COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The text of Democratic House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford's response to the 2020 governor's State of the State address as prepared.
Good evening, my name is Todd Rutherford. I represent the people of House District 74 in Richland County and I serve as the House Democratic Leader in the South Carolina General Assembly.
Moments ago, we heard from Governor McMaster. Rhetoric aside, the fact is that Republicans have been in charge of our state for nearly 20 years straight – long enough to be responsible for the very problems they claim to be solving. Year after year, we see these same problems go from bad to worse.
This year, our attention is again on public education. And like they do every few years, Republicans will pass a bill, call it reform, and then call it a day. That cannot be the case this time.
Last spring, we heard from ten thousand teachers rallying on the Statehouse grounds, demanding that Republican leadership finally listen to them.
For years, Republicans in power refused to listen to teachers when they said they can’t afford to live and raise their own children. They refused to listen when they said they can’t effectively teach in crowded and decrepit classrooms conditions which our state has failed to fix for decades.
Only now, after teachers have forced the issue, do Republicans say that education is a priority.
South Carolina consistently ranks behind the rest of the nation in education, yet we don’t do anything about it. Last year, Democrats proposed raising base student funding, paying teachers more, providing counselors in every school, providing for law enforcement officers in every school and Republicans voted down all of these. They don’t get it.
We know the problems that plague education. We cannot plead ignorance. We must fix these funding issues, once and for all.
Now, I applaud the governor for coming out in support of universal 4K education. I’d like to see us expand on this. If a child can be potty-trained, that child can learn.
Universal preschool education is what we need. Let’s send the message that we value education, from the time you’re out of diapers to the time you earn a diploma or a degree.
I want to be clear, universal 4K education is a great idea. I know it’s a great idea, because Democrats in the Statehouse have been begging our Republican colleagues to do it for decades.
Far too often, that’s what happens. At the Statehouse- a Democrat will propose an idea, Republican leadership will ignore it, and then – years later – a Republican says it and we clap.
Now, I don’t care about who gets the credit. I care about getting results.
So, to Governor McMaster and to my colleagues in the House and Senate, I ask you to try a new approach. I ask you to think big.
The biggest thing we do every year in the Statehouse is pass the state budget. This year, we have what Republicans are calling a “surplus.” Now, I don’t understand how we can say we have a surplus when government programs across the state have been operating at a deficit for years.
We cannot afford to waste this money. A tax rebate would be nothing more than a gimmick from the Governor and we don’t need another one of those.
Instead, we should use this money to fulfill our duty to protect the most vulnerable among us. I am sick and tired of children dying from abuse and neglect because of our dysfunctional Department of Social Services.
Currently, DSS is spending just 540 dollars per month per child in custody; as usual, our funding is well below the southeastern average. And children are paying the price. These are our children and they deserve better.
Thankfully, DSS has a new director, but we have the same governor and the same Republican Party in power that allowed this to happen in the first place.
I wish the people of South Carolina knew just how much time and money Republicans waste in Columbia. DSS got sued, for the reasons I just mentioned, and now the state must payout over $120 million dollars. The Department of Corrections continues to get sued, for multiple cases, and continues to make massive payouts as a result. The governor wants to throw more money at the problem, when we need a total overhaul of our broken prison system.
We must pass sentencing reform this year. We cannot keep spending taxpayer money unwisely, incarcerating people who simply do not need to be there. Other southern states -- other Republican states -- have done this and we need to follow their lead.
The governor continues to call for an abortion ban. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said he’s seen this movie before and he doesn’t want to see it again. In case you don’t know, this movie ends with paying a lot of money to a lot of lawyers and total gridlock in the General Assembly. All to pass a bill that even its supporters say is unconstitutional.
Let’s quit wasting money on lawsuits we cannot win in court. Let’s quit wasting time on divisive issues, when we should be working to find common ground.
I believe the budget “surplus” must be invested back into our state and its citizens, through funding our education system, our healthcare system, and providing our public employees with better raises and public services.
But that’s not enough. It is my hope that we leverage the current economic status and pass a bond bill that invests in our future. Interest rates are at historic lows and fiscally responsible advisors -- conservative advisors -- believe now is the time to pass a bond bill to fix our crumbling infrastructure.
But the fact is, state government needs new sources of revenue. We can’t rely on surpluses. We know the old Republican math doesn’t add up.
It’s time to legalize, regulate, and tax gambling. We’ve seen neighboring states benefit from modernizing their gaming laws. Just last year, Mississippi raised over 100 million dollars in revenue, and generated billions in total economic impact, through its state-regulated gaming system. We’re missing out on that, and we’re losing those tourism dollars. That’s right, in Mississippi, they say ‘thank God for South Carolina.’
I believe now it is time for South Carolina to take its turn. We already saw success with the education lottery under Governor Jim Hodges. Republicans at the time claimed the sky would fall, yet here we are, providing the opportunity for more and more students to pursue college degrees each year.
Yet Republican leaders refuse to explore the issue. Republican leaders refuse to let the people of this state vote on it. However, I trust the people of South Carolina, and I’m not afraid of letting the people make their own choices about the important issues we face.
Just as I’m not afraid to let patients and their doctors decide if medical cannabis is right for them. We’ve seen the devastating effects of the opioid crisis across our state and across our country, yet Republican leadership stands in the way of this much safer alternative.
We know that medical marijuana can help a cancer patient going through chemo, we know that it can help a veteran suffering from PTSD, and we know that other states have regulated it in a safe and effective way. A medical marijuana bill can pass this year -- if Republicans in leadership allow the House and Senate to vote on it.
Now, these are just a few ideas. I know I don’t have all the answers. To the Governor, to my colleagues in the House, and to my friends in the Senate: let’s work together to tackle the challenges we face.
We can make South Carolina, not just a great place to be for a business, but a great place to be a workers and state employees. Let’s support growth and good-paying jobs. Let’s support paid family leave, which is the single biggest thing we can do to combat the gender pay gap and directly support our working families.
We can make South Carolina a great place for healthcare. That means supporting our rural hospitals – I don’t ever want to meet another person who tells me it takes them an hour to get to the closest emergency room because their local hospital shut down. If we plan on saving our rural hospitals, we must expand medicaid as 37 other states have already done – red states and blue states alike -- and that will provide coverage to thousands of our neighbors.
We can make South Carolina’s government work for everyone. Let’s make it easier to vote, not harder. Let’s draw fair district lines, so that voters pick their politicians, not the other way around. Let’s cut through the noise and work together where there is bipartisan consensus on issues like criminal justice reform.
We must expand broadband coverage so that more of the half a million South Carolinians who are still without it can access the internet. Tackling these issues is how we improve our quality of life, ensure our economic stability, and plan for future growth.
We must preserve our natural resources for our children and our grandchildren. Let’s fight for clean air and clean water for every community. And let’s continue the fight to protect our coast from offshore drilling.
South Carolina, we can do all of these things. But only if we, the people, demand it. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the state of South Carolina.