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S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley picked a fight with Georgia … now she’s got one.

Not only is the Peach State backstabbing South Carolina (and violating federal law) with respect to its port expansion plans in Savannah, but now Georgia leaders are openly talking trash about their plans to bury the Port of Charleston.

Once Savannah’s expansion is complete, “we are going to eat Charleston’s lunch,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told a group of Savannah business leaders on Thursday, according to the Savannah Morning News.

“Going to?” They already are eating our lunch.

Once the fourth-busiest port in America, Charleston has seen its competitive position plummet over the last eight years. In fact, the port has slipped all the way to No. 12 in the nation according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

Why? Well, our state continues to operate its port system under a 1950?s-style “total state control” model that forbids private investment in public infrastructure. Meanwhile our competitors – like Alabama and Virginia – have dramatically expanded their port infrastructure (and created thousands of new jobs) by leveraging private investment.

Additionally, entrenched special interests in Charleston continue to prevent the S.C. State Ports Authority(SPA) from moving forward with a new deepwater port in Jasper County – something the agency promised it would do six years ago.

Sadly, for all his talk of supporting free market reforms and economic competitiveness, former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford was totally worthless on this issue – appointing political cronies to the SPA who have maintained the failed status quo. That’s inexcusable – particularly after Sanford, House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Senate President Glenn McConnell were specifically warned in July 2006 that South Carolina’s restrictions against free market port expansion were “counterproductive” and would “discourage investment” in our facilities.

In fairness, Georgia operates under a similar model as the Palmetto state – but its government has a huge cash advantage (and knows how to prioritize spending). South Carolina? We’re too busy funding balloon festivals and sending pork to the wrong state to find enough money to pay for a needed port expansion study.

No wonder Georgia has the upper hand …

“We’ve never looked at Charleston as a competitor,” Georgia’s port leader told The New York Times last month. “All you have to do is look at the numbers. The stats speak for themselves.”

They do.

Now, Georgia officials are trying to solidify their competitive advantage by further marginalizing the Port of Charleston making sure the Port of Jasper never happens.

Will Haley rise to this challenge? Will she appoint true free market conservatives (not political hacks) to the SPA board? Will she move to undo the legislature’s recent power grab over its appointees? Will she insist that our state abandon its failed “total state control” model of port management? For the sake of our state’s future economic  competitiveness, let’s hope so …

“You now have a governor who does not like to lose,” Haley told a crowd of S.C. State Ports Authority supporters in Charleston back in November. “Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don’t have the patience to let it happen anymore.”

Obviously we’re about to find out if she’s serious …

Harbor Deepening Talks Held in Atlanta (Savannah Morning News)