South Carolina governor happy with tax cuts, teacher raises but wants health and energy bills done

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday he is glad the General Assembly raised teacher salaries and cut taxes in the 2024 regular session that ended last week, but he thinks they still have more work to do before they go home for good.

McMaster wants to see lawmakers reform the commission that determines if candidates to be judges are qualified. Differences in the House and Senate bills are currently being worked out by a conference committee of three House members and three senators.

The harder lift might be resurrecting a bill that would combine six South Carolina heath care agencies into one department. The bill died on Thursday’s last regular session day when one House member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus objected to taking it up immediately. It had passed both chambers overwhelmingly.

The proposal would combine separate agencies that currently oversee South Carolina’s Medicaid program, help for older people and those with mental health problems, public health and drug and alcohol abuse programs. One person would lead the agency, called the Executive Office of Health and Policy, and it would be in the governor’s cabinet.

“We can’t wait another day,” McMaster said. “We have young people going to the Department of Juvenile Justice who ought to be in mental health institutions. We have suicides. We have way too many things happen to our people that could be prevented if we would get organized and streamlined.”

Lawmakers could put a provision in the state budget to start the consolidation and follow with a bill next year. Or they could tack it on as an amendment to something else waiting for compromise in a conference committee.

Otherwise, McMaster was mostly happy with the session. He didn’t commit Monday to signing any of the 50 bills sitting on his desk from the final week of session until he can look over them carefully. That tally doesn’t include any legislation passed in Thursday’s frantic final day.

Included in those bills are ones revising the state’s law about compensating college athletes and banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

“I want to see the details of that,” McMaster said of the care ban. “Parents ought to know what’s happening to their children and I know, particularly, surgeries are generally irreversible.”

Earlier this year, doctors and parents testified before committees in both the House and Senate that people younger than 18 do not receive gender-transition surgeries in South Carolina and hormone treatments begin only after extensive consultation with health professionals.

There are tax cuts in the state budget, although the Senate is using extra money from a sales tax fund to knock the income tax rate most people pay in the state from 6.4% to 6.2%. The House wants to use the money to give some property tax relief, since the fund’s intention was to help counties out if property tax revenue fell.

“I want them to cut as much as they can. Don’t go up, go down,” McMaster said.

The governor also appreciated lawmakers putting $200 million in the budget to allow teachers to get a yearly raise for each of their first 28 years instead of their first 23 and bump the minimum starting salaries for teaches to $47,000. McMaster has set a goal to have it at $50,000 by 2026.

“We hope it will be more than that,” McMaster said.

The governor is also urging a compromise between the House’s version of a wide-ranging bill to change the state’s energy policy and the Senate version that gutted it into a statement of support with a promise to study the issue further in the fall.

As far as the fight between mainstream House Republicans and the more conservative Freedom Caucus members, McMaster said he felt like former Republican President Ronald Reagan had the right idea with what he used to call his 11th commandment.

“Don’t speak ill of a fellow Republican,” said the governor, who keeps a photo of him with Reagan above his office door. “I think President Reagan’s saying was a good one.’

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