Time is running out for the S.C. Senate to approve increasing the state’s 16.75 cent-a-gallon gas tax, the second lowest in the nation, to pay to repair the state’s crumbling roads.
This week, senators will consider a roughly $8 billion state budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 and takes priority over other bills. Then, senators plan to take a week off.
Lawmakers will return to Columbia on April 18 with only four weeks left in the 2017 legislative session.
That gives senators, who work only three days a week, 12 legislative days to address the session’s top issue — increasing driving fees to pay for road repairs — and work out disagreements on the proposal.
Senators are working behind-the-scenes to reach a compromise, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
“There are bipartisan conversations going on,” Massey said. “We’ve been talking in hopes of reaching an agreement that could become law.”
Last week, Massey was one of 18 Republican senators who voted against starting debate Wednesday on a plan to repair the state’s roads, potentially dooming the proposal.
Those senators want an income tax cut to offset the proposed 12 cent-a-gallon increase to the gas tax and increases to other driving fees.
Previous GOP income-tax proposals would have favored higher income South Carolinians. However, a proposal put forward this year by state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, would cut income taxes more for low and middle-income South Carolinians.
Democrats oppose cutting income taxes, saying that would raid money in the state budget that pays for essential services that already are underfunded, ranging from law enforcement to education to Social Services.
State Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said he anticipates senators will get a chance — after a budget is passed — to consider again the road-repair bill. “I do think the people of South Carolina have spoken – they want their roads fixed.”
The challenge will be coming up with a proposal that both sides in the splintered Senate will be able to live with, Scott said.
Republicans, who hold a majority of the Senate’s seats but are divided into factions, and minority party Democrats will have to work out their stances on a tax cut to get two-thirds of senators to support a proposal. That would guarantee lawmakers have enough votes for a tax hike to survive a potential veto by Gov. Henry McMaster.
McMaster has said he opposes raising the gas tax. However, the Richland Republican has not offered his own plan to repair the state’s roads.
It will take two-thirds of senators to approve starting debate on a gas-tax hike.
“I remain hopeful that the Senate will do the right thing and act this year,” said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, the chief sponsor of the House’s gas-tax bill, which that GOP-dominated body passed.
Not acting will cost the state as roads continue to deteriorate, he said.