S.C. senior citizens want to know how the candidates for governor will ensure they have a secure retirement, protect them when they are vulnerable and shield them from soaring power rates in the face of the ongoing nuclear debacle.
Six of the eight declared candidates for S.C. governor fielded questions about those issues Wednesday during a forum with S.C. AARP members.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and his Republican primary rivals — Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill and Catherine Templeton — participated, as did Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Phil Noble of Charleston and state Rep. James Smith of Richland.
Ensuring seniors have a secure retirement
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Asked what they would do as governor to ensure South Carolinians have a secure retirement, three candidates — Noble, Smith and Templeton — expressed support for a state bill, backed by AARP, that would create a “work and save” retirement option for employees of small businesses that do not offer retirement packages.
McMaster touted his proposed state income tax cuts as the solution. The Columbia Republican wants to cut income taxes by 1 percent on all South Carolinians, worth $2.2 billion over five years. He also wants to exempt from state income taxes the retirement income of first responders and veterans.
Bryant of Anderson also said tax relief is the answer.
“The best thing we can do is reduce the tax burden on South Carolina … leave more money in your pocket and you can decide how to spend it.”
Raising the homestead exemption
Some candidates brought up raising the homestead exemption, which now exempts the first $50,000 of a home’s fair-market value from all property taxes for seniors and disabled residents.
For example, former Lt. Gov. McGill of Williamsburg, a former Democrat who switched parties to run for governor, said he would raise that exemption to cover the first $80,000 of a home’s value.
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Templeton of Mount Pleasant said she would raise the homestead exemption to $100,000 of a home’s value.
Protecting vulnerable adults
Several candidates said the state needs to do more to protect vulnerable adults, including increasing the money available for them.
In his executive budget, Gov. McMaster said he has asked for full funding — $2.7 million — for the state program charged with protecting vulnerable adults.
Columbia Democrat Smith also said he supports fully funding adult-protective services.
Charleston’s Noble slammed the state for not protecting vulnerable adults, whose number is increasing. “That’s pretty typical of our state government and the way it operates these days.”
Having visited a nonprofit Wednesday that offers transitional housing for homeless veterans, Templeton said that kind of haven is scarce in South Carolina for other vulnerable populations.
She said she would support the state doing more to ensure vulnerable adults have a safe place to stay when their welfare is threatened and an investigation is ongoing.
Bryant did not promise to increase spending or push any specific program to improve protections for vulnerable adults. However, he did offer one promise.
Social Services, the agency charged with protecting vulnerable S.C. adults, “is a Cabinet agency, and with Cabinet agencies, you can change the culture of the agency overnight,” he said.
“As your governor, we will change the culture of the agency to protect our adults and protect our children who are vulnerable also.”
On protecting seniors from higher power bills
Smith said he has faith in ongoing state and federal investigations into what went wrong with the decadelong, $9 billion effort by SCANA subsidiary SCE&G and the state-owned Santee Cooper utility to build two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.
“Those who are guilty or have done something wrong, I believe will be held accountable,” he said.
If elected governor, Smith said he would push to move the state’s energy office into his Cabinet so that he could work hand-in-hand with energy officials to focus on South Carolina’s energy future and “so that everyone knows what they’re paying for in their power bill.”
Smith also said he would install a consumer advocate, responsible for fighting for S.C. consumers, in the state’s attorney general’s office.
Democrat Noble has criticized lawmakers for taking money from utilities and, then, serving on panels tasked with investigating the nuclear fiasco. He has called on them to give the money back.
Republican Templeton joined that cry Wednesday.
“You cannot fix it or be a fair arbitrator or work for us if you’re getting money from them (utilities),” she said.
Echoing Noble, Bryant said, “Some folks need to go to jail. You can’t blow $9 billion on a failed project without some criminal activity somewhere.”
McMaster said again that he supports selling state-owned Santee Cooper, the junior partner in the nuclear fiasco, “at a very good price.” He also repeated S.C. electricity customers need to “get those reactors or get their money back and not pay any more.”
‘Telemedicine … ought to be everywhere’
The candidates also addressed the ongoing State House corruption probe and medical care at the forum.
Republican Bryant came out swinging on corruption, saying “integrity” is a theme of his campaign.
“When a lawmaker can sell a vote for millions of dollars and pay a $1,000 fine, that is an invitation for corruption,” he said.
McMaster and Smith said they want to increase the role that nurse practitioners can play, allowing them to deliver critical medical care to seniors and others living in rural parts of the state.
McMaster also said he wants to ensure everyone has access to telemedicine, a way of diagnosing ailments over the phone using video conferencing that is seen as one solution to expanding access to health care.
The governor said he recently received a diagnosis from a doctor over the phone.
“The other day I had a red thing on my eye, and I called the eye doctor and said, ‘What is this thing?’” McMaster said, adding the doctor told him to hold the phone up to his eye.
The doctor immediately recognized the problem and told him what to do.
“That is telemedicine, and it ought to be everywhere,” he said.
Jamie Self: 803-771-8658, @jamiemself