As the 2018 candidates for governor crisscross South Carolina ahead of the June 12 primary, they’re making a slew of promises to voters that they can’t possibly keep.
In a state with a weak executive and a powerful Legislature, the governor doesn’t have the authority to impose solutions to the state’s nuclear fiasco, clean up State House corruption, make prisons safe or put an end to abortion.
But it sure sounds good in a stump speech to primary voters, many of whom don't understand that the governor's role in the legislative process is often as the cheerleader or backseat driver.
“The governor has his or her hands tied behind their backs,” said Lynn Teague of the S.C. League of Women Voters. But, she added, “You can make claims with a great deal of abandon, and the public is not going to be saying, ‘Our state Constitution doesn’t allow the governor that authority.’ ”
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Some candidates mostly have avoided making promises they can't keep, even while they paint an optimistic picture of the influence they will wield over the legislative process, according to The State’s review of the candidates' campaign websites and debate responses.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, for example, have been rather careful in their wording, something Teague attributes to their decades of experience in and around the State House. In short, the two know the power of the S.C. governor is very limited.
But some of their upstart opponents have been more cavalier with their promises.
Firing Santee Cooper’s board
▪ What they said: Republican John Warren and Democrat Phil Noble have promised to sack Santee Cooper’s entire board of directors on their first day in office as governor. Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, also has called for the state-owned utility’s board to be fired, though he hasn’t specified a date.
All three say the firings are necessary after the utility ran up $4 billion in construction debt before deciding — along with investor-owned SCANA — to abandon the construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.
Noble took the promise a step forward, saying he also would force SCANA’s board to resign.
▪ Reality: The governor has no power to fire Santee Cooper’s board members, even though he nominates them for confirmation by the S.C. Senate. State law even prohibits the governor from asking board members to resign. For Warren, Noble or Bryant to fulfill this promise, they would have to prove that each board member either failed to show up for work or committed an infraction that could lead to a criminal prosecution, according to state law.
Also, a Gov. Noble would have absolutely no authority to demand the resignation of the director of a private company, including SCANA.
Getting your money back from V.C. Summer
▪ What they said: Republican Catherine Templeton and Noble have said they would get S.C. power customers their money back from the aborted V.C. Summer expansion, a $2.5 billion promise they can’t deliver.
Meanwhile, Warren’s website says he "will submit legislation to ban any future payments by ratepayers for the V.C. Summer project." Noble has added that, in addition to getting people their money back, he would slash SCE&G’s nuclear premiums and freeze rates for five years.
▪ Reality: The governor can’t do any of that.
The Legislature has substantially more influence than the governor over utility rates, and even its attempt to intervene with SCE&G’s rates temporarily could be challenged in court as unconstitutional.
And that’s just for electric rates going forward.
No governor legally can force SCE&G to repay its customers the $2 billion that they have been charged so far for the Summer project.
That would take an order from the PSC and, ultimately, the courts.
Preserving the V.C. Summer site, selling the equipment
▪ What they’ve said: Nuclear equipment and reactor components worth hundreds of millions of dollars are being left to ruin at the Summer site in Jenkinsville, part of an effort by SCE&G — which owns and controls the site — to prove to the federal government that it fully has abandoned the project and deserves the resulting tax credit.
On his campaign website, Warren has called for preserving "the site for a future economic development purpose” and selling “the equipment on site.”
▪ Reality: Outside the governor’s realm of authority.
The Jenkinsville site is owned and controlled by a private company, SCANA subsidiary SCE&G. State-owned Santee Cooper, the project's junior partner, says it can’t even get third-party contractors access to the site to maintain its assets without SCE&G’s permission, and the Cayce-based utility isn’t giving it.
Jamming cellphone signals inside S.C. prisons
▪ What they said: Promising to defy federal law, Templeton has said that, if she is elected governor, she will jam cellphone signals inside S.C. prisons, even if she is slapped with a lawsuit.
“We have to jam the cellphones no matter what the federal government tells us to do, and the bureaucrats and the cellphone lobbyists,” Templeton said during a GOP debate at Clemson University.
In a Charleston debate earlier this month, one of her GOP primary opponents, Lt. Gov. Bryant, called it "madness" to wait on the federal government's permission to jam prison cellphones.
S.C. prison officials say inmates’ illegal use of cellphones contributes to criminal activity inside state prisons. In April, S.C. authorities said contraband cellphones played a role in the prison riot that left seven inmates dead at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville.
▪ Reality: S.C. officials repeatedly have sought and failed to get the permission of the Federal Communications Commission to jam prison cellphones. Currently, federal law prohibits the sale and import of equipment that could jam the cellphones.
Bypassing that law is illegal. Manufacturers of prison technology also say any jamming equipment would pose more problems for prisons officials because it also would block radio and emergency communications.
Imposing term limits
▪ What they’ve said: Warren, Templeton, Bryant and McMaster all have pushed for term limits. Warren has taken it a step farther with a line on his website pledging to "champion a return to a true citizen Legislature by imposing term limits on politicians."
In an April 4 interview with WYFF, Warren said imposing term limits would be a fight. But, he added, "I am going to take that on, and in the eight years I am governor, I will get that accomplished."
▪ Reality: South Carolina’s governor can't unilaterally impose term limits. The only way to make such rules binding is for the Legislature to change the state Constitution by putting the question to voters in a statewide referendum. Either way, the Legislature must sign off first and there is no sign the Legislature's leaders — generally, its most senior members — have any interest in the subject.
Stopping abortions in S.C.
▪ What they’ve said: All five Republican candidates for governor have pitched themselves as pro-life, quibbling, at times, about which among them has fought the hardest for the rights of the unborn.
All have vowed as governor to choke off any state or federal taxpayer dollars that goes to clinics that also perform abortions, including money for family planning services and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.
Each candidate also has signed a pledge vowing to support one of the most restrictive abortion bans ever, a "personhood" bill that would outlaw virtually all abortions in the state and possibly some forms of birth control.
▪ Reality: Recent attempts to outright ban nearly all abortions in South Carolina have failed in the General Assembly, as Democrats filibustered the proposals. Any "personhood" legislation enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor also likely would be struck down as unconstitutional, unless the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.
Ousting politicians who won't cooperate
▪ What they've said: Governors like to use their bully pulpit. Sometimes, they even use it to go after House or Senate members who have stalled legislation that the governor has championed.
On the campaign trail, Warren says he will raise money and campaign statewide to defeat entrenched State House politicians, including Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
Democrat Noble says as governor he will work to cooperate with Leatherman and other powerful lawmakers. But if cooperation fails, he said he will work around those legislators to get bills passed.
▪ Reality: Harming relationships with House and Senate members, particularly of the governor's own party, can leave governors bruised. And it isn't guaranteed to work.
For example, then-Gov. Nikki Haley tried to unseat longtime state senators in 2016 , including Leatherman, by helping a political group raise more than $500,000 to oust them.
Leatherman was re-elected and still remains, arguably, the Legislature's most powerful lawmaker.