(WIS) - With voters set to cast their ballots June 12 in the gubernatorial primary election, WIS requested one-on-one interviews with each of the Republican and Democratic candidates to get each on the record regarding some of the most important issues facing our state.
Six of the eight candidates responded and agreed to interviews, with the exception of Lt. Governor Kevin Bryant and former Lt. Governor Yancey McGill, each of whom is a member of the Republican party.
Governor Henry McMaster touted his service as State Attorney General, serving on the Ethics Reform Commission.
He pointed out the work that committee did in drafting recommendations to make state government more transparent, by requiring lawmakers to divulge their sources of income and investigating ethics complaints among lawmakers. McMaster says those measures were a good start but says there's clearly more work to do.
"Part of that was having the Freedom of Information Act apply to the Legislators, the House and Senate. It applies to me as Governor, it applies to other constitutional officers. It applies to City Hall, it applies to everybody. But it does not apply to Legislators. People ought to be able to ask for information, documents and such, and get them," McMaster said.
Catherine Templeton agrees. The former head of the State's Department of Labor and Regulation under former Governor Nikki Haley, Templeton says as governor, she wants to remove any conflicts of interests among legislators, and end business as usual in the State House.
"Right now in South Carolina, if we just passed one sentence- just one. We don't need to study it," Templeton said. "One sentence. If we elect you to protect our money, you can't have any for yourself. You can't have any for your family. That is what our lawmakers need to be held to. That is the standard."
John Warren, a businessman from the Upstate is new to the political scene. He believes making government work for the people, will require new people be elected to statewide office. He, along with Templeton, is calling for term limits.
"Another thing we need to do - end no-bid contracts. We need to bid out all state contracts competitively. We need to have arms-length transactions to where legislators cannot appoint their family members," said Warren.
On the Democratic side, Phil Noble, a businessman from Charleston says any meaningful change has to come from the outside. With that goal in mind, he promised to address what he calls "the disease of corruption" with more oversight and more transparency.
"We ought to have a permanent special prosecutor to investigate not only the utilities but the legislatur," Noble said. "We ought to prohibit legislators from having side deals, under the table, with dark money - or consulting contracts and legal retainers from people they're doing business with."
Marguerite Willis is a lawyer from Florence who says transparency is made possible when citizens know where lawmakers are getting their money, and how much
"We need to look at that dark money in politics. We need to shine a light on that and try to get as much of that out of politics as possible," Willis said. "Because when there's money floating around like that, more than likely there is some corruption afoot."
While Willis and Noble currently work outside state government, State Representative James Smith has sponsored legislation within the State House to tighten ethics laws in the past, which could be expanded in the future.
"I'd like to see a lot and better reform in terms of lobbyists. And making sure if you are a PR person, and at the same time helping to advance a case before the general assembly, I think you're getting very close to lobbying, and you would probably need to register and fall under those requirements," Smith said.
ON VC SUMMER:
Nearly one year ago, utility officials announced the VC Summer Nuclear Project in Fairfield County was shutting down, leaving thousands out of work and a trail of unanswered questions. SCANA and Santee Cooper claimed the project was no longer sustainable, despite billions of dollars spent and ratepayers on the hook for billions more.
Each of the Republican candidates for Governor says what happened at VC summer and the lack of resolution so far for ratepayers is simply unacceptable. John Warren says his business experience uniquely qualifies him to solve the challenge of getting ratepayers their money back. He says, ratepayers, deserve better.
"VC Summer and Santee Cooper, specifically for the taxpayers, are one of the worst debacles in South Carolina history," Warren said. "It's an example of where career politicians do not know how to manage businesses and all of the taxpayers suffer because of it."
Catherine Templeton says it's even worse. She says what happened at VC Summer is an example of inside dealing, and incompetence.
"Our money was attached to a private monopoly that was contributing through its lobbyists and everyone else, to this debacle," Templeton said. "So, we have to have people that go up there and act as our representatives. It's just math to fix it. You have to give the money back."
But exactly how to do that is up for debate. While utility officials have warned that ratepayers could continue to pay for the reactors for decades, competing plans within the State Legislature call for a partial refund to ratepayers and a full refund.
Governor McMaster says he will veto any bill that does not give power customers a full refund. The governor says he proposed the sale of Santee Cooper for 4.2 billion dollars to help recoup some of the cost. He also maintains he was among the first to demand accountability for the failure of the project.
"Those customers that have been paying for those nuclear reactors, and it appears they're not going to get those nuclear reactors," McMaster said. "They ought to get their money back that they paid in and they should pay not a cent more."
As for the Democrats, Phil Noble says the failure of the nuclear project amounts to a criminal act.
"My whole philosophy of what we ought to do with the utility is very simple. It's two things. Number one, we want our money back. All of it," Noble said. "And number two, people ought to go to jail. That's the reality. They're stealing. They're trying to steal 9 billion dollars of our money."
SCE&G customers still pay a surcharge for the failed project on their electric bills. Representative James Smith says that surcharge needs to go and says there are some concrete reforms he's proposed and promoted in the legislature to make sure power customers are refunded and kept off the hook going forward.
Smith says he wants to "Take that excess off of the rate. Two, change so we have a transparent system that is accountable to voters. I had pushed for a consumer advocate that's tied to a statewide officeholder, in this case, the Attorney General. And we know that individual is responsible for fighting for us when it comes to rate-setting."
Marguerite Willis sees it the same way and demands more oversight and more accountability. Willis says there is plenty of blame to go around for the failure at VC Summer and it starts with the State Legislature.
"They just didn't do their jobs," Willis said. "They passed the Base Load Review Act. Basically, people threw up their hands and said 'this is complicated. It's nuclear power. Let's just let them do what they need to do.' And then they didn't watch the project carefully enough. When crooks are afoot if you assume the folks at SCANA were crooks, and some of them for sure was...I think you have to be vigilant in watching what's going on."
ON SECURING SOUTH CAROLINA PRISONS
On April 15, a riot inside Lee Correctional Facility exposed a problem brewing behind bars inside South Carolina prisons for years.
A deadly combination of inadequate supervision, contraband cell phone, and gang rivalries erupted in violence that exacted a staggering toll. Seven dead. 22 injured. And a myriad of questions, namely how to secure South Carolina prisons. Catherine Templeton says the answer is straightforward, starting with jamming cell signals so detained criminals can't make phone calls from prison.
"I understand the federal bureaucrats have said 'don't do that'", Templeton said. "Well, the federal bureaucrats are beholden to the cell phone lobby. So, it's pretty simple: As your governor, on Day One, I would jam the cell phones. We treat criminals like criminals. If that makes the federal bureaucrats in Washington upset or the cell phone lobby, I couldn't care less."
Governor Henry McMaster agrees, but he says it's not that simple. In fact, he says currently, jamming the cell signals violates federal law. McMaster says he has asked the federal government to jam the cell signals to no avail, so he's taking other measures in the meantime.
"One thing that I've done is issue an order of Executive Authority that would allow Director (Bryan) Stirling to skip some of the formal and lengthy processes for buying things that he needs in order to keep cell phones from coming over."
Some of those things include netting that extends above the fencing and razor wire at correctional facilities.
John Warren, meanwhile, sees another way to head off violence behind bars. He proposes more funding for the Department of Corrections, money he says already exists in the state budget.
"Combining Triple P which is the parole agency, with the Department of Corrections. If you did that, studies show you could save immediately $2.8 million. With that $2.8 million, I would have hired more corrections officers. I would've trained them better, sent through the police academy, and then finally paid them more."
On the Democratic side, Marguerite Willis says she drives by the Lee Correctional Facility regularly on her commute to Columbia. And every so often these days, she says she's reminded of the carnage that happened the night of April 15.
Willis tells WIS she spoke with people familiar with the operations at Lee Correctional. She says 80 guards were supposed to be in duty on April 15. But that night, she says there were only 20. According to Willis, some of the guards on duty were compromised.
"Because the guards are so poorly paid, they are subject to and sometimes blackmailed by the prisoners. And the prisoners will say to them, 'I need cigarettes, I need marijuana. I need something, and if you don't bring it in for me, then we know where your wife works. We know where your children go to school.' And these people are threatened. So, a lot of the contraband actually comes in through, unfortunately, the folks who work there."
That's why she and the other Democratic candidates running for South Carolina Governor say, the answers to reducing violence behind bars are somewhat complex. Phil Noble, for instance- says lawmakers have neglected the general prison population for years because of racial bias. He also says guards are severely underpaid.
"One is funding," Noble said. "Somewhere around 40 percent of the people who work in the Department of corrections, the positions are either vacant or they're new… because they don't get paid anything. They don't want the jobs. They are terrible jobs. And we're not paying them any money."
Representative James Smith says even more can be done by focusing on the right priorities and getting to the root of the problem.
"It's really not a question of cell phones," Smith said. "That certainly contributed to what happened at Lee. But the lack of adequate manning goes to the sense of a lack of security at the site for corrections officers and inmates, and it also goes to a real need for additional mental health resources that are not present."
ON IMPROVING EDUCATION IN SOUTH CAROLINA
When John Warren looks at the landscape of education in South Carolina, he sees lots of room for improvement. Warren says there are plenty of ways to help get better results for the money our state spends on educating our kids.
"Instead of all of that bureaucracy… we should just be spending more to pay our teachers more- so we don't have a teacher shortage. We should have smaller class sizes. We should have better class offerings. We should be able to offer more technology," Warren said. "And then another way to solve a lot of the problems is to offer more school choice. No parent should have to send their child to a failing school, and under my administration, I will fight hard to bring more options of school choice."
Warren says one of the biggest problems is the sheer amount of school districts in certain counties. He says in Florence County for example- there are five school districts, each with five superintendents and five CFO's, all high paying jobs. He says it's time to consolidate some of those districts to save money. A view shared by Catherine Templeton. Templeton rejects the notion that schools need more money.
"This is not about money," Templeton said. "It's about the way in which government spends our money. We have plenty of money per child, almost $14 thousand dollars on average per child. That's enough. It's even more in rural counties. But we're not spending it properly. We're spending it on bloated bureaucratic administration instead of getting it to the classroom."
Templeton also believes there should also be greater emphasis on courses that teach students the trades, like shop class, to prepare them for high demand jobs. Governor McMaster, meanwhile, says learning is only possible when teachers and students are safe in the classroom.
"It's very difficult to work in the school if you have to worry about a shooter coming in, and we've seen that happen," McMaster said. "So, back in January, I asked the legislature to provide millions of dollars to help pay for school officers, that is a certified trained law enforcement officer ...a full-time Deputy Sheriff to be in that school, armed to keep intruders like that out."
McMaster also supports the idea of arming certain teachers, which has drawn criticism from opponents.
Low teacher pay is one of the main reasons why South Carolina teachers are leaving the classroom in droves. And it's something State Representative James Smith wants to change.
"Governor McMaster wants to arm our teachers with weapons. I want to arm them with better pay because they deserve it," Smith said. "The fact is this is a critically important job and we want our best supporting and working with our kids in the classroom. And they deserve better pay. Right now, we are the lowest in the nation in terms of starting salary and I remember a time when we were moving to the Southeastern average, and we've got to get back to that."
While Marguerite Willis agrees that teachers need better pay, she also says the governor is limited in his or her ability to affect education policy. She says the state constitution leaves that power to the Legislature. But she offers, what she says is a creative approach: Reaching out to the business community as a partner to improve the schools.
"I would go to some of the corporations some of the bigger ones who have historically helped with schools and say "Okay, time for you to help. You need to step forward and help with some of our schools. We have real needs - some of them need new buildings, some of them simply need mentors, there are things that you can do...will you do it?' Some of our corporations, I'm sure, will do it," Willis said.
South Carolina students could use that kind of help. While some districts have excellent schools and excellent teachers it's not enough. Our state currently ranks dead last in educating our kids, according to a 2017 study from U.S. News and World Report. Noble says improving the quality of education in South Carolina will take a serious investment and a serious overhaul.
"Double teacher pay. Every kid ought to have a laptop or some sort of iPad or learning device," Noble said. "Every kid should have broadband access. We need a basic level of health and safety that reaches everybody. And then we have to let teachers teach. We've got to give them the discretion to teach what they think they understand what their students need. Not a bunch of people in Columbia. And then we got to hold them accountable."
A big challenge in getting all of South Carolina students ahead of the curve.
Stay with WIS News 10 and wistv.com for complete coverage in the race for South Carolina Governor.