Opinion Extra

McAlister: Touchdown! How S.C. scored big

South Carolina entered the Economic Super Bowl with a quarterback disabled from self-inflicted wounds and alienated from his teammates in the Legislature.

Our opponent, Washington State, pumped up with swagger, confidence and money, was the odds-on favorite. Playing the game was just a matter of showing up, since it had home field advantage.

But the little team from South Carolina shocked the nation by winning the biggest prize of all: Boeing's 4,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.

South Carolina won by throwing out the playbook and, Spurrier-like, drawing up plays on the fly, with a state senator playing a unique role in the lineup.

It's the political equivalent of the Gamecocks defeating Florida, Alabama and Southern Cal in one season.

For once, politicians were incapable of exaggerating the importance of the achievement for a state with one of the nation's highest jobless rates that is known more for the foibles of its leaders than its economic clout.

The initial jobs and investments in Charleston will ignite activity from spin-off companies and suppliers that will reach every part of the state. It will mean literally billions of dollars over time.

In stealing Boeing's second production line for the 787 Dreamliner jet out from under the state of Washington, several myths were exposed as, well, myths.

About six weeks ago, a top Boeing executive asked to meet with Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and Finance Chairman Sen. Hugh Leatherman. According to knowledgeable sources, the executive wanted to know if South Carolina could be trusted to live up to its commitments.

The Senate leaders assured him on behalf of the General Assembly that the state would honor any commitments it makes.

That led to secret negotiations between Boeing and Leatherman, the state's chief negotiator.

Conferring with McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, Leatherman crafted an incentive package after several weeks of intense negotiations with Boeing, though the company gave no assurance that it would choose South Carolina.

That word finally came Monday night, when Leatherman met with his Boeing counterpart in Columbia. Company and legislative lawyers turned the agreement into legislation just hours before the General Assembly convened for a special session.

A unanimous Legislature approved the package in record time.

So much for the argument that the Legislature is too partisan, parochial and unwieldy to get much done.

When it counted, every legislator from both political parties in every corner of the state voted in favor of the incentive package and made history.

Even Gov. Mark Sanford, a consistent critic, acknowledged the "vital and decisive" role of the Legislature, singling out Harrell, McConnell and Leatherman for their leadership.

When the announcement of Boeing's decision was made in the Senate, another piece of conventional wisdom was shattered.

Senators gave Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor a standing ovation for his agency's good work in landing the aviation giant, disproving the notion that the legislative and executive branches of government cannot work together.

After the initial euphoria fades, there will be two predictable debates - one silly, the other substantive.

A few philosophical purists with too much time on their hands tried to make the case, after Gov. Carroll Campbell landed BMW, that the state gave up too much in incentives. They criticized us for negotiating in secret and not being transparent.

Thousands of jobs and paychecks for families across the state have proven that argument silly, just as the coming debate over Boeing will be silly.

As Gov. Campbell said to his critics back then, nothing minus nothing equals nothing. Translated: If a state does not give incentives on the front end, it will get nothing on the back end. No jobs. No new investment. Nothing.

The more substantive debate will be a continuation of the question of government restructuring and whether the Legislative State is a positive or negative.

The question of whether the state can be trusted to keep its commitment was put to legislative leaders. Gov. Sanford could have provided such assurance, but he won't be around to enforce the agreements because he is constitutionally limited to two terms in office.

While only a handful of Boeing executives know the real reasons they chose South Carolina, it's reasonable to conclude they were satisfied that they got the right answer from representatives of the branch of government that has the longevity and the power to honor its commitments.