South Carolina governor David Beasley can hardly sit still in his chair as he recalls pressing state bureaucrats to upgrade their computer capability back in 1995. Beasley, a self-confessed Internet hound, wanted to network all state cabinet agencies together to eliminate duplication of effort and streamline government services. "The most shocking thing was the transition," the ebullient Beasley recalls. "One of the technicians said to me, ‘You sure cause a lot of problems.’ And I said, ‘Mister, I’ve come to cause problems.’ "
The episode typifies Beasley’s aggressive, practical attitude toward governing. The 41-year-old Beasley is a rising star on the political scene, having been selected by his peers to serve as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Beasley has a lot to be excited about at the moment. South Carolina’s red-hot economy has driven the unemployment rate to its lowest level in 30 years, and during the first half of 1997 (the latest period for which national figures are available), South Carolina enjoyed the nation’s second largest percentage drop in its welfare caseload. About 1,000 people a week are leaving South Carolina’s welfare rolls.
Beasley comes from a family with a long political history, but his rise to the statehouse is still somewhat surprising: He was a Democrat as recently as 1991. "The probability of someone becoming a Republican in the fall of 1991," he reflects, "and then running for governor as a Republican starting in the fall of 1993—it’s just highly improbable. Thank God I was just naive enough."
The district that had elected him to the state house of representatives was, and remains today, strongly Democratic, and Beasley has a long Democratic pedigree. "My dad was a Democrat, my granddad was a Democrat, my great-granddad was a Democrat," all of whom served in public office, Beasley says. "My situation was clearly one in which the Democratic party was moving so far to the Left, I finally came to the conclusion that there was no way I could stay in the party. I felt that Republican philosophy and Republican policies were more in line with what is good for America over the long term. I thought that, regardless of what happened to me politically, this was the right thing to do."
Beasley’s conservative governance emphasizes two main themes: administrative competence and a presumption that the private sector can best alleviate social problems. The single most significant number he likes to cite is not tax revenues or state spending, but the level of capital investment in the state. In his State of the State message in January, Beasley touted the $16 billion in private-sector capital investment in his state during his first three years, a figure that dwarfs investment during the reign of his predecessor. In a state historically known for low-wage textile and agricultural jobs, Beasley points out, the average salary of the 80,000 new jobs generated during his first term is $30,000.
Beasley acknowledges that his private-sector orientation was acquired rather than innate. "I used to think that in many respects, government could solve every problem, even as a conservative," Beasley explains. His growing Christian faith led him to see the limits of political action. "Once faith became a major part of my life, I realized that government can’t solve every problem. There is a limited purpose for government, as there is a limited purpose for the family, as there is a limited purpose for the church."
The governor’s philosophy of social policy carries distinct echoes of President Reagan’s dictum that "the best welfare program is a job." "My welfare reform strategy," Beasley says, "can be summed up in two words: economic development. The way you improve the quality of life is by creating wealth through the private sector." The best way to create wealth, he says, is to cut taxes. "Cut taxes so that families can take care of their own problems. I believe that a family knows better how to take care of their problems than government." Under Beasley, South Carolina has cut property and business taxes by more than $1 billion over the last three years.
Beasley has also pushed for tax credits for businesses that hire welfare workers. "The business community must understand that they are part of the solution," Beasley says. He helped launch the Putting Families First Foundation, which brings together churches, local chambers of commerce, and other voluntary organizations to assist welfare families in making the transition from public assistance to self-sufficiency. "I began asking churches all over the state to adopt welfare families," Beasley explains. "Churches have all of the talent that a community needs."
Ask Beasley about education and he rolls out a 40-foot-long federal aid application form from the U.S. Department of Education that he has taped together for effect. "If you want to get a federal grant for your school, this is the process for your application," he says. "I would like to see the federal government do for education what it has done for welfare—give it back to the states."
At the state level, the governor has pushed hard for back-to-basics curriculum reforms through a commission called Performance and Accountability Standards for Schools (PASS). The purpose of the PASS Commission was "to define what a pupil at each grade should be expected to know," he says.
The state Board of Education has adopted the commission’s recommendations. Now Beasley is pressing the legislature to adopt accountability provisions, the centerpiece of which is a school choice option that would provide private-school vouchers to students who attend public schools scoring in the bottom 5 percent on achievement tests. He also proposes large funding increases for new textbooks and a scholarship program that would provide $2,000 toward tuition at any state college to high-school seniors with a B average and an SAT score of at least 1000.
Beasley is as energetic about the nuts and bolts of day-to-day administration as he is about ideas. He has made streamlining the regulatory permit process a major priority, telling administrators at the state Department of Health and Environmental Quality that "your success is not measured by fines and fees." Says Ed McMullen, the president of the South Carolina Policy Council, "Beasley has put together a solid conservative staff at the top levels of his administration. He lives by the adage, ‘people are policy.’ "
"If I could give another governor any advice," Beasley says, "the most important advice I could give him is that you must put people at the top of these agencies who not only share your philosophy but know how to practically apply it on a day-to-day operational basis." Beasley makes a point of meeting with career civil service employees to explain his philosophy in person. "You don’t change the bureaucracy overnight. You have to sit down with them and talk about our approach."
From all this, Beasley might seem like a conventional conservative politician, speaking in broad themes while proceeding cautiously with incremental reforms. But he has chosen one bold target that will test his political skill: video poker. Gambling is ostensibly illegal in South Carolina, but video poker squeezed through a loophole. It has exploded in popularity, grossing between $2 billion and $3 billion a year, by some estimates, and generating more than $60 million a year in revenues for the state. Beasley speaks movingly of the growing social costs of the ubiquitous machines. One in five players is estimated to be a problem gambler, and the number of Gamblers Anonymous chapters in the state has grown fourfold in just four years.
The video gaming industry is powerful and well entrenched, and has easily turned back previous attempts to curtail or regulate video poker. So Beasley has upped the stakes, so to speak, by calling for a complete ban, which would represent the first significant rollback of gambling anywhere in the nation in many years. He has demonstrated his resolve by refusing to include video poker revenues in his next state budget estimate.
Though Beasley does not publicly draw the connection, his antipathy toward video poker may stem in part from his strong religious faith. An adult convert, Beasley freely admits to having been "brought kicking and screaming" into Christian faith. "People don’t have to believe in my God," Beasley explains about how his faith affects his politics, "but I can at least empower people to be free not to have to be subject to the government god." Beasley counts among his favorite authors such heavyweights as C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, along with early church fathers such as Eusebius and Augustine.
Beasley is a strong favorite for re-election this fall, and he is rumored to have ambitions beyond the state house. Based on his energy and record so far, he is worth watching.