For 16 minutes on a chilly Wednesday, S.C. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster outlined his priorities for first four-year term, placing an emphasis on low taxes, reforming the state’s school system and ensuring the Palmetto State’s economy remains open for business.
The Columbia Republican also promised to “firmly stand against all efforts from any quarter to endanger the future of our pristine coastline, our beaches, our sea islands, our marshes and our watersheds,” a rejection of an move by his political patron, President Donald Trump, to open the S.C. coast to oil and gas exploration.
However, much of McMaster’s inaugural address dealt with increasing calls to reform the state’s K-12 education system.
“We know that our success in today’s world-wide economic competition depends on our intellectual capacity, training, research and development, knowledge, innovation and imagination,” McMaster said. “That is why South Carolina’s commitment to education must be second to none in the United States.”
The governor proposed to lift up the state’s dismal public education system by tackling poverty by attracting jobs to poor, rural areas, recruiting good teachers and paying them well, and by enacting education reform. He proposed staffing schools with school resources officers and mental health counselors, reducing paperwork and testing so teachers can focus on teaching, consolidating school districts and giving the state Education Department superintendent the authority to remove and replace failing school boards.
“My pledge to you today is that the words ‘Corridor of Shame’ will soon be a fading memory,” McMaster said. “This will require a number of things, including a state-backed economic development commitment to bring jobs to these communities by providing infrastructure in rural areas — not only in water, sewer and roads, but in school buildings and facilities.
“... Being perceived as weak in education is not good,” McMaster said. “But, being perceived as not committed to fixing it is disastrous. We will fix it and we will keep winning.”
That requires the state invest in skilled workers, some of whom S.C. companies now must recruit out of state, the governor said.
“Right now, South Carolina has 60,000 of those highly paid jobs looking for people,” he said. “Additional workforce scholarships, grants and partnerships between our technical schools, high schools and local businesses will expand our state’s pipeline of talent, as will partnerships between our research universities and manufacturers.”
While pushing for more investment in education, McMaster wants tax reform, too.
“Continued economic prosperity requires reforming our state’s tax code,” he said. “It requires reforming our state’s marginal income and corporate tax rates to keep South Carolina competitive for jobs, investment and talent.”
But while the governor said the state’s $1 billion budget surplus this year should be prioritized to address the the most critical needs and, he added some of the added money should be given back to taxpayers.
“To continue and accelerate this economic prosperity, we must keep taxes low, eliminate suffocating regulations, and invest in infrastructure,” McMaster said. “Surpluses in state government revenues don’t mean we have to spend it all; it means prioritizing the most critical needs then rebating what’s not needed back to the taxpayers. That’s what I intend to do.”
Pledging to protest the coast, McMaster also noted that he has created a commission to find solutions to address worsening inland and coastal flooding.
Earlier this week, McMaster also backed S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson in joining a federal lawsuit to block seismic testing for oil and gas off the S.C. coast, allying with environmentalists opposed to one of President Trump’s highest priorities — expanding efforts to find new deposits of fossil fuels.
The governor delivered his inaugural speech on a cold, chilly morning with the sun beating down on the steps of the south side of the State House.
Men donned long black jackets, trench coats and hates. Many women wore furs.
Among the dignitaries attending were former Govs. Nikki Haley, Mark Sanford, Jim Hodges, David Beasley and Dick Riley. Others included former Lt. Govs. Kevin Bryant and Andre Bauer, cabinet heads, agency directors and conservative pollster Robert Cahaly.
Members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation — still in Washington, D.C., due to the federal shutdown — were absent.
McMaster walked out to his inauguration to a standing, applauding audience. Before he took his first steps down the south side of the State House, he gave a hearty wave.
Wednesday’s inauguration was a crowning moment for the 71-year-old McMaster, a former lieutenant governor who became governor in 2017 when Haley resigned to join the Trump administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
McMaster has been a fixture in S.C. Republican politics for 35 years, serving as U.S. attorney for the state under then-President Ronald Reagan. He later ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and became S.C. Republican Party chairman, overseeing the GOP’s ascendancy in a state that had been dominated by Democrats since Reconstruction.
McMaster went on to win two terms as S.C. attorney general and lose a bid for governor in 2010 to Haley before being elected lieutenant governor in 2014.
McMaster is the first Columbia-area native to be elected governor in more than a century, providing an opportunity to have the day’s preceding inaugural prayer service at his home church, First Presbyterian, rather than the traditional Trinity Episcopal.
He also became the first governor to choose his lieutenant governor after voters changed the state Constitution.
Travelers Rest businesswoman Pamela Evette, a 51-year-old accountant and political newcomer, has said she looks forward to helping extend the reach of the governor’s office, using her business experience to bring a set of “fresh eyes” to how to best serve S.C. taxpayers, and advance McMaster’s pro-business agenda.
“(T)o the young people of South Carolina, let me say: I see before us the brightest of futures,” McMaster said. “But we must always think big, have confidence and we must be bold. We will do things we have not done before. And we will succeed.”