COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster touted South Carolina’s booming economy during his second inaugural address as he urged lawmakers to make investments necessary to increase prosperity while preserving the state’s unique beauty.
The 75-year-old Republican governor opened his address with a NASCAR analogy.
“If we were at the famous Darlington raceway, these early days of 2023 would be the moment we hold our breath just before the green flag is dropped,” he told the crowd on Statehouse grounds Jan. 11. “Much history has been made here, and we are about to make some more.”
McMaster starts his second full term with state coffers bursting with billions in surplus available to spend, along with record reserves.
Keeping the economy flourishing will require providing South Carolinians an excellent education, training workers for job opportunities and continuing to make “transformative investments” in highways and rural water and sewer systems, he said.
“I view our foundations for great prosperity and happiness as resting on three pillars: economic strength, education and our natural environment,” McMaster said on a temperate day in the mid-50s on the back Statehouse steps.
His 20-minute address laid out several of the spending recommendations he released last week, including raising teachers’ minimum salaries by $2,500 toward a goal of a $50,000 floor for first-year teachers by 2026, noting the minimum was $30,113 when he took office in 2017.
The line about setting a $50,000 goal was among 10 times the crowd interrupted McMaster with applause.
Applause also erupted when he trumpeted last year’s bipartisan law providing the largest state income tax cut in South Carolina’s history; called for continuing to support and “fund the police;” and backed legislation keeping career criminals “behind bars and not out on bail.”
‘Born and unborn’
The phrasing that got the most attention — a standing ovation from many and a head-shaking from others — was a not-so-veiled reaction to last week’s state Supreme Court ruling that threw out the 2021 law he signed that banned abortion around the sixth week of pregnancy.
“We must also ensure that the public has confidence in whom and how all our judges are selected, by making the process more transparent and accountable so that every South Carolinian, born and unborn, may enjoy life, liberty and happiness,” he said.
While the single sentence never mentioned abortion or the ruling that stunned the Legislature’s GOP majority, the audience knew what he was referencing.
“He handled that well,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, among those who stood, said after the address. “It was clear what he was saying. He didn’t use a sledgehammer to kill the gnat.”
The Edgefield Republican is among GOP leaders still poring over the justices’ five separate opinions in the 3-2 split decision and figuring out how to respond legislatively.
Debates on anti-abortion proposals of some sort are certain this session, as is an unusually heated election to replace the majority opinion’s lead author, Justice Kaye Hearn, who officially retired shortly before the ruling’s release. Three judges on the state Court of Appeals are vying to replace her. A vote by a joint assembly of the Legislature is scheduled Feb. 1.
Democrats who have spent years opposing Republicans’ anti-abortion pushes called the comment near the end of McMaster’s speech unnecessary.
“The line could have been omitted,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, the House’s longest-serving member. “In a speech that was generally collaborative and conciliatory, I thought it was a throwaway line that wasn’t necessary because everybody knows how strongly pro-life he is.”
‘Preserve and protect’
All five of South Carolina’s living former governors attended the ceremonies: Democrats Richard Riley (1979-1987) and Jim Hodges (1999-2003), and Republicans David Beasley (1995-99), Mark Sanford (2003-2011), and Nikki Haley (2011-17).
McMaster’s runaway reelection win last November put him on a path to being the longest-serving elected governor in South Carolina history. His tenure began in January 2017, when Haley became the United Nations ambassador for President Donald Trump, and McMaster ascended to the role as South Carolina’s CEO.
A lifelong South Carolinian, McMaster gushed with pride over the state’s natural beauty “from the mountains to the sea.”
“I truly believe that if we cannot find peace and comfort in the pine forests and tidal creeks of South Carolina, we’ll just have to wait until we get to Heaven,” he said to applause and laughter.
But with new businesses, residents and tourists flocking to the state, preserving what makes South Carolina unique requires attention now, he continued.
“The question today is: Will anyone recognize South Carolina in 100 years? Will we allow our state’s culturally and environmentally significant structures, monuments, lands, islands, and waterways to be lost forever — to overdevelopment, mismanagement, flooding, erosion or from storm damage?” he said.
“Or will we preserve and protect our history and our environment, and the public’s access to them? This is our moment to act, while we still can.”
Economic growth and preservation can and must be accomplished simultaneously, he said, echoing what he said throughout his campaign.
He ended by pledging to continue his collaborative approach with legislators — using his oft-repeated phrase of using “communication, collaboration, and cooperation” to get things done.
“Let us set our state on a course that will provide the opportunity for prosperity, success, and happiness for generations of South Carolinians,” he said in conclusion. “The best is yet to come.”
Inaugural ceremonies began with a prayer service at First Presbyterian Church, two blocks from Statehouse grounds. Historically, the service has been at Trinity Episcopal across the street. But McMaster has broken from tradition to hold it at his church.
The fanfare continued with an open house at the Governor’s Mansion in the afternoon. The final festivities are an inaugural ball at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.