By David Dykes
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Democratic nominee for governor, said Wednesday unemployment is the biggest issue facing South Carolinians and the state must develop a more aggressive economic development policy whose success will be measured by job growth.
Sheheen told reporters and editors of The Greenville News on Wednesday that solving the jobless problem is a matter of state leadership and trust in government and he sharply criticized the abilities of his Republican opponent, state Rep. Nikki Haley.
Sheheen says Haley doesn't understand the issues and isn't trustworthy. The Republican, meanwhile, portrays him as too liberal for South Carolina and lacking a vision for the state's future.
Rob Godfrey, spokesman for Haley's campaign, said Wednesday she is confident voters will see through Sheheen's "smokescreen" and "understand this election for what it is: a choice between a liberal insider who supports the Obama agenda, big government, and the Columbia status-quo or a conservative reformer who will protect the taxpayers, make our government more accountable, and change South Carolina forever."
Sheheen, who has been endorsed by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said the state has had success in attracting industries such as Boeing's aircraft assembly operation in North Charleston and BMW to the Upstate. He said opportunities for economic growth are available in other sectors as well, such as health care and alternative energy.
He said, "Jobs are everything right now."
"If people aren't working, then they're drawing down more state services, which hurts what you have in the budget, and they're not paying taxes, which hurts what you have in the budget," Sheheen said.
The state's unemployment rate of 11 percent in August, the latest available figure, is higher than the national average.
Sheheen called for a return to the approach of past governors, such as Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, a Democrat, and the late Carroll Campbell, a Republican. Both used their influence to galvanize lawmakers around economic development projects and personally lobbied the companies involved.
Business leaders and economic developers tell him that "our reputation nationally is not good at all," Sheheen said.
He said he was "much more competent" than Haley based on the legislative records and bi-partisan work of each candidate.
Sheheen said he has passed substantive legislation working with Democrats and Republicans and that Haley has sponsored just one bill that was approved, and "it dealt with hair washing."
In response, Godfrey said, "We clearly have a different metric for competence."
"Vince Sheheen may pass lots of bills, but those bills would spend more money, grow government, support Obamacare and the failed stimulus, and raise taxes," Godfrey said, referring to the president's health-care plan. "Those aren't bills you'll see Nikki Haley supporting."
In the interview, Sheheen said, "I'm saying that I'm much more trustworthy because I have not gotten up in a debate and said that I reported all my income when I didn't."
"I paid my taxes on time like you should expect any citizen in this state to do," he said.
Haley told The News last week that she and her family have paid the taxes they owed, plus interest and penalties and she strenuously denied any wrongdoing. She said criticism of her campaign, including questions about her late payment of taxes and the transparency of her work for an engineering firm and a Lexington hospital, was unwarranted.
On Wednesday, Godfrey said Sheheen, an attorney, has "made hundreds of thousands of dollars suing the taxpayers while he also represents them, who still refuses to disclose his clients, and who spends all his time and money telling lies about Nikki Haley to talk about trust."
Sheheen told The News that he has disclosed his work and the majority of his law firm's relevant fees come from eminent domain cases.
Sheheen also said that because of background checks, Haley wouldn't get hired if she applied for a job at the state Department of Revenue. In addition, Haley wouldn't get past the screening for a state board or commission, he said.
"They look at things like whether you have paid your debts and whether or not you have paid your taxes," Sheheen said.
Haley, he said, "would not be approved by the South Carolina Senate."
Godfrey said, "We're not asking for the approval of the Senate of South Carolina, but of the people of South Carolina."
Ray N. Stevens, appointed in 2006 by Gov. Mark Sanford to the cabinet-level position of state revenue director, couldn't be reached for comment.
Adrienne Fairwell, a revenue department spokeswoman, told The News when asked Wednesday that it was departmental policy "to hire applicants without any outstanding tax liability."
"Additionally, applicants with part-pay agreements with the IRS and DOR will not be eligible for hire until the tax liability can be satisfied," she said.
"We cannot answer any questions that would directly or indirectly provide any information on a person's tax return," Fairwell said.
Sheheen said Wednesday a significant hurdle that remains is Act 388, legislation Sheheen opposed and that he said shifted more of a property tax burden to businesses.
He told The News that he is committed to trying to work out reforms that would restore a balance to the state's system of taxation.
In a debate between the candidates this week in Spartanburg, Haley said Act 388 lifted the bulk of residential property taxes and she questioned Sheheen for not supporting it, while she said lawmakers had promised to complete tax reform the following year.
Haley, asked to veer from her usual agreement with Sanford, also said she would have put more of an emphasis on commerce, economic development and the ports.
Sheheen said port operations are critical to South Carolina's economy. The next governor, he said, must work with the state's congressional delegation to get a federal earmark that many believe is the only way to pay for a study on the deepening of the Charleston harbor so it can handle the largest of container ships.
Haley has said she supports accepting earmark funding for the study if no other alternative can be found.
Sheheen said he anticipates significant budget cuts in all levels of state government to deal with a looming budget crisis, but he said economic development would remain a priority of his. He also would work to protect education and law enforcement spending, Sheheen said.
In this election to replace Sanford, who cannot seek re-election, the governor's political party "has to take second chair" to the quality of the candidate, Sheheen said."We're at a time in our history when we really need a leader again," Sheheen said. "And that's what I want to be."