COLUMBIA, S.C. (FOX Carolina) – Gov. Henry McMaster’s annual State of the State speech took a different approach than his speech at the beginning of 2020. In a year that begins amidst a global pandemic, McMaster took time in his speech to discuss South Carolina’s response to COVID-19.
Arriving into the state’s House chambers, McMaster opened his speech recognizing public servants lost in the line of duty. Among those was Sgt. William Conley Jumper, a Greenville Co. deputy who died during a traffic stop in 2020. Jumper was one of seven law enforcement officers recognized, along with South Carolina Army National Guard 1st Lt. Trevarius R. Bowman.
Starting first with the state economy, McMaster said pre-pandemic, the state’s unemployment rate was at 2.4%, and that the state was “roaring into 2020” before COVID-19 became widespread. After thanking a variety of frontline and essential workers, McMaster lauded the work done by the accelerateSC task force to handle response to the virus.
“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 worked tirelessly - and literally around the clock - to quickly create and deliver a set of recommendations that - to this day - serve as our blueprint for confronting this crisis – safely,” said McMaster. He noted that in April 2020, the state unemployment rate was at 12.4%, but was now at 4.4%, which he said was the lowest in the southeast and 7th lowest in the country.
As part of the state’s response, McMaster notes more than 92,000 Wi-Fi hotspots were sent home with students for at-home instruction when schools sent them home. He also noted that he was still a proponent of public charter schools, and as part of his executive budget announced last week was setting side $25 million to allow state dollars to follow students should their parents decide to enroll them there. He also included budget dollars to place school resource officers in each campus along with a mental health counselor.
On the subject of schools’ response to COVID-19, McMaster noted “This year school districts in our state have received over $1.2 billion in COVID-19 relief from the federal government. The Department of Administration has distributed $10 million dollars in masks and PPE to 70 public school districts around the state. DHEC has provided every public-school district access to rapid antigen tests for use by students and school staff. These tests will give students, teachers, and faculty members another layer of defense against the virus,” saying public schools have the funding necessary to teach and operate in-person five days a week.
McMaster also included monies in his budget for the state to pay 100% of college tuition to every active duty member of the South Carolina Army and Air National Guard.
For the fourth year in a row, Gov. McMaster again included a proviso to prevent organizations like Planned Parenthood from receiving state funding from taxpayer dollars, imploring state lawmakers to again send him a heartbeat bill that would prevent abortion. Further, McMaster noted his budget makes allocations for law enforcement to “fund the police”, a counter to the calls of defunding police departments after a spew of high-profile, racially-charged police encounters that ended in police shootings in the country, including the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and paralysis of Jacob Blake. McMaster also called on state lawmakers to work on legislation to allow South Carolina to execute certain inmates via lethal injection, saying “the companies which make the drugs will not sell them unless their identities are shielded by state law from anti-death penalty activists. We have no means to carry out a death sentence in South Carolina – and the murderers know it.”
As part of a section on state reform, Gov. McMaster called for reform for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, saying it needed to be split and restructured. At minimum, McMaster asked the General Assembly to at minimum make DHEC answer directly to the governor’s office as a cabinet agency.
Toward the end of his speech, McMaster took a moment to decry the storming of the U.S. Capitol, urging unity despite fundamental differences.
“Finally, we all know this has been a tumultuous year, with shocking and disturbing displays of violence, lawlessness, anger and rage all across the country. We recently witnessed the shocking and sad desecration in our beloved Capitol in Washington. The voices and volume have become so loud that many Americans are not listening to each other. But this too shall pass. It will,” he said. “I’m reminded of a thought that I shared with you at the inauguration two years ago. I think it’s more appropriate now than it was then. We are not competitors; we are all on the same team. A team with different jerseys representing different ideas, philosophies, perspectives and experiences - but a team none the less - committed to doing what we think is best for the future prosperity, success, health and happiness of over five million South Carolinians.”
STATE DEMOCRATS RESPOND TO McMASTER'S ADDRESS
After the governor's 45-minute speech concluded, Democratic state senator Mia McLeod of Richland delivered a taped rebuke to the Republican governor. She opened her speech saying more than 350,000 South Carolinians were infected with COVID-19, and more than 6,000 killed by the virus. McLeod claims McMaster hasn't "even articulated a plan" to address the coronavirus, further accusing McMaster of playing politics with DHEC.
"Let's be clear: our governor appoints DHEC's chairman and governing board. After attempting to manipulate agency scientists, Gov. McMaster and his administration have created unnecessary turmoil and turnover," said McLeod, citing bipartisan criticism of McMaster's "ability to lead and protect the people of this state." She also blasted the vaccine rollout across the state, laying blame on the governor.
"With all due respect, governor, because you failed to lead us, the current state of our state, is bleak," McLeod quipped, noting she lives with sickle cell anemia and has balanced duties as a single mom, granting what she claims is a unique perspective. She also called for raising the minimum wage in South Carolina, offering benefits to companies who offer COVID-19 vaccines to employees, infrastructure improvements, racial justice reform, and more action items.
In a parting shot, McLeod took aim at McMaster's focus on abortion, saying "Protecting life in the womb has become the politically expedient mantra of South Carolina Republicans. In fact, [McMaster] and other Republicans 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 that are already here." McLeod closed by calling for more clear COVID safety guidelines, a statewide mask mandate, and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.
"Our state motto is 'While I Breathe, I Hope', but we can't breathe while COVID-19 and systemic racism continue to kill more Black and brown South Carolinians than ever. And it's hard to have hope when communities of color don't have equal access to quality medical care and are last on the list to be vaccinated," said McLeod. "Our state can't be open for business until COVID-19 is out of business."