A growing number of S.C. Republican lawmakers say the state needs to increase its gas tax to pay for roads.
But that doesn’t mean they will vote for it.
It is hard to overstate the state’s road-funding problem. The Department of Transportation says the state needs $48.3 billion to maintain and repair roads and bridges over the next 20 years. But federal highway money and the state’s gas tax, the money used to pay for those roads, will bring in only about $19 billion during that period, according to estimates.
That leaves a $29 billion shortfall.
Last year, for the first time, S.C. lawmakers used money from state income and sales taxes to pay for road repairs. The funding package included $50 million in recurring general fund money, $41 million in annual car sales taxes and $50 million in one-time money for bridge repairs. Altogether, the package promises to add up to $1 billion in new spending on roads over the next 20 years, less than 4 percent of what state officials say is needed.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, says the state desperately needs to find money to repair its roads, specifically its major interstates – 85, 77 and 26 – which he called the “umbilical cord for economic development in the Palmetto State.”
But the Richland County Republican said he would not vote to increase the gas tax to help pay for those repairs, although he would not “vocally oppose” it.
“I have not voted for a tax increase since I’ve been in the Senate for 30 years,” Courson said. “I mean zilch. I don’t anticipate I will.”
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, has not supported a gas tax increase in the past either. But, he added, “I would look very seriously at it.”
“Anytime you support any type of tax increase, it’s always politically risky,” Hayes said. “Probably, that’s a good thing. I don’t think it would be good for the General Assembly to be able to pass taxes without having to take some risk to do it.”
Other Republicans supporting the gas tax include state Sens. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, and William O’Dell, R-Abbeville. In the House, Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, has tried to raise the gas tax several times.
The last time South Carolina raised its gas tax was in 1987, when the then-Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a 2-cent-a-gallon increase at the request of a popular Republican governor, Carroll Campbell. More than 25 years later, Republicans now control everything and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley used her State of the State address to warn lawmakers she would veto any bill that raises the gas tax.
Haley and others – including state Sens. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, and Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee – say lawmakers can use money they already have to pay for roads and road repairs if they just will prioritize their spending.
Since 2010, as the state started its recovery from the depths of the Great Recession, the state’s sales and income tax collections have increased by $2 billion. Haley proposes using future revenue growth to pay for roads. Grooms has a bill that automatically would set aside 5 percent of the state’s revenue growth every year to pay for roads, a plan he has called the “Gimme Five Plan.”
“To me, it doesn’t make sense to raise taxes when you’re still having increases in revenues,” Grooms said. “So one thing the General Assembly does is prioritize spending, and I would prioritize our spending a little bit different and make sure our infrastructure is taken care of.”
But South Carolina’s revenues have not always risen so steadily. From 2006 to 2010, the state’s tax collections fell by $1.3 billion.
Senators praise McConnell’s ‘fairness’
When the state Senate unveiled Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell’s official state portrait Thursday, the Charleston Republican asked those speaking to do so in order of seniority.
That meant Nikki Setzler went first.
It could have been an awkward moment. Setzler, the Senate minority leader from Lexington, would be the leader of the Senate today if the Senate still followed its old rules.
But in 2000, when the late state Sen. Verne Smith switched parties and gave Republicans control of the Senate for the first time in 124 years, Republicans changed the rules so that all Senate leadership positions were determined by party, not seniority.
That rule change allowed McConnell to become the Senate president pro tempore, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and now, 14 years later, to have his portrait hung in the Senate chamber with the likes of John C. Calhoun, Marion Gressette and Strom Thurmond – honors that could have belonged to Setzler.
“You are a beneficiary of that transition, which was very difficult,” Setzler said in his remarks Thursday. “There were hard feelings. It was a time that was not easy for this body.”
But Setzler did not use that “transition,” as he called it, to criticize McConnell. He used it to praise him.
“Your legacy from that transition is, first, fairness. Once you became president pro tempore you sought fairness for every individual who sat in a chair on this chamber floor and participated in the process. You did that in light of a lot of criticism that you would be more partisan than you were,” Setzler said. “And, for that, we are forever thankful to you.”
It was also telling the Democrat that McConnell ousted as president pro tempore – former state Sen. John Drummond of Greenwood – attended Thursday’s ceremony to honor his friend.
“I felt like (their attendance) means I accomplished what I set out (to do) as pro tem, to settle the chamber down,” said McConnell, whose decade-long run as Senate president pro tempore ended when he became lieutenant governor in 2012 on the resignation of Ken Ard.
McConnell said whenever he had a tough decision to make – say, whether to sue Gov. Nikki Haley, which he did – he liked to look at the portrait of legendary Senate President Pro Tempore Marion Gressette for inspiration.
“Art is different than a photograph. A photograph is nothing more than the moment after. ... A piece of art speaks more than to a moment, and it can speak to you,” McConnell said.
“When (senators) look at (my) painting up there, I hope this is what they hear, ‘Stay away from confrontation, look for consensus, involve the other side,’” he said. “That’s the secret to good decision making.”
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley got some blowback on Facebook for posting a picture of her two children on ATVs without helmets, a requirement under state law. However, a spokesman said the children removed the helmets just for the picture. ... U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, invited “Duck Dynasty” star Korie Robertson to be his guest at the State of the Union address last week.
Quote of the week
“My goal: Get people to rush to vote on Election Days like they rush for milk on Snow Days. #manwiththeBIGCOW”
Tweet from Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler , a dairy farmer, about last week’s snowstorm and the run on milk at grocery stores