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McMaster discusses SRS settlement, calls for South Carolina to get back to work

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 13, 2021.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 13, 2021.(WRDW)
Published: Jan. 14, 2021 at 6:42 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Gov. Henry McMaster addressed the state for the fourth time Wednesday, mentioning the Savannah Rover Site settlement money and laying out his priorities for the upcoming year.

The lack of handshakes, extra space between lawmakers, and the masks on legislator’s faces were clear signs from the start that COVID-19 was the topic on most people’s minds leading up to the speech.

“We have experienced loss. We have suffered. But we are strong. We are resilient. And we have the commitment, capacity, and courage to thrive and prosper once again – like never before,” the Governor said just minutes into his address.

But he did not announce any new executive orders, directives, or COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

In mentioning the SRS settlement funds, he said the $525 million received from the federal government has been set aside and should be handled in standalone legislation. He said doing so “will ensure that the residents of Aiken, Barnwell and the surrounding counties are given priority in how the funds are spent.”

The settlement stems from plutonium that was not removed as promised by the U.S. Department of Energy from the complex that employs more than 11,000 people and spans more than 300 square miles in Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties.

There have been concerns over whether the money would stay in these counties.

McMaster took time in his speech to applaud how South Carolina is “getting back to work,” and said strict COVID-19 policies in four major metropolitan U.S. cities have been excessive.

“Political leaders in many states have gone too far. They have infringed on the Constitution and trampled personal freedoms,” the Governor said. “We never closed. Our reasonable steps of limited, measured, and temporary actions allowed us to combat the virus without crippling our economy,” he added.

On education, McMaster continued to push for five-day-a-week in-person learning in schools across the state.

“Working parents should not have to choose between their jobs and their children - they must have the option of having their children in school five days a week if they so choose. This is why they pay taxes,” he said.

The Governor also called for $7 million in CARES Act funds to be used to expand 4K programs in South Carolina.

He also repeated his call for a $3,000 teacher pay raise for all public-school educators.

As his constituents face confusion concerning when and how they will be able to get the COVID vaccine, McMaster said he wants to see the Department of Health and Environmental control restructured and wants the agency to no longer focus on public health and the environment under one roof.

“A jack of all trades is the master of none. The pandemic, against the backdrop of our expanding economy, has highlighted the agency’s need to move and act in a more nimble and responsive fashion,” McMaster said.

He called on the General Assembly to research the best way for the agency to operate efficiently moving forward.

“At a minimum, the department should be made directly accountable to the Governor and the Governor directly accountable to the people for the agency’s performance - as a cabinet agency,” he added.

The Governor’s COVID-19 response was the focus of the Democrat’s rebuttal to his speech. Sen. Mia McLeod (D-Kershaw, Richland) was blunt in her attacks on the Governor’s leadership.

“Governor McMaster and his administration have created unnecessary turmoil and turnover. Now, they’re playing the blame-game, so it’s not surprising,” McLeod said. “With all due respect, Governor, because you’ve failed to lead us, the current state of our state…is bleak.”

However, some in the room thought the Governor hit the right notes Wednesday night.

“We have heard enough about fighting the pandemic, we know that’s where the money is going to go. We know we are going to get the CARES Act money. We are going to continue to fight this pandemic. We got to stimulate the economy. We have to get our teachers back to work full time and I think that’s all coming. So it was good to hear the Governor taking a positive step to try and make sure our economy gets back the right way,” Rep. Chris Wooten (R-Lexington) said.

From reports by WRDW/WAGT and WIS