Senate racing to find money for roads

Greenville NewsMay 27, 2014 

BY TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com

— It’s crunch time for road funding in South Carolina and a senator who wants the state to spend more says that only about 16 percent of the state’s roads are in good condition.

Sen. Ray Cleary, a Georgetown Republican and supporter of additional road funding, says with six days left in the legislative session, senators must show their constituents what they are willing to do about the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

“If we don’t handle it this year, when do we handle it?” he asked the Senate last week. “Because with 16 percent of the roads only being in good condition, I’m not sure we’ve got a lot more time.”

Cleary is pushing a House bill set for Senate debate that at a minimum would send $41 million in vehicle sales tax to the state Department of Transportation, which could then be used to issue bonds for several hundred million dollars more.

But Cleary also has promised a laundry list of amendments to offer senators more choices for additional money, from raising fees on driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, to indexing the gas tax for inflation, to creating new fees to apply to vehicle insurance policies.

The state’s transportation agency two years ago estimated the state needed $29billion in new money over 20 years to bring the state’s roads and bridges up to an acceptable condition. A business group calculated a price tag of $6billion over 10 years.

Some senators aren’t thrilled at the idea of debating fee or tax increases with so little time left in the session.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican, likened the bill to using a bucket of water to put out a large fire.

“I don’t think that fire is going to get put out in just a few days with all we have on our plates,” he said.

The 16 percent number comes from the Department of Transportation’s latest annual report, an agency spokesman said, and has been like that for several years. About half the state’s roads are in poor condition, according to transportation department assessments.

Rick Todd, president and CEO of the S.C. Truckers Association, said this year’s winter has added damage to the state’s roads.

“I do know the freeze and thaw and moisture from the winter just pulverized that thin top layer of asphalt all across the state,” he said. “The winter was particularly hard on the road surface this year.”

Sen. Tom Corbin, a Travelers Rest Republican, is among senators who want to address the state’s road needs but without raising any fees or taxes.

“I think everybody in the state realizes that the roads are in need of some attention,” he said. “We’re still not in the greatest economy and until we have a change in Washington and get a robust economy going again, I think people are a little hesitant about having the money to pay into it. People are still hurting out there.”

Corbin said he favors passing a “clean” version of the bill, without any amendments that raise fees or taxes.

Sen. Kevin Bryant, an Anderson Republican, said he believes there is a “bait-and-switch” tactic at work with the budget. He said while the state had $600million in new money this year, it was spent on a variety of items, leaving the debate on raising fees to a core government service — the roads.

“I don’t see anybody proposing to raise taxes to fund a museum,” he said. “They probably wouldn’t get away with it. That’s going to be our argument.”

Bryant also opposes transferring the $41million because he said it would result in the state incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in additional debt.

Bryant said the issue will be whether there are enough votes in the Senate to end a filibuster or to override a veto, if Haley opposes what is passed.

Todd said he detects a “pervasive sense that they want to do something” to address roads in the Senate.

But he said senators also are uncertain of what the House or governor would accept.

Haley has vowed to veto any increase in the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1987, and some senators said they believe the veto would apply to fee increases.

“I don’t have a strong sense they want to increase fees,” Todd said, placing the odds of the bill passing at 50-50.

Bill Ross, executive director of the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, said he remains optimistic.

“I heard one senator say he didn’t feel like he could go home without doing something,” he said. “The pressure is on. I think the public is sick of it (current road conditions).”

Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican, said he “wants to support something.”

“I am interested in trying to have a net increase without devastating most of the state budget,” he said.

Martin said the fairest way to raise money for roads would be to increase the gas tax. But he said that won’t pass the governor.

He said with the issues remaining between the House and Senate to resolve in six days, “I’m not sure how much time we’ll have for thoughtful debate” on road funding.

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