Welcome to your weekly South Carolina politics briefing, a newsletter curated by The State’s politics and government team.
South Carolina lawmakers returned to the State House Wednesday, after a one-day break due to winter weather, and stuck around to hear Gov. Henry McMaster deliver his fifth State of the State address that evening.
“South Carolina is booming,” the governor told a joint session of the General Assembly, painting a rosy picture of the state’s economy and recovery from COVID-19, even as coronavirus case counts were spiking.
“People from all over the world are visiting and falling in love with our state,” he said. “Employers are creating new jobs, entrepreneurs are opening new businesses and companies are deciding to relocate here. Our business and family-friendly environment has produced historic gains in new jobs, capital investment and population growth.”
While the state, under his leadership, was in the “strongest fiscal condition ever,” it was facing an alarming and unprecedented challenge from the “dangerous, irresponsible, and sometimes unconstitutional behavior of the federal government,” said McMaster, who throughout his speech slammed President Joe Biden and his policies, including the administration’s attempt to enact nationwide vaccine mandates for large employers.
The governor also laid out his spending and policy priorities for the year, which included lowering the state’s marginal income tax rate, accelerating construction, expansion and improvements to state-owned roads, bridges and highways, reforming the state’s education funding formula and exploring the privatization of behavioral health services provided by the Department of Mental Health.
Freshman S.C. Rep. Spencer Wetmore, who delivered the response to McMaster’s address on behalf of Democrats, called for more bipartisanship in the Legislature. She implored her colleagues to end “political extremism” and work for the rest of the state instead of just Republican primary voters.
“It’s time to stop focusing only on the next election and instead focus on getting things done for this state and for the people who live here,” the Charleston Democrat said.
SC SENATE ADOPTS CONGRESSIONAL MAP
The South Carolina Senate this week adopted a congressional map expected to protect the 6-1 Republican advantage in the U.S. House for years to come. The map, which passed along party lines after nearly five hours of floor debate, is a least-change plan that closely resembles the current congressional map and a recently passed House proposal.
Senate Republicans have touted those similarities as a strength because the vast majority of South Carolinians would remain in their current districts.
Democrats and good government groups, such as the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, however, criticize the map as a racial gerrymander that carves up the area around Charleston along racial lines and leaves the state without a single competitive congressional seat.
Republicans have denied those allegations.
The adopted Senate map was chosen over another proposal put forth by Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, that scores higher on many traditional redistricting measures, but was never likely to win support from the Republican-led Senate.
SCHOOL VOUCHERS A LEGISLATIVE PRIORITY
A school voucher plan that would allow South Carolina parents to use the public school dollars allocated for their child on a variety of private educational expenses is expected to receive serious consideration in the Legislature this year.
The controversial proposal, which would take money earmarked for K-12 public schools and transfer it into education scholarship accounts that parents of low-income and special needs students could access to pay for private educational costs, was the focus of two recent Senate Education panels and is on the committee’s agenda again next week.
The Senate bill is intended to provide opportunities for children whose needs are not being met by public schools, but whose parents cannot afford private education options.
The initial hearing on the bill attracted a cadre of parents, teachers and public education advocates who condemned its potential impact on public schools, questioned its efficacy and criticized its oversight of the private entities that would be the beneficiaries of public tax dollars.
▪ Kathy Maness, a former educator and current executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said she’s running for state superintendent of education.
▪ Sen. Tim Scott, in an emotional and pointed floor speech this week, had one question for the Democrats who have continued to compare the wave of new state voting restrictions to the segregationist days of Jim Crow. “How many Americans understand what Jim Crow was?” he asked in the Senate, where Scott is the lone Black Republican and one of just three African American senators.
Meanwhile, the South Carolina Republican landed a book deal with Thomas Nelson, an imprint of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, for a memoir that will detail Scott’s hopeful vision for America while also recounting some of the most painful memories of his life.
▪ Jackie LaPan Edgerton, a former assistant US attorney, will seek the GOP nomination for state House District 112, currently represented by Charleston Republican Rep. Joe Bustos.
▪ Columbia activist Catherine Fleming Bruce, a Democrat, said she plans to run for Republican US Sen. Tim Scott’s seat. She is the third candidate seeking the Democratic nomination.
▪ The S.C. Senate voted to put medical marijuana on special order, meaning Sen. Tom Davis’ bill will likely be up for debate next week.
▪ New government evidence made public says a South Carolina man already charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot “led a pack of rioters through (House) Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s suite” that day.
▪ In a decision that could have reverberations for other oceanfront residents fighting rising sea levels that threaten their properties, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control board has agreed to let a group of affluent landowners at Debordieu Beach keep a wall of hard sandbags on the seashore, even though the department’s staff said the bags were put in illegally and were bad for the public beach.
▪ The Biden administration plans to send South Carolina almost $55 million this year, and more than $200 million over the next five years, to fix hundreds of the state’s worst bridges.
▪ A bill expected to make it easier for the plastics melting industry to open in South Carolina passed this week, despite questions about its impact on the environment. Both the House and Senate signed off on legislation that eases some environmental requirements and could eventually allow companies to open without posting bonds to clean up pollution.
▪ A company that bleeds horseshoe crabs to make pharmaceutical testing products is seeking an unprecedented “biomedical research license” to allow fishermen access to previously restricted harvesting locations under the state’s jurisdiction and has agreed commit up to $500,000, even though annual saltwater fishing licenses cost no more than $35.
Gov. Henry McMaster and his staff, leaders of the Department of Natural Resources and representatives from Charles River Laboratories, which makes a product from the crab blood that tests vaccines and medical devices for bacteria, have met multiple times to discuss the company’s proposal.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
SC Department of Revenue starts accepting individual income tax returns for the 2021 tax year
Santee Cooper goes before a House Ways and Means panel, 10:30 a.m.
SC House, Senate gavel in for session at noon
Medical University of South Carolina, Lander and Winthrop universities go before Ways and Means panel, 2:30 p.m.
SLED, corrections department go before SC Senate finance panel, 8:30 a.m.
Senate Medical Affairs panel hears two anti-abortion legislation, 9 a.m.
SC Department of Education goes before Ways and Means panel, 9:30 a.m.
House Ways and Means panel looks at Department of Juvenile Justice, 10 a.m.
Clemson University, The Citadel go before Ways and Means panel, 10:30 a.m.
House Ways and Means panel looks like attorney general’s office, 9 a.m.
Senate Education panel revisits education savings account legislation, 10 a.m.
BEFORE WE ADJOURN
We didn’t know when it would happen. But we knew it would happen at some point.
The University of South Carolina board finally decided on the flagship university’s next leader: Michael Amiridis.
Amiridis is not an unknown name on campus, in the Legislature and on campus. He’s the former USC provost and the former chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The board named him president-elect in a unanimous vote.
“What has not changed is the importance of the University of South Carolina system to this state, this nation and to the world,” Amiridis said. “In fact I would argue the work this university … is more indispensable than it has been before.”
This is probably a sigh of relief for those watching the USC presidential goings-on.
After the dramatic end to Robert Caslen’s brief presidency, the internal board drama and their initial preferred candidate dropping out after his name surfaced, it’s really felt like this took longer than a year.
Who pulled together this week’s newsletter?
This week it was reporter Zak Koeske, a member of The State’s government and politics team who currently focuses on South Carolina’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Keep up with him on Twitter @ZakKoeske or send him story tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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