump for $5 billion in federal money to improve the state’s roads and bridges; there’s been no response from D.C. yet

On the gas tax: Has offered no ideas for a long-term solution, instead urging legislators to borrow $1 billion this year to hold the state over until they agree on a plan to come up with the almost $20 billion in added money that state transportation officials say is needed over the next 20 years to repair the state’s roads

On a pensions fix: A bill to reform South Carolina’s underfunded pension system for public-sector workers reached the governor’s desk Wednesday. McMaster says he has concerns about the bill. He has until Tuesday to sign or veto it.