- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina Sen. Vincent Sheheen took jabs Tuesday at Gov. Nikki Haley’s election-year plans to improve education and called her refusal to expand Medicaid eligibility foolish ideology.

In separate speeches before a group of business leaders, Haley never referenced Sheheen, but the Democratic state senator criticized the Republican governor in an energized, sermon-like speech clearly meant to outline their differences and heat up their rematch.

Sheheen rattled off what he considered Haley’s lack of leadership, and accused the governor of playing political games by refusing to expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal health care law to an estimated 200,000 poor uninsured adults. He called it foolish and wrong to not accept the federal government’s offer to fully fund their coverage for three years.

In her speech, Haley said the federal government was doing more harm than good with the health care overhaul, under which many people buying private health insurance plans face higher costs. Haley and the Republican-led Legislature rejected Democrats’ efforts last year to expand Medicaid as the federal law intended, saying the state can’t afford the eventual costs.

Republicans instead approved an initiative from the state’s Medicaid director known as “healthy outcomes,” which includes hospitals finding health care solutions for more than 8,500 of their most frequent emergency room visitors. It involves evaluating patients’ medical and social needs, coordinating with existing safety net programs offering free or low-cost care, and checking back to ensure patients are following doctors’ advice. The agency hopes to expand those efforts in 2014-15. Democrats say they don’t go nearly far enough.

“We can’t just say no to Obamacare. We can’t just say no to Medicaid expansion. We have to say yes to something,” Haley said in the opening speech at the annual meeting of the South Carolina Business and Industry Political Education Committee. “Hospitals are helping us triage what we know the problem is.”

Haley’s proposed budget for 2014-15 includes an additional $177 million for K-12 education, focusing on poor, rural districts. Haley told the crowd it must be the first year of a decade-long investment in public education. She tied her plan to jobs, saying South Carolina’s economy depends on businesses being able to hire qualified workers.

“If you want us to continue bringing jobs in the state, we’ve got to focus on education in South Carolina,” she said.

It’s a shift from her stance that education can be improved without any new money and adopts arguments Democrats have made for years.

Sheheen called it an election-year ploy. He advocates expanding 4-year-old kindergarten so that it’s available to all children statewide and raising teachers’ salaries to the national average.

“Leadership is not vetoing teacher raises and failing to support public education until it’s an election year and then all of a sudden saying we need to invest in education,” he said. “That’s politics.”

Sheheen also accused Haley of not providing leadership when it comes to fixing South Carolina’s roads and bridges. The state Department of Transportation has said it needs an additional $1.5 billion yearly over 20 years just to bring the state highway system to good conditions.

Haley’s budget plan advocates funding road construction with revenue growth that’s not yet projected - what she calls the “money tree” that falls between the start of the legislative session and advisers’ revised spring estimates, which could be $100 million. She praised a law passed last year that raises $1 billion for roadwork over the next decade. If legislators apply the “money tree” revenue growth to highways for the next decade, that could generate another $1 billion, she said.

Haley has repeatedly said she will veto any bill that funds roadwork by raising the state’s gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 1987.

“Why talk about it when you don’t need it?” she said Tuesday. “We’re meeting all our infrastructure needs without going to that place. I’m showing how to pay for it.”

Sheheen said he hasn’t endorsed a gas tax hike, but the state should raise $500 million yearly somehow, with a combination that could include increasing driver’s license fees and tolls for new lanes.

“Let’s be real. We have to have revenue,” he said. “I see us paving six lanes of interstate from Columbia to Charleston so we can quit being caught in this traffic jam and business can have a way to move up and down the interstate. I see us paving six lanes of I-95 from Georgia to North Carolina so we don’t have to be embarrassed when people drive up through Florida and Georgia and hit that traffic jam that always occurs in South Carolina.”

The meeting’s organizers also drew a distinction between the candidates in a setup question over who they voted for in November 2012, asked by the moderator after each speech. The answer was a given for Haley, who endorsed Gov. Mitt Romney ahead of South Carolina’s presidential primary and campaigned with him in other states. Sheheen said he voted for President Barack Obama, “because I thought he was more in touch with regular people.”

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