Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith sparred Wednesday over taxes, Medicaid and education in the first debate in their race to be S.C.’s next governor.
McMaster, who is running for his first full term as governor, painted Smith as tax-and-spend Democrat who voted repeatedly over his two decades as a legislator to raise taxes. Smith hammered McMaster as a governor with no real ideas for improving education, health care and other pressing issues facing the state, other than through lowering taxes.
“We are not where we need to be in health care, education, infrastructure and cost of utilities,” Smith said. “Henry has offered no change. It’s all hunky dory. ‘We’re winning.’ ”
The candidates faced off at Francis Marion University in Florence in the first of two televised debates.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
McMaster quickly pitched himself as the jobs governor, noting companies have promised to add more than 23,000 new jobs and make $8 billion in new investment in the Palmetto State since he assumed office. Meanwhile, the state’s jobless rate has dropped to a record low.
“We are winning, winning, winning,” McMaster said.
Smith, however, said South Carolina is behind North Carolina and Georgia in attracting business and wage growth.
“Henry, if this is winning, I would hate to see what losing looks like,” Smith said, arguing, while McMaster has presided over a booming economy, South Carolina ranks near the bottom in the nation in measures of education, health care and poverty.
McMaster responded: “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Our unemployment rate is lowest it has been in 50 years. … Business are lining up from around the world.”
Taxes ‘a killer’
Asked why voters should not put Smith in the governor’s seat, McMaster said the Columbia attorney has never met a tax he didn’t like.
“That is a killer on business growth and development, which is the answer” to most of South Carolina’s long-term problems, the Republican governor said. He added businesses won’t come to the Palmetto State if they know the governor previously supported tax hikes as a legislator.
McMaster has proposed a 15 percent cut in the state’s income tax and eliminating state income taxes on retired military and first responders. He also said he would not eliminate sales tax exemptions — worth $3 billion a year to businesses and consumers — that currently are in place.
“You reduce the burden of taxes and reduce the burden of regulation on people and more jobs are created and people spend more money and you get more money in those (lower) tax rates,” he said.
Democrat Smith, however, argued he has supported pro-growth tax initiatives “that improve the business environment in the state,” such as a bipartisan gas-tax hike to fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, and tax credits to developers to rehabilitate abandoned buildings. McMaster vetoed both measures but was overridden by the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
“The people of the state can count on me to make sure we’re fiscally responsible,” Smith said.
Clash over Medicaid
The two also clashed on expanding Medicaid.
Smith said he would expand Medicaid to cover more uninsured South Carolinians, adding the move also would boost the state’s economy.
McMaster said expanding Medicaid would cost S.C. taxpayers $1 billion — money the state doesn’t have and would have to take from spending on schools, roads and law enforcement — arguing there are better alternatives. Those include promoting the use of telemedicine and loosening the restrictions on nurse practitioners so they can do more to improve the health of rural South Carolinians.
Smith argued the state is leaving money on the table that would improve access to medical care, its affordability and health outcomes. “That would save money by supporting preventative care” and also create some 40,000 health care jobs, he said.
But. he added, McMaster is more concerned about his political future than the well-being of South Carolinians.
Improving SC schools
McMaster said eliminating poverty — through better jobs and wages — will help eliminate the state’s education woes in the long run, adding schools will improve naturally with economic growth. He also endorsed school consolidations and smaller class sizes.
The Republican also said he will continue to push for stronger collaboration between high schools and the state’s technical college system and universities.
Smith said McMaster will do nothing at all to improve S.C. schools.
“We have a teacher (shortage) crisis in South Carolina, and the No. 1 job of governor is to make sure our children have access to a high-quality education,” the Democrat said, adding he would raise teacher salaries above the Southeast average without a tax increase, lower class sizes and push project-based learning,
A second debate will be held Oct. 25 at Greenville Technical College.
Laws can’t solve all problems
Smith said he opposes “constitutional carry” gun legislation, allowing the open carrying of firearms, and wants to close a loophole in federal gun law that says the sale of a firearm can proceed if, after three days, a background check has not been completed. That loophole allowed Dylann Roof to buy a gun used in the 2015 Charleston church massacre.
McMaster said the Roof purchase was a glitch in the system that shouldn’t have happened.
Asked about a Florence man, accused of killing a police officer, who had 129 guns in his home, both candidates rejected any restrictions on owning a large numbers of guns.
“When you start intruding on the Second Amendment is when you get into deep trouble,” McMaster said, adding many problems can’t be solved by passing a law.
“The answer to these kinds of things is an alert citizenry and good law enforcement.”