- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s State of the State address has forecast what voters will hear on the campaign trail as the Republican leader seeks a second term.

In her address Wednesday, Haley touted her administration’s job numbers, advocated tax cuts, and bashed the federal government.

The governor’s fourth annual speech was largely predictable. There were no surprise initiatives. Her only new request for this year was passing her education initiative, which she laid out earlier this month.

Haley touted the state’s lowest unemployment rate in five years and the jobs her agency has announced in 45 of the state’s 46 counties. She again called on the Legislature to pass a bill strengthening the state’s ethics laws. She also asked legislators to invest more in road and bridge construction, while reiterating her promise to veto any proposal that increases the gas tax.

She again called for a cut on personal income taxes - a repeated budget proposal to eliminate the 6 percent tax bracket, saving the average filer less than $30.

“This simple change will put money back into the pockets of South Carolina’s working families, and I ask that you join me in giving our taxpayers some additional relief,” she said in her 37-minute speech, nearly 15 minutes shorter than last year’s.

The governor spent much of it advocating her education initiative, which focuses on spending more on poor, rural students.

“The most glaring failure on our part has been the failure to acknowledge that it simply costs more to educate a child in poverty,” she said. “As a state, we can’t afford to ignore that any longer.”

Other parts of her plan, announced earlier this month, involve improving reading skills in the early grades and increasing technology to and within schools. It requires spending an additional $177 million on K-12 public schools, paid for by expected growth in tax collections.

The plan was developed through a series of meetings last year - the most impactful, she said, was with teachers. She recognized that the past decade of education debates on tax credits for private tuition - in which conservative groups and some Republicans bashed education - has demoralized teachers. She said it’s time to support them and provide training.

“When we are not careful about how we talk about our very real educational needs, we can beat down the very teachers who are the special link between a child and his or her education,” she said. “That has to stop.”

Democrats criticized her plan as an election-year gimmick, following her previous proposed cuts and education vetoes, that adopts what Democrats have argued for years.

“Leadership makes public education job one, day one instead of waiting four years, until election time, to make our children’s future a priority,” said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, in the Democratic response.

Haley continued her criticism of the federal government, saying it does more harm than good, and highlighted the problems of the rollout of the federal health care law, including President Barack Obama’s unmet promise that people who liked their health insurance could keep it. She praised the Republican-led Legislature for rejecting expanding Medicaid as that law intended.

“We emphatically said no to the central component of Obamacare, the expansion of a broken Medicaid program that is already cannibalizing our budget, and would completely destroy it in the years to come,” she said. “I pledge to you this: We will continue to fight Obamacare every step of the way.”

Her comments prompted at least one Democrat to walk out of the chamber. Afterward, Democrats called her anti-federal-government comments unnecessary and said her political ideology is preventing poor adults from getting health care.

Perhaps the only surprise is that she thanked her Democratic opponent in the upcoming election, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, among others, for passage of the restructuring bill that she made a central part of her agenda after former Gov. Mark Sanford failed to push it through.

Sheheen, who’s been the bill’s main sponsor since Sanford’s tenure, was among eight legislators - and the only Democrat - Haley recognized for being “down in the trenches fighting to make this a reality.”

The compromise bill passed by both chambers Tuesday divides the Budget and Control Board’s duties among new and existing agencies. Most employees will transfer to a new, Cabinet-level Department of Administration that gives the governor’s office oversight of many of the bureaucratic functions of government such as property and fleet management.

“The Budget and Control Board - what I call the big, green, ugly monster - is dead, and with it the legacy of a backward administrative government that was as wasteful as it was clumsy, as inefficient as it was embarrassing,” she said.

Legislators noted she’s not budging on her refusal to allow an increase in the gas tax, unchanged since 1987.

She instead wants legislators to apply what she calls the “money tree” - the usual increase in revenue projections that come in the spring - toward roadwork, which she says could generate $1 billion over a decade. After the speech, legislators of both parties said that doesn’t realistically address the state’s crumbling infrastructure. The transportation agency estimates it would take an additional $30 billion over 20 years to bring the state’s highway system to good conditions.

Sheheen, D-Camden, said talking about a “magical, make-believe ‘money tree’” isn’t leadership.

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