In a State of the State speech that sounded more like a farewell address, Governor Nikki Haley said South Carolina’s national reputation has gone from “late night joke” to an economic power that comes together in time of crisis or natural disaster the past six years.
Haley’s speech will be perhaps one of her final public appearances before her expected confirmation as the next United Nations ambassador. The governor has previously said she will remain in office until the Senate vote occurs, which could come as soon as next month.
“It is a bittersweet thing, taking on this new challenge, moving on from this state that I so love, called to serve this nation I hold so dear,” the governor said in her roughly 27-minute address. “When the bitter gets a little too strong for the sweet, I try to think of the children’s author A.A. Milne, whose loveable character Winnie-the-Pooh so put it like this: ‘How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.’ And goodbye this is, for now.”
Listen to the Governor’s 2017 State of the State (Length: 27:35)
Haley’s speech was more reflective than previous years, when she often pointed out her own ideas and proposals that clashed with House or Senate leaders’. She made few suggestions as to policy changes she’d like the legislature to pursue this upcoming session, not mentioning South Carolina’s ailing pension system, infrastructure spending or tax reform. Instead Haley appeared to leave any such comments up to her likely successor Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster.
The governor noted she came into office in 2011, a tough time for South Carolina from a national perspective. Her predecessor Mark Sanford had just left office a year after revealing his infamous trip to Argentina and affair. That same year, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson became a household name by shouting “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to Congress. The state also had one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates in the Great Recession’s aftermath and faced large deficits in its Medicaid and transportation agencies.
“When I first ran for governor, I often heard people speaking negatively about our state, both here at home and around the country,” the governor said. “Those were difficult words to hear. This was the state that adopted my parents and the state that raised me. I knew what we had in us. I knew the potential was there for us to be a force across the region, the nation, the world.”
Haley said her first step towards reversing that perception was ordering state employees to greet the public with “It’s a great day in South Carolina.” The canny phrase was often mocked, but the governor said she wanted to help restore pride in state she claimed has “unlimited potential.”
She also noted attempting the same attitude while trying to attract large businesses to South Carolina, which Haley’s supporters have pointed to as her most significant achievement in defining her legacy. “That meant breaking from the traditional regionalism of the past and embracing the idea that we were one South Carolina,” Haley said Wednesday. “It meant understanding that a win for the Upstate was a win for the Lowcountry, and a win for the Pee Dee was a win for the Midlands. It meant committing, fully, to no longer competing against each other but presenting a united front, a Team South Carolina that actually meant something.”
“The old way of thinking died. And magic happened,” she continued.
Haley noted goals she achieved as governor: the legislature passing on-the-record voting, making the lieutenant governor an appointed position that will run jointly with future gubernatorial candidates, ethics legislation that requires lawmakers note all sources of income, and removing the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds.
But she said the “highest aspiration” accomplished on her watch was the response of South Carolinians to come together after natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew and the October 2015 floods or the Emanuel AME Church massacre. She argued that response played a part in improving the state’s national reputation.
“They did it by showing the entire world what love and acceptance looks like. They did it by displaying for all to see the power of faith, of kindness, and of forgiveness. They did it by stepping up to every challenge, through every tragedy, every time,” Haley said. “And in so doing, the people of South Carolina changed our image in a way no piece of legislation or shift in policy or job announcement could have ever accomplished.”
The governor did touch on education in South Carolina, noting changes to school funding formulas that occurred during her administration and required third-grade reading initiatives coupled with an increased spending on technology in poor, rural schools. “For as long as most of us can remember, our public schools have not been good enough. That is no secret to anyone inside or out of this chamber. We simply haven’t done enough to prepare South Carolina’s children for the future.”