Lindsey Chappell, a physical education teacher at Boulder Bluff Elementary in Berkeley County, yells in protest outside of the SC Statehouse in Columbia on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff
COLUMBIA — In a year that started with Gov. Henry McMaster comparing South Carolina to a winning team that can’t afford to fumble the football, the players in the Legislature head into halftime of the the two-year legislative session with some clear wins and losses — as well as a few draws.
There still could be a few victories and defeats as legislators start a special session on May 20 to finish work on a $9 billion spending plan for 2019-20 and debate more what to do with state-owned utility Santee Cooper, but here is how the regular session shaked out.
In his inaugural address in January, McMaster painted himself as a coach who will continue leading the state’s players to victory. The Republican, elected to his first full term last November, is mostly having a good first season.
Many of the initiatives McMaster laid out in his budget recommendations made it into legislators’ spending plans. Unlike previous governors, McMaster worked closely with legislators ahead of releasing his executive proposal in January, giving the ideas — if not the amounts — a good chance of becoming law.
That includes giving Commerce Department money to attract jobs to the poorest school districts, hiring more law enforcement officers in schools, increasing payments to public colleges if they agree to freeze tuition and sending rebates back to taxpayers.
And this year saw none of the public hostility between the GOP-controlled Legislature and a Republican governor that was the norm during Mark Sanford’s and Nikki Haley’s tenures.
Asked about the relationship Thursday, House Speaker Jay Lucas contained a chuckle before calling McMaster “an absolute delight to work with.”
“I would rate Gov. McMaster’s ability to work with the Legislature as far superior to any other governor we have worked with since I’ve been here,” said the Hartsville Republican first elected 20 years ago. “Gov. McMaster’s a breath of fresh air. We appreciate his willingness to work with us rather than against us, and I think that can only better South Carolina.”
But McMaster has lost some battles with senators.
They rejected two of his nominees, who also happen to be longtime friends of the governor: Stephen Morris to lead the Office on Aging and Charlie Condon — like McMaster, a former state attorney general — to lead state-owned utility Santee Cooper. Any outright “no” vote of a nominee is unusual. McMaster had two rejected back-to-back overwhelmingly, and then got called out by a GOP senator for keeping Morris in the job until the Senate confirms his replacement.
The year began with legislators of both parties and in both chambers, plus the governor, committing to improving K-12 education.
That alone was a feat. The public pledges came more than a year after the state Supreme Court released the Legislature from its 2014 directive to fix it, on a case lawmakers had fought since 1993.
2019 saw some promising steps toward the goal line.
In January, Lucas, McMaster and Senate President Harvey Peeler jointly asked the state’s economic experts to come up with recommendations for overhauling the piecemeal, ridiculously complex funding system that justices said prevents poor, rural children from getting even an opportunity for success. The trio’s letter clearly kicked the funding part of the education debate into 2020, as it was due Thursday. But handing the puzzle to the unelected, nonpartisan economists likely represents the best chance of a true revamp benefiting the entire state.
And even though Lucas’ massive, 84-page attempt at modernizing public education in South Carolina has stalled in the Senate, there are several wins for education in legislators’ budget plans.
They include $159 million to raise teachers’ pay between 4 percent and 10 percent, with the biggest boosts going to teachers with fewer than five years of experience — those who make the least and are most likely to bail on the profession. It’s the biggest single-year infusion to teachers’ salaries in 35 years.
While teachers say that’s not enough to stem the exodus, they’ve gotten repeated pledges from Lucas that his goal is to bring teachers’ average salary in South Carolina up to the national average within five years. Such a commitment from GOP leaders was unheard of a year ago.
Teachers newly finding their collective voice have also demanded money for mental health counselors, fewer tests they say takes away from actual learning, and smaller class sizes.
The budget will provide enough money to hire at least 90 additional counselors who can roam from school to school as needed, maybe more depending on final budget negotiations. It could eliminate three state-standardized tests.
It could also reinstate class size limits districts have been allowed to simply ignore since 2008, though the 43-year-old regulations need revision and can still be waived. New limits could be central to next year’s debate, as class sizes are tied to the new funding model. The budget will also include at least $50 million for maintenance at poor schools, which won’t go far but is better than nothing.
In less than a year, the teachers’ group SC for Ed has sprung from a few friends looking for support over social media into a movement that organized a 10,000-strong protest May 1 on the Statehouse grounds.
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The growing statewide shortage that saw 5,300 teachers leave South Carolina’s classrooms last year — and just 1,600 education majors graduate from a South Carolina college — has emboldened teachers previously fearful of retribution to speak out, as they know they’re difficult to replace.
SC for Ed has become a force to reckon with. The group got what it wanted in stopping the big education bill from passing this year, though there’s disagreement on whether the messaging will end up helping or hurting the hers’ cause. In response to the May 1 protest, some legislators said they’re being inaccurately blasted as doing nothing for teachers even as they’re trying to make changes.
The fight over legalizing marijuana for patients with chronic ailments took an odd turn with an anonymous mailer accusing Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, of trying to turn the state into “one big pot party.”
Davis used it to his advantage, pointing to the laughable mailer as underscoring “the intellectual deficiency of the opposition.” Who sent it remains unknown.
While the mailer generated a backlash of support, the bill continues to draw strong opposition from state medical leaders and law enforcement, notably State Law Enforcement Chief Mark Keel, who made repeatedly clear he’s not budging until the federal government approves marijuana as medicine.
In December, the state Chamber of Commerce made overhauling South Carolina’s tax code its top priority and presented a report offering a way to get it done.
A House panel that’s been studying tax reform for years made some progress, tentatively approving rough outlines for changes to state sales and income taxes. But that’s as far as the effort’s gotten. Previous attempts to eliminate sales tax exemptions have also fizzled.
What becomes of the state-owned utility remains a question, but it’s a survivor so far, unlike South Carolina Electric & Gas, its partner in the partially built nuclear power reactors the pair abandoned in July 2017 after jointly spending $9 billion.
McMaster has made clear ever since he wants to sell it. The House and Senate have approved separate paths for gathering official bids to determine whether selling parts or all of it, or turning over management, makes sense for taxpayers, ratepayers and employees. They’ll debate later this month which route to take and could return later this year to debate the offers.
But any sale faces strong opposition in the Senate.