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SC Dem gov hopefuls: Taxes, energy key to economy

The three Democrats vying to be South Carolina's next governor take widely different approaches to how they would repair the economy and bring back jobs lost in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The three Democrats vying to be South Carolina's next governor take widely different approaches to how they would repair the economy and bring back jobs lost in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

State Education Superintendent Jim Rex says he wants to create jobs using a region-by-region approach. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen says South Carolina needs a centralized strategy and plans to provide aid to entrepreneurs. State Sen. Robert Ford's strategy is literally a gamble: Much of his candidacy banks on bringing video gambling back to the state and betting movie studios will relocate here.

If there's one area of agreement between the three Democrats and four Republicans seeking nominations in the June 8 gubernatorial primaries, it's this: They all consider the foremost part of the job to be convincing businesses to open their doors in South Carolina.

The candidates outlined their economic plans — some interwoven with restructured tax policy, bolstered education and energy policy, some still speaking in generalities — during a series of interviews with The Associated Press over the past month.

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

South Carolina consistently ranks in the top 10 nationally for unemployment. The state had the nation's 6th-worst ranking in March with a 12.2 percent jobless rate. 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.

Rex, a 68-year-old former college president living in Winnsboro, wants to divide the state into up to six regions and create an Office of Job Creation that would work with him and the new state Workforce Department. The agencies would be charged with collaborating on ways to recruit business based on the skills each area's workers possess and the businesses already there.

Focusing on biofuels in some areas, or on nuclear power plant construction in others, could spread benefits and offer high-paying jobs without seeing the state needlessly offer incentives.

"We ought to be not racing to the bottom in terms of cheap labor — tax giveaways. We've got to be creating living wage jobs that are career jobs," Rex said, recalling the 1986 incentives given to recruit a Mack Trucks plant to Winnsboro that shut down in 2002.

The first-term state schools chief also said the state has to bear more of the burden for training workers in technical colleges to assure businesses the state is committed to their success. Businesses "want a partnership with a state or a region that assures them that they will not only be competitive, but remain competitive nationally and internationally over time," Rex said.

Sheheen, a 39-year-old Camden lawyer, said the state needs to increase its marketing to potential businesses by highlighting the usefulness of state-owned utility Santee Cooper, the port system and South Carolina's technical colleges. He says he would create an entrepreneur-focused division to foster small business growth and wants more cooperation among regional economic development efforts so that different parts of the state stop competing with each other.

"I think it's critical that we don't lapse into further regionalism. That's a big mistake," Sheheen said.

Like candidates in both parties, Sheheen blames a fracturing of efforts on the Sanford administration.

"They were formed to be marketing entities because these regions felt like the governor's office and the current Department of Commerce weren't doing what needed to be done," he said.

A critical job generator for the state is the health care industry, said Sheheen, who is serving his second Senate term after two in the House. He said health care providers have to recruit out-of-state nurses while a bottleneck of applicants awaits room for training in state colleges.

"If you put the infrastructure in place to educate these folks, there are jobs waiting on them making 40-50-60-70 thousand dollars a year," Sheheen said.

Sheheen also envisions more jobs in alternative energy and said some of the state's shuttered textile mills could be turned into biofuel plants.

Ford already claims credit for bringing jobs — including green energy jobs — to his region. He assisted in efforts to create a restoration facility for the Confederate submarine Hunley and years later helped create a home for testing drive trains for wind turbines.

But his main plan for the state hinges on legalizing video gambling, which has been outlawed in South Carolina since 2000, and selling a single license for a Myrtle Beach casino. He contends video gambling would generate $1 billion for state coffers with a 25 percent tax and that South Carolina could sell a single casino license for $1 billion.

Ford, a 62-year-old, five-term Charleston lawmaker, also said he wants a state minimum wage of $11 an hour. The federal hourly minimum wage is $7.25. He plans to use money from video gambling to cover the increase for government workers.