Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: SC Gov Nikki Haley’s agenda: several good ideas, one really bad one

SC Gov Nikki Haley delivers the State of the State as Seate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler looks on.
SC Gov Nikki Haley delivers the State of the State as Seate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler looks on. AP

FOR SEVERAL weeks now, Gov. Nikki Haley has been rolling out smart policy and funding proposals, and on Wednesday night she wrapped them in a pretty bow and presented them to the General Assembly in her sixth State of the State address:

▪ Hire 144 new prosecutors to handle domestic violence cases that are now prosecuted by the arresting officer, much as police prosecute speeding cases. South Carolina is one of only three states where these cases are prosecuted by police, and too often it shows, as people who are trained to arrest criminals have to try to match legal wits with attorneys representing the abusers. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, when he was attorney general, put together a program to have lawyers volunteer to prosecute the most serious cases, but that left most cases still in the hands of police officers. It’s past time we changed that, and it’s good to see a governor leading that effort.

Editorial: 7 reforms to make South Carolina work

▪ Let the governor appoint the superintendent of education. Public education receives nearly half the state budget, yet the person in charge of it is free to work with the governor, or not. As Gov. Haley explained quite nicely: “Education must be a priority for every governor — and to be successful, every governor must have a partner in the Education Department.”

▪ Pay for the college education of students or recent graduates who agree to teach for eight years in impoverished districts, and pay for graduate work for teachers already in those districts. This won’t solve the problem that poor, particularly rural, districts have recruiting teachers (and particularly good teachers), but as one education leader put it, it can help marginally, and marginal help is a good thing.

▪ Spend up to $200 million each year to build and refurbish schools in our poorest districts. The governor wants to borrow money to do this, and she argues that this is much more worthy than legislative proposals to borrow money for infrastructure costs for colleges. I don’t know whether that’s a fair comparison or not, but this is certain: If lawmakers did have to choose between borrowing money for schools where rain puddles in the hallways and children breathe mold in the classrooms or borrowing it for colleges, anyone who picked the colleges ought to be impeached … if we impeached legislators.

Haley asks lawmakers to focus on K-12, not colleges

▪ Allow an independent body to police legislative ethics, and require public officials to report where they get their income. This is where the governor went off script for high drama, calling on senators who supported those reforms to stand; only about a dozen did. I doubt this helped the cause — voters have had more than enough provocations and still haven’t gotten the message to senators that they want reforms — but it probably doesn’t hurt either. In any event, it was wonderful to see that at least the governor still considers this one of the state’s priorities.

▪ Abolish the legislatively appointed, horse-trading Transportation Commission and let the governor hire and fire the commission or else do without it, and let the governor hire and fire the secretary. She wants this entirely reasonable concession in exchange for investing more money in our crumbling roads and bridges, and it is appalling that so many senators are unwilling even to consider it.

Of course the governor still has bad ideas, and her worst one rounded out Wednesday’s list: slashing income taxes.

Like last year, she insisted on the tax cut. But on Wednesday, she seemed to say it had to equal any increase in the gas tax — which she didn’t mention specifically but included in her budget the previous week. That’s still unjustified, but at least she is no longer demanding that legislators cut taxes by $1.8 billion in return for raising them by $400 million. (Yes, you read that right.)

Read my column: How the SC Transportation Commission is working to kill gas tax increase And this one: What Brian Newman tells us about needed ethics reforms And why not this one too: The link between state revenue projections and politicians’ plans is … missing

A dollar-for-dollar swap that shifts a third of the tax burden to out-of-state drivers might be decent tax policy, even though it also shifts much of the rest of the burden to the poorest taxpayers. But it would result in bad budgeting, because it redirects money from education and health care and public safety to roads.

Also not in her State of the State but in her budget is $113 million to provide cities and counties with the amount of money state law requires them to be provided, in order to pay for all of those services that other state laws require them to provide. It’s about time someone acknowledges that this is an obligation that must be met.

Not in her State of the State or her budget was $519 million to provide schools with the amount of money state law requires them to be provided to pay teacher salaries and other classroom expenses. Pretending the schools don’t need that money allows her to pretend the state can afford to cut income taxes.

The good news is that the Legislature is going to ignore her demand for a massive income tax cut, although some senators are warming to a dollar-for-dollar swap.

The bad news is the Legislature — in the person of the Senate — likely will continue to ignore her demand for ethics reforms. And for giving governors responsibility for the Transportation Department. And the Education Department.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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