South Carolina lawmakers will return to Columbia on Tuesday to put the finishing touches on a state budget that — for the first time in roughly two decades — closely resembles the first draft authored by the governor.
That’s no accident, top lawmakers say.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster used a strong alliance with S.C. House leaders, an open-handed approach to the General Assembly and decades-old relationships to accomplish much of his agenda at the State House this year.
In the first year of his first full term as governor, the Columbia Republican proposed raising teacher pay, giving S.C. taxpayers a rebate, creating an economic development fund to improve rural schools, hiring more school resource officers and spending more money on higher education in order to freeze rising college tuition costs.
All were adopted, though not fully funded at the level McMaster requested, in the state’s $9.3 billion budget. On Tuesday, state lawmakers return to Columbia to take up McMaster’s budget vetoes which are minor in nature and uncontroversial, unlike in past administrations.
“There was a lot more cooperation, and you saw that in the budget,” said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston. “That bears more fruit for the governor. ... He laid out plans for things that were largely doable and then worked with the General Assembly to get a lot of it done.”
‘Not about personal glory’
The governor’s reputation hasn’t always been so stellar since he took office in January 2017.
In his first term as the state’s lieutenant governor, McMaster was handed the office when then-Gov. Nikki Haley stepped down to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. Facing a tough primary for what would have been an open seat, McMaster was accused of pandering in his refusal to support a hard-fought bipartisan gas tax increase to improve the state’s roads.
After handily winning his first full term to the office in 2018, McMaster’s reviews have improved, reflective of the collaborative leader lawmakers had anticipated they would get.
Some state lawmakers credit McMaster’s success to the governor’s open-door policy for lawmakers with ideas. McMaster spoke with Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, almost weekly during the 2019 legislative session.
He also met frequently with House Speaker Jay Lucas — at least once making the trek across the State House complex to the Darlington Republican’s office — and House budget committee chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, to brainstorm education reform and budget priorities.
Ideas from those talks wound up included in McMaster’s inaugural address and his executive budget.
During their talks ahead of the session in December, for example, Smith first pitched the idea of a taxpayer rebate to McMaster, who liked it so much the Columbia Republican proposed sending back $200 million of the state’s $1 billion surplus to taxpayers.
Another talk with Democratic state Sen. John Matthews, a retired elementary school principal from rural Orangeburg County, led to McMaster’s proposal to create a closing fund to recruit economic development projects that will benefit rural schools.
According to one critic, McMaster’s agenda depended too heavily on lawmakers’ suggestions and fell short of the ambitious reforms proposed by his predecessors, GOP Govs. Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley.
“They are priorities of legislative leaders that he included in his executive budget,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said. “That’s why the House thinks he’s a great partner, because he gives them what they want. It appears to me he has ceded leadership to the legislative bodies.”
But House leaders disagree, saying it is a relief to work with a governor who isn’t attacking them at press conferences, issuing report cards on their votes, or bringing piglets to the State House to make a point about pork in the state budget. As a result, they say, McMaster’s executive budget was not dead upon arrival in January, unlike much of the spending plans of his more combative predecessors.
“He brings a lot of dignity to the governor’s office,” Smith said. “He cares about South Carolina. It’s not about personal glory. He’s at the end of his political career. ... He’s not trying to score political points. He’s trying to do what’s best for the people of South Carolina.”
‘His priority is South Carolina’
It helps that McMaster — a former state Republican Party chairman and attorney general — entered the governor’s office in January 2017 with longstanding relationships with key players at the State House.
McMaster’s chief of staff, Trey Walker, ran Smith’s first House campaign. And as attorney general, McMaster worked with Smith — then the chairman of the House’s criminal laws subcommittee — to pass laws cracking down on child predators and cockfighting.
As party chairman, he drove to the state’s Pee Dee region a handful of times to campaign for Lucas’ first House race, the kind of investment that isn’t forgotten 20 years later.
“What makes Henry different is that his priority is South Carolina and the people of South Carolina,” Lucas said.