Editorial Roundup: South Carolina

(Columbia) The State. Sept. 13, 2021.

Editorial: Murdaugh murders spur rumors, conspiracy theories in SC and beyond

Rumors and conspiracy theories are like fire: give them oxygen and they spread fast.

Until there is an arrest in the case, the murders of Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and her son Paul Murdaugh, 22, will no doubt continue to be a topic of conversation around the state.

The killing of the mother and son, members of a wealthy, well-connected South Carolina family, were always going to be a source of fascination.

Paul Murdaugh was waiting to go to trial in the boating death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach and investigators have said the murders led to the reopening of an investigation into the 2015 death of Stephen Smith. Since the murders, Alex Murdaugh, Maggie’s husband and Paul’s father, has also reportedly been shot and he has since been asked to leave his law firm for misappropriating large sums of money, suspended from practicing law by the state Supreme Court and on Sept. 6 issued a curious statement.

“The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life,” Alex Murdaugh’s statement said. “I have made a lot of decisions that I truly regret. I’m resigning from my law firm and entering rehab after a long battle that has been exacerbated by these murders. I am immensely sorry to everyone I’ve hurt including my family, friends and colleagues. I ask for prayers as I rehabilitate myself and my relationships.”

Americans love a good scandal, and if the scandal involves the rich and powerful, well ...

Since June 7, the night the two were found dead at the family’s hunting lodge on Moselle Road in Islandton, Colleton County, details have emerged about the family thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests from news organizations including ours. Court depositions, redacted law enforcement documents, audio recordings, and dash cameras have been among the sources of new information related to the family’s life before and after the murders.

Each new morsel has fueled speculation and the case has so many twists and turns that news outlets including People magazine and the New York Times have written about it. It has been the subject of podcasts, news stories and office gossip.

Meanwhile, the one organization that could tamp down the speculation has chosen to stay mostly silent.

The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) website notes that it “is committed to providing valuable and beneficial information to the public in a timely manner.”

But more than three months after mother and son were brutally slain and 17 days before the current deadline to claim the $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction expires on Sept. 30, it appears SLED’s definition of timely might differ from others.

Now, we understand that ongoing criminal investigations require discretion and as SLED noted in a June 15 press release the organization “cannot and will not do anything that could jeopardize the integrity of this investigation or that would violate the due process afforded to all in our constitutional system of justice.”

Fair enough.

But SLED does have a responsibility to operate in a manner which gives the public confidence in its investigations.

South Carolinians want to have faith in their institutions, including their law enforcement agencies, but that faith has to be earned.

SLED, for instance, has not held a single press conference about the case since the Murdaughs’ bodies were found.

The day after the murders were discovered SLED spokesperson Tommy Crosby told our reporters via telephone that he was not aware of anyone arrested or detained related to the crime but, based on the evidence, SLED does not believe there is a danger to the public.

That appears to be one of the very few times SLED attempted to quell the rumors.

We don’t expect SLED investigators to reveal all, but we do expect the agency to live up to its own commitment of offering valuable and beneficial information to the public “in a timely manner.”

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The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat. Sept. 13, 2021.

Editorial: I-26 widening good use of COVID funds

The S.C. Department of Transportation announced in 2018 that the widening of Interstate 26 in Orangeburg and Calhoun counties was being designated as a priority project. We suggested the good news should be shouted from the rooftops as the busy four-lane interstate between the multiple lanes outside Columbia and Charleston is a dangerous bottleneck that negatively impacts the state’s economy.

The bad news from three years ago was the acknowledgement that the project would take a long time and cost a lot of money. But “rescue” money may be coming to the rescue.

Gov. Henry McMaster has announced a proposal to use American Rescue Plan Act funding to widen I-26 to six lanes between Columbia and Charleston. The $360 million cost would come from the $453 million in federal funds the state expects to receive to replace revenue lost due to the pandemic.

The money would help expedite the widening project on the state’s longest interstate highway by at least six years.

SCDOT previously determined the widening is a high priority project because of the state’s growth and increased traffic on I-26. In just the last decade, statewide traffic has increased by nearly 30%, with I-26 between Columbia and Charleston carrying more than 22 million vehicles per year.

The average daily traffic count on I-26 in Calhoun County was 50,940 vehicles a day in 2020, according to the SCDOT. The average daily traffic count on I-26 in Orangeburg County is 44,429 vehicles a day.

Expanding to six lanes in the corridor between Charleston and Columbia is a top priority for development as the route is crucial for the S.C. Ports Authority. The widening stands to directly benefit Orangeburg and Calhoun development, whether it is with landing suppliers for industries in the Charleston and Columbia areas, or securing “game-changing” industries of our own.

Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall in 2018 estimated the project would cost $1.8 billion.

Specifically, SCDOT plans call for widening I-26 from Old Sandy Run Road in Calhoun County (Exit 125) to Ridgeville Road (Exit 187) in Berkeley County. The work would be done in multiple phases, most likely beginning at Old Sandy Run Road and proceeding toward Charleston

Just how soon the I-26 widening can become reality is unclear but the use of COVID economic relief funds for that purpose meets federal guidelines and should be given serious consideration by state lawmakers. There will be legislators putting forth other priorities but there should be little problem in finding agreement that the I-26 project would be an economic boost that is needed as soon as it can happen.

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The (Charleston) Post and Courier. Sept. 12, 2021

Editorial: If 2022 school report cards are as bad as this year’s, blame SC Legislature

We knew locking kids out of the classroom in the spring of 2020 and, in some districts, much of this past school year stunted their academic growth, so no one should be surprised by the across-the-board drops in test scores on the South Carolina school report cards released this month.

And we shouldn’t be surprised if the scores continue to plummet next year — or at least fail to recover — since more than 50,000 students already have been forced into quarantine and back into online learning, if that’s even being offered.

Nor should we have any doubt about who’s to blame for this reversion to subpar education: the S.C. Legislature, which refused to require — or even allow schools to require — students to wear masks inside our public schools.

We’ve said before that the Legislature needs to repeal its prohibition on school mask mandates because the anti-public health measure is sending too many children home in quarantine. But Gov. Henry McMaster, some legislators and a vocal minority of parents keep insisting that parents have the right to decide whether their children wear masks, so we have to keep explaining what that really means, and why it’s ridiculous.

What they’re saying is that parents have a right to expose other parents’ children to the coronavirus by allowing their own children to propel their unobstructed respiratory droplets onto those children.

They’re saying that parents who so choose have a right to force other parents’ children out of the classroom and into quarantine, for up to two weeks at a time, possibly for multiple times in a school year.

They’re saying that parents who so choose have a right to steal a decent education from other parents’ children.

They’re saying that parents who so choose have a right to force other parents to stay home from work to take care of their quarantined children — perhaps losing pay or even getting fired from their jobs as a result.

They’re saying that parents who so choose have a right to cripple our economy. Again.

It’s not the schools that are deciding to send children into quarantine when they come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19. School districts decide if the number of quarantined students and teachers is so high that they need to temporarily close an entire school or their entire district, but it’s the Department of Health and Environmental Control that wrote the rules for quarantines under its legal mandate — on the books for decades — to protect the public from easily transmissible diseases.

The Legislature could strip our public health agency of that authority if it wanted to — and if it had the votes to do so. We doubt it does, but we’ll go ahead and say right now that any legislator who cares about protecting our hospitals from collapse or about controlling the growing number of South Carolinians dying from COVID-19 or about providing a decent education to S.C. children or about keeping businesses open and keeping parents at work and keeping our economy humming along should — indeed, will — use any legal means available to defeat all efforts to strip DHEC of its authority to protect the public health.

A year ago, Gov. McMaster and many of the very same legislators who are now most determined to send other people’s children into quarantine were demanding — along with our editorial staff — that the schools open and allow all children the option of five-day-a-week in-person classes. We don’t know what their motivation actually was; we do know that they pulled a bait-and-switch after the Legislature finally required that, and immediately started demanding that parents be allowed to expose other people’s children to COVID-19.

But for those of us who care about educating the next generation, the motivation was this reality: The vast majority of children do not learn as well when they are taught remotely. Even under the best of circumstances, which the students who started out behind don’t have.

It was the fact that keeping kids out of the classroom also exposes them to a higher risk of child abuse and psychological stress and stunts their socialization skills and their emotional well-being. Last year, schools were where we could best protect many children from COVID-19, because they were the one place where everybody was sanitizing their hands and keeping their distance — and wearing masks.

Set aside the danger of COVID-19; even though it has hospitalized and even killed some S.C. children, the vast majority of kids will develop no more than cold or flu-like symptoms, if that. Instead, let’s just focus on education. From 2019 to 2021, standardized test scores for students in third grade and higher dropped in nearly all areas with the exception of English 1 end-of-course exams. And our test scores were way behind the rest of the nation before the pandemic.

Mask mandates do two things to help keep children in school. First, they reduce the number of “close contacts” who have to be quarantined for up to two weeks: With mask mandates, DHEC defines close contacts as people who were within 3 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes when everyone is masked, but within 6 feet without an enforced mask mandate; that can mean four times as many people have to be quarantined without a mask requirement. Second, when mask requirements are enforced, infections plummet. And that creates algorithmic magic that keeps even more children in the classroom, where they can get the education our state needs them to have and their parents can go to work to keep our economy from collapsing.

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