U.S. News

SC GOP gov hopefuls: Job hunting overhaul needed

JIM DAVENPORT|Associated Press Writer

The four Republicans who want to replace South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford agree on two things: The economic development agency their predecessor ran is in need of an overhaul, and the state needs more tax breaks for business.

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, state Rep. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Henry McMaster all find shortcomings in Sanford's two terms that they say they'll fix with vigilant job and industry recruiting for the state.

Despite the state Commerce Department's respectable record in generating jobs, Sanford has weathered criticism for disparaging the state's incentive program, the perception he is not involved in recruiting and for record-breaking unemployment.

"As governor, what I would do is announce vigorously that we're open for business — that this is going to be the most business friendly place in the country," McMaster said during one of a series of candidate interviews conducted by The Associated Press over the past month.

The Republicans running in the June 8 primary diverge from the term-limited Sanford in their support of incentives aimed at luring industry to the state. They also all back cutting the corporate income tax to keep business robust.

Their tax cut ideas are straight out of the GOP playbook in some cases and innovative in others — such as producing biodiesel and selling it at a discount to container ships calling on the state's ports.

Few issues are more important than patching the state's economy and spurring growth in jobs with decent pay.

South Carolina had the nation's 6th-worst unemployment ranking in March at 12.2 percent. Household median incomes are more than $7,300 below the national average, and nearly 16 percent of the state's 4.5 million residents live in poverty.

Barrett says restructuring the Commerce Department and incentives to win industry are needed, including hiring an expert in business recruitment on a performance-based contract. "A man or woman that understands if they do good, they keep their job; if not, we're going to put somebody in there that does," said Barrett, a 49-year-old, three-term lawmaker.

Bauer, a 41-year-old real estate investor from Greer in his second term, said he'd be at the center of recruiting businesses. "Number one, you would see me less than any other governor," he said, noting nearly two dozen trips abroad tied to trade and other efforts. "Nobody has to train me, while the rest of them have no idea about it."

Haley, a 38-year-old accountant and three-term legislator from Lexington, says the commerce secretary she'll appoint will make sure companies brought to the state create jobs and benefit existing businesses. "It has to do both. It has to be twofold," she said.

Sanford's commerce secretaries have both been real estate business owners, but McMaster vowed to take a different approach.

"He needs to be a technician who knows how to throw elbows against the whole rest of the country as well as the rest of the world. But he also needs to be a respected figure, either by having done that successfully or for some other reason," said McMaster, a 62-year-old Columbia lawyer in his second term.

McMaster said he sees job creation flowing from expanded research university operations, business incubators, biofuels and biotechnology. But he said the state also needs to do more with traditional skills, including training welders for the nuclear power plants that utilities plan to build and nurses to deal with a persistent shortage that has health care providers recruiting those professionals from other states.

McMaster also notes that property taxes on manufacturing equipment are among the highest in the nation.

Bauer takes the biofuels bent further. He says the state should encourage biodiesel manufacturing with crops South Carolina farmers would grow. The fuel could be marketed to container ship operators calling on the state's ports and sold for less than diesel. "We say, 'Come burn this clean fuel, come buy it in South Carolina. We'll cut you a break on what your fuel costs are.'"

Bauer also said he wants to eliminate corporate taxes for alternative energy companies that move to the state. "To me, it's an image changer for South Carolina," Bauer said.

Tax breaks are a common thread for the Republicans to varying degrees.

Barrett, for instance, said he wants them to be fairer, flatter and encouraging business growth. But he wouldn't commit to a specific tax break, saying the state's problems now are piecemeal tax law changes.

Haley said she wants a complete tax structure overhaul. "We need to make sure that the first thing we do is eliminate the small business income tax. Because when you give businesses cash flow, when you give them a profit margin, the first thing they do is hire people," Haley said.