COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP/WJBF) – Republican South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster praised South Carolina for its efforts to fight COVID-19 and defended his decisions to shut down the fewest things possible during the pandemic in his State of the State address on Wednesday.
The annual speech by the governor to both tout his successes and outline his priorities for the coming year had a little different twist with the pandemic still raging. South Carolina has set records for new cases this month and is averaging about 50 deaths a day – higher than at any other time.
“In 2020, the pandemic may have slowed us down, but not by much,” McMaster said.
He also made mention of the SRS settlement money and how it should be spent.”We are also setting aside the $525 million recently received from the Savannah River Site settlement with the federal government,” Governor McMaster said. “These funds should be handled in a stand-alone bill which will allow for thoughtful consideration and appropriate public scrutiny. This will ensure that the residents of Aiken, Barnwell, and the surrounding counties are given priority in how the funds are spent,” he added.
Meanwhile, Democrats responded that McMaster was too concerned with saving the profits of businesses and allowed a second wave of COVID-19 to bring death and misery to the state.
“Governor, no matter how much worse it gets, you’ve said you won’t do anything different. We need a plan that includes a statewide mask mandate, moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and clear safety guidelines for schools, businesses and employees,” state Sen. Mia McLeod of Columbia said in her party’s response.
Early in his speech before both the House and Senate, McMaster asked for prayer for the “South Carolinians who will no longer brighten our hearts with their smiles, their love, and their friendship” without specifying the death toll, which has passed 5,400 people – more than 1 in 1,000 of the state’s 5.1 million people.
He then touted the work of his committee to reopen South Carolina and said the state avoided budget cuts that plagued other places because businesses were able to reopen quickly. Economists expect surpluses in next year’s budget and McMaster wants to set aside $500 million for the next economic downturn.
“We took a road less traveled – a better road. We slowed down, but safely remained open. We never closed. Our reasonable steps of limited, measured and temporary actions allowed us to combat the virus without crippling our economy,” McMaster said.
In the Democrats response, McLeod said COVID-19 just emphasized the broken parts in a state government run by Republicans for 20 years. She questioned why the state continued to refuse money to expand Medicaid and why McMaster never authorized a statewide mask rule amid evidence from his own health officials that mask rules reduce infections.
“When Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina’s economy, our elected leaders used every government resource available to rebuild our state. Shouldn’t we be doing that now during a global pandemic?” the Democrat from Columbia asked.
The governor also asked lawmakers to make one of their first priorities passing a bill to require school districts to offer a choice for students to return to school five days a week no matter the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, bidding to resolve one of his greatest frustrations of the outbreak.
Teachers have said the governor is risking their lives because the virus’ spread remains way above guidelines set in the summer by a state education committee on reopening schools. They also cautioned that many schools aren’t big enough to maintain proper social distancing.
Almost all guests were kept out of the House balcony because of the pandemic. A number of Democrats skipped the speech because of the virus, leaving the House chamber unusually empty.
COVID-19 only covered about the first third of McMaster’s speech. He spent the rest outlining his priorities for 2021. There were some new ones, like expanding broadband internet into rural areas – a need revealed as the pandemic required students and others to learn and work from home.
McMaster wants an income tax cut once economists are sure the state is growing again and promised teachers the $3,000 across-the-board raise he proposed before the pandemic will be back in his plans when the money returns to the budget.
He called for lawmakers to allow the state to keep confidential the names of businesses that sell South Carolina lethal injection drugs. The state has none and pharmaceutical companies won’t sell if their names are public. April will mark 10 years since the state’s last execution.
McMaster wants to require magistrates in the state’s lowest level of courts to be attorneys in good standing.
McMaster also repeated wishes for the General Assembly to pass a law to ban nearly all abortions in state. A Senate subcommittee is considering the bill Thursday and several new conservatives in the chamber may tip the balance to pass the proposal in 2021. McMaster said he would sign it immediately.
McLeod’s Democratic response said South Carolina’s leadership has failed to make life better for people already here.
“You and other Republican leaders have made a divisive, unconstitutional bill your number one priority again this session, instead of focusing on protecting the 5 million living, breathing human beings who are already here,” McLeod said.