New SC House Speaker sets economic development as his top priority next year

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Published: Dec. 20, 2022 at 9:20 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - As 2022 comes to a close, South Carolina is wrapping up a record year for economic development.

This year, the state secured more than $10 billion in capital investment from companies that will build or expand here and create more than 13,000 new jobs in the process.

One of the state’s top lawmakers is looking to keep this success going well into the future as he steps into a new role.

“This is an all-encompassing process, and so I think that we need to be ready to meet the needs of South Carolinians and have record successes and employment, and so I think the best way you can do that is to be nimble and be ready,” Speaker of the House Murrell Smith, R – Sumter, said.

Smith was elected House Speaker after his predecessor, Republican Jay Lucas of Darlington County, did not seek re-election for his House seat this year. While Smith presided over a special session this summer and fall as the South Carolina legislature debated changes to the state’s abortion law, he will begin his first full regular session as Speaker when lawmakers return on Jan. 10.

As he prepares, Smith said his top priority for the upcoming two-year legislative session will be economic development.

“While we are having this unprecedented success, we’ve got to make sure we continue the momentum by addressing deficiencies that we may have,” he said.

If not, Smith said future companies might forgo doing business in South Carolina in favor of its neighbors, like Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, which are also experiencing similar economic success.

Addressing those deficiencies starts with bolstering workforce development and training, Smith said, and he wants to consolidate workforce programs into a “one-stop shop” under a single state agency.

“We have a number of workforce initiatives housed at different agencies, and they’re not communicating with one another, and more importantly, they’re not communicating with our K-12 schools, our technical colleges and universities, and our four-year universities,” he said.

Neighboring states have put more focus on workforce training and apprenticeship programs in recent years, Smtih said, along with developing shovel-ready sites, a need South Carolina’s secretary of commerce has said companies are demanding when considering where to move and expand their operations.

In September, Smith formed the state’s Economic Development and Utility Modernization Ad Hoc Committee, a bipartisan, 12-member House panel.

Its members hail from across the state, in both its rural and urban areas, and have been meeting for the last few months to testify on economic development and what challenges the state faces.

Smith said those meetings have especially highlighted the need to recruit more companies to expand in rural parts of the state, to keep more college graduates working in South Carolina instead of leaving for other states, and to make power and electric costs more affordable.

The committee will roll out its formal recommendations before the legislative session begins.

“A lot of this is going to be budget-centric, and you’re going to see a lot of this move through the budget process,” Smith said. “But you’re also going to see some initiatives and some bills come out, and I think my first priority as we start this session is to try to coordinate with our workforce and consolidate that workforce so we can make sure we meet the needs of our future employers.”

While South Carolina is experiencing unprecedented development now and wants to attract more in the future, existing employers are struggling to hire.

Meanwhile, new data shows nearly half of South Carolinians who are old enough and eligible to work are not employed or even actively looking for a job as the state’s labor force participation rate hovers around 56%, lower than the national average of 62%.

“That’s what we’re trying to do now: Not pump the brakes on economic development, but address these before they become real issues,” Smith said.

Smith and the House can’t approve these measures on their own.

The Speaker said he has discussed these goals with Senate leaders and is optimistic they will be able to work together to pass legislation by the end of the year to address them.

He also intends for the ad hoc committee to continue meeting in 2023, hearing from more government agencies, industry representatives, and small businesses about how South Carolina can strengthen its economic development efforts.

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