SC Senate roads bill faces long odds

abeam@thestate.comMay 3, 2013 

  • Senate road bill Five state senators advanced a bill Thursday that would generate more money for road and bridge repairs. It would:

    • Send $80 million a year in state sales taxes on cars to the State Infrastructure Board. The taxes would be reclassified as fees to borrow up to $800 million.

    • Use $70 million a year in general fund money to borrow up to $500 million to repair and replace interstates and bridges.

    • Tie the state gas tax to inflation, increasing it to 20 cents a gallon — from 16 cents — over the next 10 years.

    • Increase every-two-year vehicle registration fees to $36 from $24.

    • Increase truck registration fees by 16 percent.

    • Impose an every-two-year registration fee of $120 on electric cars and $60 on hybrid cars.

    • Increase fees for a 10-year drivers’ license to $35 from $25.

    • Direct the state Transportation Department to use money from fee increases to give each county an extra $500,000 a year for road repairs. Counties could get an another $500,000 a year if voters approve a 1 percent sales tax increase for roads.

— A bipartisan group of five state senators advanced a bill Thursday that would give every county in the state an extra $500,000 a year to repair deteriorating roads.

But, to finance the deal, drivers would have to pay more for their drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations.

Drivers of hybrid and electric cars, for example, would have to pay fees of $60 and $120, respectively, every two years. Perhaps most controversial, the state’s 16-cents-a-gallon gas tax would be tied to inflation, increasing it to 20 cents over the next 10 years.

“What we are doing is getting ready to have a train wreck. Remember, sitting in this room today, that is where we are headed,” state Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, told the committee just before the vote.

McGill was the only member of the six-member committee to vote against the bill.

But the other five senators on the committee, led by state Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, said since 1987 — the last time lawmakers increased the gas tax — the state Legislature always has said “wait until next session” to fix the state’s roads.

“When is next session? It’s now, one way or the other,” Cleary told the committee, adding, “It could be a train wreck, but the train has got to start.”

Cleary and the other lawmakers on the committee insist the bill would not raise taxes. But it will raise fees, a distinction they hope is clear enough to give Republican lawmakers the political cover they need to pass the bill.

But Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who can veto legislation, did not take the bait. Her spokesman said Wednesday she would not support the proposal.

Instead, Haley and House Republicans want to give $80 million a year that the state collects on car sales to the state Department of Transportation to spend on road repairs. Senators want to do that, too.

But they say it is not enough. State transportation officials estimate South Carolina will need $48.3 billion over the next 20 years to repair roads and bridges. But officials expect to have only $19 billion to pay for those repairs, leaving a $29 billion deficit.

The Senate bill would borrow $1.3 billion now to start repairing and replacing interstates and bridges. Cleary said that money would be worthless, however, if the state did not provide money to maintain the repaired roads. That is why the bill includes fee increases to give counties more money to take care of roads.

The complex bill faces a long road if it is to win passage.

The S.C. Trucking Association — one of the top donors to lawmakers’ campaigns last year — supports raising the gas tax but opposes a section of the bill that would increase truck registration fees by 16 percent. And the S.C. Petroleum Marketers Association supports increasing the gas tax, but not tying it to inflation.

Even supporters of the bill said they are worried it will run into major opposition.

“We can get excited, leave here and say, ‘We’ve done our part.’ But we know the results. We’ve been down that road several times before,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. “You just wonder if this is something we can actually do.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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