COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Republican governor of South Carolina took a shot at unions in his State of the State address Wednesday, warning that recent economic growth will be undone if labor organizers make inroads in cornerstone industries across the region.

The conservative state has the nation's lowest rate of union membership, despite the U.S. Labor Department recording a 40% uptick in South Carolina union counts last year. Gov. Henry McMaster's heightened attacks come two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court punted its decision to hear a yearslong dispute between the State Ports Authority and the International Longshoremen's Association, or ILA.

The “pro-union policies” of President Joe Biden — whose singular support of laborbrought him to autoworkers' picket lines last year — won't “chip away” at his state's “sovereign interests,” McMaster added.

"We will fight. All the way to the gates of hell. And we will win this battle," McMaster vowed in his annual speech to much applause.

The state has been locked in a fight with the dockworkers' union over who will operate cranes at a $1 billion container terminal in Charleston since its opening nearly three years ago. McMaster emphasized the state’s belief that the ILA employed strong-arm tactics it's not allowed to use when it sued and boycotted shipping containers. A U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled in the union's favor, but McMaster expressed confidence that the nation's highest court would take the case.

Democrats responded that one-party rule has made government unaccountable. The state legislature’s Republican majorities are so strong that elected officials now see “infighting” and “emphasis on highly inflammatory issues debated for purely political reasons," according to Democratic Rep. Roger Kirby, the assistant minority leader.

Kirby delivered the official response, which focused on inequality. He said lawmakers should be addressing the state’s poor rankings in healthcare, education and crime through Democratic priorities including affordable childcare and expanded Medicaid coverage. The governor’s recent decision to forego summer food benefits through a newly permanent federal program also came under fire.

“I implore all South Carolinians to stand against the politics of division and to demand that we return to a system which encourages debate, seeks compromise and emphasizes policies to address our critical needs, not to acquiesce to the outside interests far removed from South Carolina,” said Kirby, who represents a rural area like those lost by his party in recent state elections.

The evening's pomp and circumstance featured an otherwise rosy forecast of the state's shape. McMaster extolled the second consecutive record budget surplus — $1.64 billion, boosted partly by pandemic-era federal aid. He celebrated the state's nation-leading population growth last year.

The governor also trumpeted more than $9 billion in capital investments.

In attendance was Scout Motors President Scott Keogh, who leads a Volkswagen-backed brand that is establishing a $2 billion plant for its electric trucks near the state capital. The announcement last year underscored McMaster's commitment to the electric vehicle and battery manufacturing industry, with major names such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo also setting up shop in the state.

But it was revamped labor organizing in the hospitality and tourism industries, not auto, that McMaster cited as “infiltration” threatening the union-restricting “right-to-work” state.

The governor largely used the bully pulpit to pressure the Republican-led state legislature into moving on his personal priorities. As he has frequently sought over the past year, McMaster pushed the General Assembly to send him a bill that imposes harsher criminal penalties for illegal gun possession. He also advocated for changing the state's fairly unique system of judicial selection by including the executive branch in the legislature-run process.

McMaster highlighted his recently released budget proposal. That includes $500 million to repair aging bridges and $250 million to boost starting teacher salaries. He also sought over half a million dollars to hire three state agents dedicated to animal fighting — a particular concern of his dating back to his time as the state's attorney general.

The coastal state's environmental heritage is another long-running concern for McMaster. As in previous years, the governor insisted that economic growth and preservation are not competing goals.

To that end, he proposed putting $33 million toward identifying significant properties, disaster recovery, flood mitigation and beach renourishment. Monuments, islands and waters need protection from development, mismanagement and storm damage, he said.

And, as he's been known to do, McMaster made that point with a song.

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," McMaster said, quoting what he called the “cautionary lyrics” from Joni Mitchell's “Big Yellow Taxi.”

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Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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