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Jobs take center stage in Rock Hill education debate

South Carolina's public colleges and universities will have to cope with limited resources while the state recovers from the recession. That was the takeaway Tuesday night from a gubernatorial debate in Rock Hill that featured six of the seven candidates from both parties.

The candidates painted a gloomy budget picture, with more hard choices in store for cash-strapped colleges. "Do more with less" was a recurring theme during the 90-minute session at Winthrop University's McBryde Hall.

The line of the night belonged to state Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat who recounted his three decades of public service and his role in brokering a compromise on the Confederate flag issue.

"I was able to accomplish more for this state than any human being in the last 100 years," Ford told the audience of about 250 people.

Republican state Rep. Nikki Haley touted her plan to eliminate boards of trustees at public colleges and universities, calling it a way to trim bureaucracy and make schools more accountable.

"We are saving money so that more dollars go into the classroom," Haley said of her plan. "We are holding all of them accountable under the same measures. When you do that, we won't have these inequities."

A tightly structured format left little room for exchanges between candidates. But Democrat Jim Rex, state superintendent of education, managed to get in a swipe at Republicans for misstating S.C.'s on-time graduation rate and the number of employees in the Department of Education.

"You would think legislators would at least keep up with the facts as they promote their ideas," Rex said.

Rex and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden agreed South Carolina needs to raise its lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to generate more money for health care and education.

"It should go first into health care" to take advantage of federal matches, and then put toward education, said Sheheen, a Democrat.

Rex said college budgets are now operating at 1984 levels because of repeated cuts in state funding.

Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said he would only support a cigarette tax increase if the money was used to lower income taxes. Bauer, a Republican, criticized earlier this year for comparing the state's poor people to "stray animals," said he would not shy away from sensitive topics.

"We have government programs that generation after generation, hold people down, under the disguise of helping them," Bauer said. "And nobody wants to talk about it."

Attorney General Henry McMaster departed from the night's assigned topic to mention his hopes for blocking national health care reform - he called it Obamacare - from taking effect in South Carolina.

"We're going to fight these things coming out of Washington," the Republican McMaster said to applause from parts of the room.

Ford wants to allow gambling facilities in South Carolina to create a new revenue stream for depleted school budgets. "Right now, my friends in the General Assembly are still fighting old ideas that aren't going to work in 2010," he said.

Republican U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett backed out of the debate early Tuesday, saying he had to be in Washington to vote on a jobs bill.

Those in attendance offered mixed reactions afterward.

Candidates needed to skip the sound bites and lay out visions for leading the state out of dysfunction, said longtime Rock Hill educator Sam Foster, a member of Winthrop's board of trustees.

Melvin Poole, president of the Rock Hill NAACP, said Haley left a strong impression though she came in with a lower profile than other Republican candidates.

Noel Rizzuti, 19, a sophomore at Winthrop, said she also came away impressed by Haley. "She just seemed so very real," said Rizzuti, a mass communication major from Lexington.

The field of contenders will narrow June 8 when voters go to the polls for primaries. The general election is Nov. 2.

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