Gov. McMaster calls for teacher pay raises and more
Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster laid out his agenda Wednesday to shore up the state’s public school system and keep its economy “red hot” through lower taxes, urging lawmakers “to be bold, not bashful” in pursuing reforms this year.
McMaster outlined his priorities during his State of the State speech to a joint session of the S.C. General Assembly, continuing themes of tax relief, education reform and environmental protection.
As in his inaugural address earlier this month, McMaster pledged to reform the state’s public school system and to forge new ways to keep South Carolina competitive for jobs, investment and talent through lower taxes and enhanced job training.
“In the last two years, we have announced over $8 billion dollars in new capital investment and more than 27,000 new jobs,” the governor said. “Our unemployment rate just hit an all-time low.”
But that prosperity is threatened by a shortage of skilled workers and teachers, and soaring higher education costs, the Republican warned.
“Being perceived as weak in any part of our state in education is not good. But being perceived as not committed to fixing it is disastrous,” McMaster said, repeating his vow from his inauguration that “the words ‘Corridor of Shame’ will be a distant memory,” a reference to the impoverished corridor along Interstate 95.
Last week, McMaster, and fellow Republicans House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler called on the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office to review South Carolina’s complex education funding formulas and suggest a new, more efficient and modern funding model.
“Further, Speaker Lucas and Sen. Greg Hembree (R-Horry) will propose wholesale reforms to our education delivery system – eliminating burdensome testing, consolidating school districts, replacing nonproductive school boards and reining in the practice of social promotions in our classrooms,” McMaster said. “Send me these reforms and I will sign them into law.”
The governor also proposed to lift up the state’s public education system by tackling poverty, attracting jobs to poor, rural areas through a $100 million state-backed rural economic development fund.
“We must also invest in our teachers,” he added. “To attract and retain the best, their compensation must be competitive with their peers in the Southeast and elsewhere.”
McMaster called on lawmakers to support his 2019-20 executive budget proposal, released last week, which calls for a 5 percent pay hike for teachers and a $200 million refund to S.C. taxpayers. It also includes a proposal to freeze rising college and university tuition costs.
The governor’s budget also includes an extra $63 million for workforce training and development, and triples new lottery funding for workforce scholarships and grants to help students attend S.C. technical colleges.
McMaster also called on lawmakers to add $46 million to hire 758 resource officers for schools unable to afford that cost. And he asked for another $2.2 million a year for the S.C. Department of Mental Health to hire 88 additional counselors, bringing services to schools.
“Our classrooms and schools must also be safe, free from distraction and violence,” McMaster said. “It’s a fact: the presence of a trained certified law enforcement officer is the best and most effective deterrent against violence at a school. ... The time to act on this is now.”
McMaster renewed his push for a $2.2 billion across-the-board state income tax cut over five years, resulting in an average 15 percent rate reduction.
“We have the highest marginal income tax rate in the Southeast – the 12th highest in the nation,” McMaster said. “Taxes of all kinds at all levels add up – little by little – to smother growth. Beating the competition requires reforming our state’s marginal income and corporate tax rates.”
Legislators last year ignored that request. But the governor urged it be included as part of a broader tax-reform discussion in the House and Senate.
State lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say there is new momentum for tax reform this year, due, in part, to pressure by McMaster and the state’s business community. But what that reform will end up looking like remains uncertain.
McMaster also pledged to protect the S.C. coast, noting he has created a commission to find solutions to address worsening coastal and inland flooding. The Columbia Republican drew his largest applause of the night when he repeated that he stands firm against off-shore drilling, as proposed by political ally President Donald Trump.
McMaster’s speech lasted nearly an hour, touching on many topics — from the “silent hurricane” of opioid addiction to ethics reform — but not abortion, a key campaign issue in the 2018 GOP primary. McMaster has said he will pass any pro-life bill but did not urge lawmakers to do so in his address.
The governor ended with a call for bipartisan cooperation.
Across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said: “We’ve heard the words, now let’s see the action.”
“As we conveyed to him before tonight, we’re ready to work hand in hand,” Setzler said.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said it was “fascinating to see a governor of this state not try to throw the General Assembly under the bus, and talk about working with us.”
“Democrats in the House are going to be there with him,” Rutherford said. “If he wants to give teachers a raise, we’re there, and, in fact, we’ve been in front of that issue for years. I’m glad to see he finally got there.”
State Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, said he appreciates the urgency the governor placed on dramatic reform. But, he added, “Like so often, the challenge of the real work will be left to the General Assembly.”
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington, said McMaster’s address was “aspirational” and “inclusive.”
“I liked ... that he was reaching out to both parties, to both chambers, trying to think big and broad for South Carolina,” Wilson said. “It was bold.”