Gov. Henry McMaster spent much of Wednesday night fending off criticism of his record by Democratic challenger State Rep. James Smith in the first of two debates ahead of next month’s election.
During the hour-long debate in Florence, Smith hit McMaster for refusing to expand Medicaid eligibility and vetoes of disaster aid and a gas tax increase to pay for road repairs.
“We need a governor that cares more about our future than the next primary election,” Smith said.
McMaster defended the gas tax veto and vowed to back further tax cuts for military retirees and businesses, saying the state needs to lower the burden on its residents. “There’s no way for the people of this state to enjoy economic progress and prosperity if we do not encourage the growth of business in South Carolina,” he said.
Smith also highlighted perhaps the most prominent policy difference — McMaster’s and other Republicans’ continued refusal to expand Medicaid eligibility in South Carolina, arguing such expansion could help tens of thousands of South Carolinians. “It is the most fiscally-responsible thing to do. It delivers on an entire healthcare economy,” he said. “And, you know what, we are not getting healthier under your pursuit.”
But McMaster responded the additional federal money brought by expansion would eventually require a 10 percent match — money he insists the state cannot afford. “That’s money we’ll have to take from schools, money we’ll have to take from roads, money we’ll have to take from law enforcement,” he said.
Medicaid expansion is an issue where Smith could potentially make an immediate impact. The governor has the power to order the state Department of Health and Human Services to increase the eligibility from 100 percent of the poverty line to 139 percent. That would allow him to accept the federal money. However, the Republican-controlled legislature could still override him if it chose.
Wednesday’s debate was hosted by SCETV at the Francis Marion Performing Arts Center in Florence. The audience was raucous at times, with supporters often loudly applauding their nominee. At one point, Smith’s supporters booed McMaster’s answer to the Medicaid issue, prompting the governor to joke “everybody’s excited.” Debate moderator Charles Bierbauer rebuked the crowd to say, “They can run for office when it’s their turn.”
The venue was just miles from where seven officers were shot by a barricaded former Army sniper. Investigators said they found nearly 130 guns inside the home. Both candidates expressed sympathy for the fallen officers, but neither offered a way to prevent future such attacks. Investigators have indicated the Florence shooter likely bought the guns legally. McMaster questioned whether any law could have prevented the shooter Frederick Hopkins from buying the guns, while Smith said the Constitution allowed individuals to own guns,
“There are a lot things you just can’t solve with yet another law,” McMaster said.