At home, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has been tested by a near-natural disaster, a roads dilemma, a nuclear debacle and an opioid crisis. In Washington, he has gone to bat to protect South Carolina’s businesses from tariffs and its coastline from offshore drilling.
It’s been a trying first year in office for McMaster – winning praise and criticism as he’s learned the ropes, disagreeing sometimes with legislators and campaigning to keep his job as governor against three Republicans and two Democrats also seeking the office.
Asked his greatest accomplishment as governor for a year, McMaster said jobs and economic development top his list.
“Over 17,000 new jobs have been announced since last January,” McMaster said Thursday during an exclusive interview with The State newspaper, reflecting on the job he, then lieutenant governor, took a year ago Wednesday, when Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“That’s a lot. Our trajectory now is to continue that,” McMaster said, adding his next priority is tax cuts for South Carolinians.
Lawmakers offer mixed reviews of the governor’s job performance.
McMaster, a longtime fixture in S.C. politics, is accessible and respectful to lawmakers – a “refreshing” change from previous administrations, several Democratic and Republican lawmakers said. However, critics fault the governor for failing to provide leadership on some big-ticket items, citing his vetoes of a gas tax increase to pay for road repairs and money to replace aging, fire-prone school buses.
But McMaster’s office doesn’t see those vetoes – both overwhelmingly overridden by lawmakers – as a failure of leadership.
“Showing leadership from the Governor’s Office doesn’t mean agreeing with them (state lawmakers) on every decision they’ve made. It means making decisions that are in the best interest of South Carolina,” said McMaster’s spokesman Brian Symmes.
“His priority is to lower taxes and spend less. He’s done that through his executive budget. He’s done that through his veto of the gas tax,” Symmes said. “The General Assembly has shown an appetite to raise taxes and spend more.”
High marks for S.C. threats
McMaster is praised for his handling of the near natural disaster of Hurricane Irma, moving to address the rising problem of drug overdose deaths and going to Washington to lobby for S.C. interests.
“He was on the phone with me every other day checking on things that were going on in Charleston, wanting to know how things were,” said state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, referring to Hurricane Irma, which swept the S.C. coast, causing flooding.
McCoy praised the governor for his overall job performance, too. “He’s been in constant communication with the leadership of the House, and I think he’s done a fantastic job.”
Conservationists and solar providers in South Carolina also applaud the governor for urging his political ally, President Donald Trump, to reject a proposed tariff on imported solar panels and to exempt South Carolina from offshore drilling.
McMaster also is praised for lobbying the U.S. trade representative in an effort to block a proposed tariff on washing machines that, he says, would hurt Samsung. The South Korean appliance manufacturer recently opened a manufacturing plant in Newberry County, its first in the United States.
McMaster hopes his relationship with Trump will pay off. He was the first statewide official in the nation to endorse Trump ahead of South Carolina’s pivotal first-in-the-South presidential primary in 2016.
“Relationships always help,” McMaster told The State. “They usually ... mean that you have a chance to make your case. But they do not always mean that you win your case. ... The facts win our case, so I’m trying to make sure they have the facts.”
‘He has respect’
Several lawmakers noted a marked difference in how McMaster treats lawmakers, compared with his predecessor, Haley.
“I feel better with McMaster than I did with Gov. Haley because I think he understands the process better,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland.
“It’s not like he’s out to make a name for himself. Of course, he wants to get re-elected. Every politician does,” Jackson said. However, some governors understand that in a strong legislative state like South Carolina, where the Legislature holds most of the power, it works against a governor to “become a distraction.”
McMaster has not done that, Jackson said.
“A lot of lawmakers have respect for the governor because he has respect for the members of the General Assembly,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, adding, “I cannot say that was the case when Nikki Haley was governor.”
But Kimpson said McMaster has “failed ... to take a firm stand on critical issues,” including roads and school buses.
“The guy? He’s approachable. People feel like they can go talk to him,” said Kimpson. “I just don’t think he’s taken advantage of the opportunity as governor to make the hard decisions that may be outside the (GOP) party line. And that’s what we really need in a governor.”
The sentiment is echoed by several lawmakers, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
“I like Henry. I think he is a very nice guy. I think he has good intentions,” said Massey, who is supporting Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton in the GOP primary race for governor. “But I’ve heard a number of people express disappointment about a lack of leadership.”
Massey said he hopes McMaster will get more involved in important legislative debates.
“The income tax proposal that he’s come out with is essentially what we proposed in the whole gas tax debate. We had a real opportunity last year to get some of those things,” Massey said. “If he’d gotten involved in that conversation, it’s much more likely we would have gotten some type of tax cut. He didn’t get involved, and we got what we got.”
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, offered a more biting assessment.
“I’m reluctant to give him a grade because I’m waiting to see something that he gets a passing grade on,” said Rutherford. “His gas tax veto was an abysmal failure. The school bus veto was an abysmal failure.
“The results of what happens with SCANA and Santee Cooper are yet to be seen,” Rutherford said.
McMaster, the deal broker
After Cayce-based SCANA and its junior partner, the state-owned Santee Cooper utility, announced in July that they were abandoning the construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County, McMaster made it its mission to find a buyer for Santee Cooper.
Lawmakers also sprang into action, forming legislative committees to figure out what went wrong and whether they missed any warning signs of the nuclear project unraveling.
Rutherford said McMaster’s push to sell Santee Cooper is “ill-conceived and, certainly, not a step in the right direction. If your car gets in a wreck, you don’t sell it on the side of the road. You fix it, you assess the value,” and then decide whether to sell it, he said.
McMaster said Thursday selling Santee Cooper is the only way to help its customers. “There’s no way that Santee Cooper will be able to pull itself out of that debt without being sold at a high price or raising its rates on its customers.”
McMaster said he wants to ensure that taxpayers do not have to pick up the utility’s debt. He said he has “made clear to all these companies that the ratepayers must be protected.”
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said he gives McMaster “credit for bringing an issue” – Santee Cooper’s future – “to the forefront that we should have been looking at for some time.”
However, Lucas added, “Where we have differed (is) all these issues take time to deal with. You cannot rush through them or you risk making a mistake” that could hurt power customers and the state, he said.
Entering an election year
Facing opposition in his bid to win the governor’s seat for a four-year term, McMaster has been rolling out proposals that score him political points with Republican primary voters.
▪ McMaster was cheered by men and women in uniform when he proposed to eliminate state income taxes on the retirement benefits of military veterans and first responders. He also has proposed an income tax cut for South Carolinians to be phased in over five years.
▪ McMaster also said he would support a legislative proposal to make S.C. cities and counties say they are following federal immigration law and not harboring illegal immigrants. However, he acknowledged, he is not aware of any so-called sanctuary cities in South Carolina.
Other decisions that McMaster has made have left lawmakers scratching their heads.
▪ After he vetoed money to replace dangerous, fire-prone school buses, critics said McMaster was putting politics before the safety of S.C. school children.
Signaling she will make the bus veto a campaign issue, Templeton went after McMaster on Twitter as a “mom who currently has a big microphone.”
“Henry McMaster funded the Governor’s Mansion and grounds, but vetoed the money to keep our kids safe from fiery school buses. I like Henry, but I wouldn’t leave my kids with him. #McMasterDisaster,” she tweeted.
The former U.S. attorney and S.C. attorney general has said, repeatedly, that he vetoed the bus money because it came from the profits of the S.C. Education Lottery, intended to support college scholarships. He has proposed using money from a Volkswagon legal settlement to pay for new school buses and put some additional money for buses in his executive budget.
But the lottery law provides a long list of other acceptable use of lottery profits, lawmakers note, including “for the purchase or repair of school buses.”
Lucas said Thursday the General Assembly “followed the law” in using lottery money for buses. McMaster “missed an opportunity to make a difference on that issue with this veto,” he added.
Defending his veto Thursday, McMaster said, “That’s not the way it (the lottery) was sold to the people.
“The explicit representation to the people is that it was going to be used for scholarships. If there had been an understanding that it was going to be used for other things, it may not have passed, and I think it’s important to keep the word.”
▪ McMaster took another hit last spring, when he vetoed an increase in the state’s gas tax, second lowest in the nation at the time.
Instead of increasing the state’s gas tax, McMaster asked the Trump administration to include S.C. projects on its infrastructure wish list. He also recommended lawmakers take money they planned to borrow for colleges and universities, and use it for roads instead.
House and Senate leaders quickly panned McMaster’s proposal.
“That’s one of the most foolhardy things I’ve ever heard,” Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said at the time. House Speaker Lucas said McMaster’s plan was “not only fiscally imprudent, it’s dangerous to the state’s finances.”
Lucas’ criticism was softer Thursday.
“His attempts to come up with a solution were a little misguided,” Lucas said. “That is, perhaps, because he didn’t have the history of dealing with the issue that the General Assembly had.”
McMaster’s ideas “weren’t long-term solutions to a difficult problem,” the speaker said.
But, he added, “When you’re dealing with election-year politics, your solutions are often a bit shortsighted.”
After a year in office, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster gets mixed reviews
Where he gets high marks
+ New jobs: McMaster touts the announcement of more than 17,000 new jobs for the state as his No. 1 achievement. “That’s a lot. Our trajectory now is to continue that.”
+ Being accessible to and respectful of legislators: “A lot of lawmakers have respect for the governor because he has respect for the members of the General Assembly,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, adding, “I cannot say that was the case when Nikki Haley was governor. ... The guy? He’s approachable. People feel like they can go talk to him."
+ Standing up for S.C. jobs and interests: Conservationists and solar providers applaud McMaster for urging his political ally, President Donald Trump, to reject a proposed tariff on imported solar panels and to exempt South Carolina from offshore drilling. McMaster also is praised for lobbying to block a proposed tariff on washing machines that would hurt Samsung, the South Korean appliance manufacturer that recently opened a manufacturing plant in Newberry County.
+ Handling of the near-natural disaster of Hurricane Irma: "He was on the phone with me every other day checking on things that were going on in Charleston, wanting to know how things were,” said state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston.
Where he gets low marks
— Leadership: Critics fault the governor for missing the chance to lead, citing his vetoes of a gas-tax increase to pay for road repairs and money to replace aging, fire-prone school buses.
“His gas tax veto was an abysmal failure. The school bus veto was an abysmal failure,” said House Minority Leader, Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.
“I like Henry. I think he is a very nice guy. I think he has good intentions,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who is supporting Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton in the GOP primary for governor. “But I’ve heard a number of people express disappointment about a lack of leadership.”
For example, Massey notes McMaster now want to cut the state’s income tax. “We had a real opportunity last year to get some of those things” as part of the gas tax debate, Massey said. “If he’d gotten involved in that conversation, it’s much more likely we would have gotten some type of tax cut. He didn’t get involved.”
Up in the air
Managing South Carolina’s nuclear debacle: McMaster has proposed selling the state-owned Santee Cooper utility to unwind its debts from the failed V.C. Summer expansion project. Some legislators say his sell-it proposal was too rushed, before the utility’s value even had been assessed. “These issues take time,” said S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “You cannot rush through them or you risk making a mistake” that could hurt power customers and the state.
Pushing GOP themes: Does its sell? McMaster was cheered by men and women in uniform when he proposed eliminating state income taxes on the retirement benefits of military veterans and first responders. He also has proposed an income tax cut for South Carolinians. McMaster also said he would support a proposal to make S.C. cities and counties say they are following federal immigration law and not harboring illegal immigrants. He acknowledged he is not aware of any so-called sanctuary cities in South Carolina.