South Carolina's three Democratic candidates for governor differed on the use of economic development incentives and whether to drill for oil off the Palmetto State's coast during a televised interview on ETV Sunday.
State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen debated for an hour Sunday night, with the four Republican candidates scheduled to debate tonight.
The three candidates differed most on what is a top issue for state voters: Economic development.
Sheheen favored the model of tax breaks, job training programs and other state-funded incentives that lured BMW in the 1990s and Boeing last year. Those types of industries, Sheheen said, spin off thousands of other jobs in related manufacturing and research.
"We have to know what worked in the past," Sheheen said, responding to host Mark Quinn's question that the Boeing jobs would cost about $100,000 in state and local incentives per position. "If you're looking at the jobs that just BMW is providing then you're missing part of the picture."
Sheheen said any incentives should be tied to job creation with the option to recoup tax dollars if the goals are not met.
Rex was more critical of that traditional model, saying state leaders have engaged in a "race to the bottom" by cutting taxes for certain employers.
Many of those businesses would "lay our people off and rush to the next state with a better deal," Rex said. The better investment, he said, was a well-educated work force.
As with most of his proposals for office, Ford's economic development plan revolves around legalizing video poker and selling a Myrtle Beach casino license to raise $2 billion in new revenue next year. Both actions would require legislative changes.
With millions of gallons of oil threatening to wash up on the Gulf Coast, Ford was the only candidate advocating exploring for oil off the Palmetto State coast.
"We've got to find out if we've got oil there," Ford said. "We cannot let accidents stop us from being a proud, free country. Right now we have to depend on somebody else to do our transportation."
But Sheheen and Rex both opposed oil exploration, in part because the state's thriving coastal tourism industry.
"I regret what I've seen happen in the Gulf Coast," Sheheen said, "and I want to make sure that never happens."
Rex said he would allow exploration of natural gas, but oil was "too dangerous."
With the state facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall in July 2011, all three Democratic candidates said S.C. needs to find new ways to increase its revenue.
For Ford that means video poker, the revenue of which he would use to boost K-12 and higher education budgets as well as raising the minimum state worker salary to $11 an hour. Rex and Sheheen would both raise the cigarette tax to the national average, generating about $250 million. Both expected that comprehensive tax reform would eliminate some of the $2.7 billion in sales tax exemptions currently granted by the state. All three candidates said they would at least overhaul, and possibly repeal, Act 388 - the 2005 statewide property tax reform law that raised the state sales tax in exchange for removing school operating taxes from owner occupied properties.
"Act 388 was an unmitigated disaster," Rex said and an example of how lawmakers often make the tax system worse when they tinker with it.
The Democratic primary is June 8.