Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Random observations from the first face-off

IN AN EFFORT to write about something other than He Who Must Not Be Named Because Everyone Is Sick Of Reading About Him, today I offer random thoughts about the only other recent state news buffet - last week's inaugural Republican gubernatorial debate. In no particular order:

- I was struck by the case made by U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, and to a lesser extent by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, for the necessary role of government in our lives, particularly in terms of creating the physical and societal infrastructure we take for granted. It was not the best case I've ever heard, but it was notable that they would make it at a time when the "government is the problem" wing of the party seems to be on the ascendancy.

- Mr. Bauer did a good job of arguing that his high-profile screw-ups should be considered in the context of his entire record. And watching the debate convinced me that it's unfair to make him defend his offer to bow out of the race if the governor steps down or is impeached by next month. Question his sincerity if you will, or his political calculation or whether he can be trusted to keep his word. But don't attack the man for doing what anyone in his position should do - but few would - if he thought his candidacy was hurting our state.

- All the candidates dutifully denounced the federal bailout of state governments, but beyond that there were some subtle differences. Rep. Nikki Haley made a point of saying our state must never again accept federal bail-out money.

By indirect but notable contrast, Attorney General Henry McMaster pointedly declined to attack the decision to let the federal government bail out our unemployment insurance fund, repeatedly saying "we have to take care of the unemployed." (On the other hand, Mr. McMaster did have that disturbing paean to John C. Calhoun's nullification campaign.)

And Mr. Bauer made the point of saying that while it might be worth forgoing some small portion of federal education funds in order to get out from under the meddlesome No Child Left Behind Act, the idea of turning down all federal education funds in order to do that was a non-starter.

- Although all the candidates said they supported vouchers and tax credits for parents who send their kids to private schools, they downplayed the issue.

Mr. McMaster - who was trying to convince me of the value of vouchers two decades ago, when I traveled around the state with him during his unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor - included "choice" as one of his ingredients for a good education. But he talked far more about such mainstream ingredients as paying teachers extra to go to under-performing schools and making it easier for principals to fire bad teachers and reward good ones.

Sen. Larry Grooms, the main sponsor of the Senate voucher/tax credit bill, focused on changing the ridiculous way we distribute money among the public schools. And Rep. Nikki Haley, widely viewed as Mark Sanford's hand-picked successor (oops! I used the name), replied when asked if she supported vouchers: "First of all, I support all education reform" and then "I think we look at reforming the education funding formula first."

Changing the subject this early in the race suggests (though certainly doesn't guarantee) that the candidates all see other education issues as more important than vouchers. This is significant because, while several respected Republican legislators are adamantly opposed to diverting public money away from public schools, what set Mr. Sanford apart from his Republican predecessors wasn't that he supported vouchers; I have little doubt that David Beasley or Carroll Campbell would have signed a voucher bill had it landed on his desk. It was the fact that this was his education priority - which attracted deep-pocketed ideologues to our state to try to buy themselves a Legislature and use us as a lab experiment.

- Mr. McMaster and Ms. Haley need some truth-squadding. (Others might as well; I skipped over a few questions I found particularly boring, or ridiculous.)

Ms. Haley complained of the stimulus funding: "It did not fill the holes that everybody thought it was going to fill. It only started new programs." It's possible that a few new programs were started with stimulus money. But this assertion cannot be dismissed as mere hyperbole. Federal law actually required that 82 percent of state stabilization funds be used to maintain public education funding (i.e., pay teachers instead of laying them off) and avoid large tuition increases. And it was. Most of the rest went to prevent Medicaid service cuts.

Mr. McMaster said of the state's public school students, "half of them as you know drop out in the tenth grade." This is one of those insidious little claims that seem believable because it sounds familiar. Actually, that "half" figure represents students who do not graduate in four years. That's unacceptable, but some of them do graduate, so the actual drop-out rate for each class is less than 50 percent; if half of the students in one class dropped out in a single grade, it's hard to imagine how high the rate would be.

Mr. McMaster also played fast and loose with his tax claims. I mentioned two instances Sunday, where he conflated tax assessment ratios with tax rates. His income tax claim was technically true, but misleading: Although our 7 percent income tax rate is the highest in the Southeast, as he said, the way we calculate "income" means people in several neighboring states pay a higher percentage of their actual income in taxes than we do.

- Finally, the award for the most bizarre complaint goes to Mr. Bauer, who rightly criticized our oversupply of school districts and their penchant for building multi-million-dollar football stadiums, but then complained about districts spending money "air conditioning the bathrooms."

"Where," he asked, "are our priorities?"

Where indeed?