Gov. McMaster defends COVID-19 response in State of the State

Updated: Jan. 13, 2021 at 11:43 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP/WCSC) - Republican Gov. Henry McMaster praised South Carolina’s efforts to fight COVID-19 and defended his decisions to shut down the fewest possible activities and businesses during the pandemic Wednesday night.

“This time last year, South Carolina was roaring into 2020 with a vibrant economy, innovation and a growing population,” he said. “Our unemployment rate was 2.4%. More people were working than ever before. Personal income growth was at an all-time high. We had added over one million residents in twenty years. National rankings consistently listed us as one of the best states in which to do business, raise a family or visit.”

But then came the pandemic, which he said brought “disruptions and dislocations which tested us all.”

He touted the state’s response, including the accelerateSC task force, which brought together leaders from the manufacturing, tourism, hospitality and service sectors, professional associations, public health experts, local governments, K-12 and higher education institutions, hospitals, medical providers, legislators and state agencies. The group produced a set of recommendations that he called a blueprint for confronting the pandemic safely.

He said based on accelerateSC recommendations, South Carolina invested in the buildout of the state’s broadband infrastructure, distributing 92,542 wi-fi hot spots so students without internet access could receive instruction at home.

“We provided financial relief through grants for small businesses, especially those in the hospitality and service industry, devastated by the loss of customers and revenue,” he said. “We replenished the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund with close to one billion dollars from the CARES Act – thereby saving employers and small businesses from a crippling tax increase to replenish the fund.”

McMaster called the unemployment crisis during the peak of the pandemic “severe,” comparing the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, during which the state recorded nearly 14,000 initial jobless claims filed; with the worst week of the pandemic, which saw more than 87,000 claims filed.

The state went from a 12.4% unemployment rate in April to its current 4.4% rate, “the lowest in the southeast and the seventh lowest in the nation,” he said.

“After losing nearly 300,000 jobs through April, South Carolina has regained a total of 220,000 jobs – an 81.3% gain, vastly exceeding the country’s job gains of 55%,” McMaster said.

He cited governments across the nation that he said went “too far” with restrictions, infringing on the Constitution and trampling on personal freedoms. South Carolina, by contrast, “took a road less traveled,” he said.

“We slowed down, but safely remained open,” he said. “We never closed. Our reasonable steps of limited, measured and temporary actions allowed us to combat the virus without crippling our economy. By freezing new spending and holding state government steady at last year’s spending levels, we have been able to avoid cutting services, raising taxes, or borrowing money.”

He said the state is in a stronger financial position “than virtually every other state in the country” because the state was “thinking ahead,” arguing the state must now continue to do so.

He called for the General Assembly allocate $500 million for the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund. If approved, the fund would end up with almost twice the balance from last year.

“By saving this money instead of spending it, something that has served our state well this year, South Carolina will be prepared for any eventuality and a whole lot of rain,” he said.

He also wants to set aside the $525 million recently received from the Savannah River Site settlement with the federal government. He said the fate of those funds should be handled in a stand-alone bill which will allow for thoughtful consideration and appropriate public scrutiny, which he says will ensure residents of Aiken, Barnwell and the surrounding counties get priority in how the funds are spent.

Our small businesses, especially those in the hospitality and service industry, have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s financial impact. We have already directed over $40 million in CARES Act funds to provide relief to more than 2,000 small businesses.

But the requests for relief greatly exceeded the available CARES Act funds. So, we must do more.

Citing recent data showing one-in-four small business owners will have to close their doors in the next six months if current economic conditions do not improve, he calls for an additional $123 million in state funds for small business grants and providing common sense protection from unfounded pandemic related liability.

McMaster also wants to trim the state’s personal income taxes through a phased-in five-year 15% across-the-board tax reduction for all personal income brackets, which he said will keep us competitive with neighboring states.

This plan, he said, was not included in his Executive Budget because of its contingency; it pauses in any year the state’s General Fund Revenue growth is less than 5%.

His budget also calls for investing $48 million to expand access to full-day kindergarten for every lower income, four-year old child in the state and $13 million in lottery proceeds to establish Education Scholarship Accounts for working or low-income parents to choose the type of education environment and instruction that best suits their child’s unique needs.

McMaster said he will lift the current suspension of teacher step salary increases. He also wants to put a certified law enforcement school resource officer, a school nurse and access to a mental health counselor in every school.

He also told lawmakers to send legislation that will require school districts that have been unwilling to reopen their classrooms give days per week to do so.

His budget also would provide $60 million so that every South Carolinian who qualifies for federal needs-based financial aid, as measured by federal Pell Grants, has additional state financial assistance to attend any in-state public college, university or technical college. Students at private, independent and historically black colleges and universities will receive an additional $20 million for tuition grants and assistance, he said.

He also wants to provide an additional $60 million for high-demand jobs skills training to help prospective manufacturers locating in the state as well as $37 million for workforce scholarships and grants.

“For the second year in a row, I ask that the state pay 100% of college tuition for every active duty member of the South Carolina Army or Air National Guard,” he said. “These citizen soldiers and airmen put their careers and families on hold to confront threats to us, both here and abroad. Such remarkable service must be recognized and encouraged.”

Other goals in the governor’s budget include a proviso preventing the funneling of taxpayer dollars to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, a heartbeat bill, better funding for law enforcement and first response agencies and protecting the state’s pension system.

McMaster challenged the legislature to create a shield law so that companies making the necessary drugs for lethal injection will sell them to the state.

“We have no means to carry out a death sentence in South Carolina, and the murderers know it,” he said. “Fourteen states have enacted such a shield law. Director Bryan Stirling and I have been asking the General Assembly to fix this for years. Legislation was almost approved on the final day last year. I ask the General Assembly: fix this. Give these grieving families and loved ones the justice and closure they are owed by law.”

McMaster also called for the dissolution of Santee Cooper, which he called “a rogue agency” whose “incompetence helped create the largest nuclear power fiasco in modern times” and saddled their customers with billions in debt.

And he called for restructuring the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, which he said operates under two different and equally complex missions. The pandemic, against the expanding economy, he said, “highlighted the agency’s need to move and act in a more nimble and responsive fashion.”

“But at a minimum, the department should be made directly accountable to the governor and the governor directly accountable to the people for the agency’s performance - as a cabinet agency,” he said.

The governor began the speech by recognizing eight fallen South Carolina law enforcement officers and servicemen who died over the past year, including Charleston County Deputy Jeremy C. LaDue. The 29-year-old was killed in a crash in West Ashley in April.

State Sen. Mia McLeod said in the Democratic response that McMaster was too concerned with saving business profits and allowed a second wave of COVID-19 to bring misery and death to the state.

“After attempting to manipulate agency scientists, Gov. McMaster and his administration have created unnecessary turmoil and turnover,” McLeod said. “Now, they’re playing the blame-game, so it’s not surprising that our state’s vaccine rollout has been abysmal, or that Republicans and Democrats are equally critical of his ability to lead and protect the people of this state. And with new cases topping 34% positive rates, South Carolina has only been able to administer about a third of the vaccines that our state has received. This colossal failure belongs to our CEO, Gov. Henry McMaster.”

McLeod said the current state of our state is “bleak.”

“How can you tout a strong economy, Governor, when over 810,000 South Carolinians have already filed for unemployment? Many are still trying to access pandemic assistance that will help them cover basic living expenses like food, medicines, mortgage payments and rent,” she said. “Who says we can’t be pro-business and pro-people? The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”

McLeod argued that if McMaster and fellow Republican leaders had taken the pandemic seriously months ago by issuing a temporary statewide mask mandate and brief stay-at-home order, as well as heeding the advice of health experts, the state could be well on its way toward getting “back to work, school and life, safely.”

“Instead Governor, you told us everything was fine, doubled-down on the rollbacks and the rhetoric and politicized mask-wearing. Just last week, as record-high cases continued to surge, you insisted that our schools open five days a week for in-person instruction,” she said. “As doctors warned about a second, more deadly wave, you said, ‘Come on in…we’re open,’ boasting that ‘the business of South Carolina is business’ and proving that politics and profits truly do trump the health and safety of our people.”

She said when Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina’s economy in 1989, the state’s elected leaders “used every government resource available to rebuild,” and then asked why the state could not use its reserve funds to help keep small businesses afloat.

She also pushed raising the state’s minimum wage, creating tax incentives for companies that provide vaccines and other pandemic benefits to their employees, partnering with county health departments to help vaccinate our most vulnerable citizens and joining joining 39 other Democrat and Republican-controlled states that expanded Medicaid to ease overcrowded emergency rooms and ICUs, “and bring medical facilities and personnel into poor counties and underserved communities.”

State Democrats called for a plan that includes a statewide mask mandate, moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and clear safety guidelines for schools, businesses and employees.

“Our state can’t be ‘open for business’ until COVID-19 is ‘out of business,’” she said.

Copyright 2021 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.