COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley asked legislators in her third State of the State address Wednesday to overhaul how public schools are funded, improve crumbling roads, and make prisons a safer place for those who guard the most violent offenders.
The Republican governor also revived past calls to restructure government and further cut taxes.
She announced the creation of a task force of business leaders to review regulations and make recommendations for elimination.
And she pledged to "start a conversation" on educating funding reform, noting she's thankful her children attend Lexington County public schools with first-class facilities and teachers, but knows from her own childhood in tiny Bamberg that rural areas often lack the resources. She gave little direction on what to do other than better fund poor school districts without shifting local property tax money from elsewhere.
"The parents of those students pay the taxes that fund their education, and I will play no part in diminishing the return they receive," she said in her 50-minute speech. "We need to spend our dollars smarter."
She pledged to work with Republican and Democratic leaders on the issue. While it would hardly be a start to the conversation, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler said he welcomes the governor's involvement.
Legislators have said for years, without making headway, that education funding reform is a priority. That talk has persisted even as they await a decision from the state Supreme Court on a lawsuit challenging the decades-old piecemeal system.
"It's been a long time in coming," said Setzler, D-West Columbia, among the leaders Haley specifically invited to the table. He added, "I think that conversation on funding has to start with a change in tone of being negative on public schools to being supportive."
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, criticized Haley's speech as lacking in details.
"South Carolinians expect more than the beginning of a conversation," he said.
Haley made two refusals on Medicaid and gas taxes.
She said she will never implement an expansion of Medicaid as called for in the federal health care law, saying the state can't afford the long-term costs of expanding an already inefficient system. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding the law made the expansion a choice for states, rather than a mandate.
"With such high costs and such poor outcomes, why would we throw more money at the system without first demanding improved efficiency, quality, and accessibility?" Haley said.
She pledged to work to improve residents' health, especially in rural areas, without expanding Medicaid. For example, she said, next year the state's Medicaid agency will begin fully reimbursing rural hospitals for uncompensated care.