COLUMBIA, SC — Gov. Nikki Haley put education at the forefront of her State of the State address Wednesday, calling for lawmakers to reshape classrooms in poorer areas of South Carolina.
“Our kids should never feel that they are more or less worthy based on where they live,” she said in the S.C. House chamber. “Our children should all feel like they have every opportunity to be as successful as they dream to be.”
Haley, who is seeking re-election this year, spent more than a quarter of her address going over her $177 million education plan, which includes more money for poorer districts, boosting technology spending and helping struggling readers.
“We can transform education in South Carolina, and we can do it without raising a single tax and without taking a single existing dollar away from a single district,” she said.
But Haley did not offer the spending specifics that many legislators hoped she would include in her address.
Haley’s speech was 13 minutes and more than 1,500 words shorter than a year ago when her talk was more business-centric.
Early in her address, Haley said how she was honored to be a military spouse and asked legislators to “welcome back the coolest first man, Michael Haley,” from his year-long S.C. National Guard deployment to Afghanistan.
“Michael’s deployment to Afghanistan played out a little more publicly than we would have wished,” she said. “Many told me the year would go by fast. It didn’t.”
After acknowledging “American Idol” winner Candice Glover of Beaufort County, Haley took a victory lap for the General Assembly passing a bill Tuesday that eliminates the State Budget and Control Board – which she called “the big, green, ugly monster” – and gives most of its duties to her office.
She thanked several legislators for backing what many have called the state’s most significant government restructuring bill in two decades. One of those she thanked was her Democratic challenger in her November re-election bid, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, a main sponsor of the bill.
Haley declared South Carolina was strong but still needed to bolster its business climate.
That includes simplifying the state income code to keep up with states that have cut or eliminated income taxes, and spending more money to repair roads and bridges even after new funding last year.
“South Carolinians are about to see orange cones popping up all across our state,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Haley also promised to veto a state gas tax hike to pay for repairs.
“We proved last year that we can invest in our roads and bridges with the dollars we already have,” she said. “Raising the gas tax – forcing our people and our businesses to pay more for the simple act of getting around – is not an option for me.”
Haley wants to use an annual budget surplus to pay for roads – what she calls “the money tree,” which critics say is not a reliable source of revenue.
“We have a steady and strong flow of revenue into Columbia because we have the fastest growing economy on the East Coast and unemployment is down to its lowest level in five years,” she said. “If we start raising taxes, rolling over for federal mandates, and crippling our businesses, we will damage our growing economy.”
Haley took a few swings at the federal Affordable Care Act, which she is fighting by refusing federal money to expand Medicaid.
“Those of us who fought the president’s disastrous health care plan have watched as predictions of lost coverage, rising costs, and unprecedented dysfunction have come true,” she said. “Obamacare is damaging to the country, and it is damaging to South Carolina.”
Haley said the state is doing better than Washington in getting people off welfare and into jobs. She praised embattled Department of Social Services director Lillian Koller, saying Koller has helped 20,000 people find work since 2011.
“We should all remember what this success story proves – that those out there struggling day-to-day, they don’t want to spend their lives on the couch,” Haley said. “They want a chance for more, to make their children proud.”
Haley pushed the General Assembly to pass ethics reform, so South Carolina is no longer among the final states that don’t require income disclosures for lawmaker.
“Public officials should not fear more transparency. We should not fear fair and independent investigations,” she said. “We should embrace them – because we should have nothing to hide from the people we serve. ... I ask that you not make excuses.”
But it was education that was the star of her address, which was not a surprise after she unveiled a reform plan two weeks ago.
Critics noted how education programs have made up the largest portion of her vetoes since taking office in 2011. Also, Haley made little mention of education in her first two State of the State addresses before offering to start a conversation about reforms last year.
Haley said changing the education spending formula as she proposes “means that next year almost $100 million more will flow to South Carolina’s neediest children.”
Her education plan also calls for adopting a model used in Florida to make sure third-graders are reading at grade level before advancing at school with the help of a reading coach at every elementary school.
“We can light that fire in the mind of every child in South Carolina, change the fortunes of generations of children yet to come, and forever alter the direction of our state,” Haley said.
The governor also said she wants to wire schools for the Internet and train teachers to use computers and tablets. “South Carolina’s schools are going to be equipped to compete with any school, in any state,” she said.
Haley said teachers, who understand best how to help children, should not been beaten down but given training. However, she did not mention pay raises that have been proposed by lawmakers.
“We cannot spend an unlimited amount on our schools. And money, for sure, is far from the only answer to our problems in education,” she said. “What we can do is be smarter about how we spend what we spend. We can make sure it is going where it is most needed, where it will make the most difference.”