As S.C. lawmakers weigh raising the state’s gas tax, Gov. Henry McMaster wants them to view any tax hike as a “last resort,” according to several Republicans who the new governor addressed Tuesday.
McMaster spoke to S.C. House Republicans at a private lunch.
Earlier Tuesday, a S.C. House panel — made up of four Republicans and three Democrats — voted unanimously to increase the state’s gas tax. The panel also voted to increase other driving-related fees. The revenues from the tax hikes would go to repair the state’s crumbling roads.
McMaster’s opinion is important because previous attempts by the GOP-controlled Legislature to raise money to repair S.C. roads have been killed effectively by opposition from the state’s Republican governor.
The governor “talked about the gas tax being a last resort, that raising taxes should always be a last resort,” said Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville.
Sworn in two weeks ago after Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to join the Trump Administration, McMaster has not yet weighed in on whether he would support raising the gas tax to help pay to repair the state’s roads and bridges.
McMaster’s comments to lawmakers Tuesday could force the House to revise a roads plan it now is weighing.
That plan would raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon over five years. It also would raise some driving fees to help pay for road repairs.
However, the proposal contains no tax cuts for S.C. residents.
After initially opposing a gas-tax hike, Haley said she could support one if it were coupled with a far larger income tax cut. Paired together, the two moves would have resulted in a net tax reduction for South Carolinians who pay income taxes. However, lawmakers rejected that plan, saying it would take money away from schools, law enforcement and other state services.
Asked by The State whether McMaster would oppose any gas tax increase, the governor’s office declined to comment Tuesday.
GOP lawmakers left Tuesday’s luncheon with McMaster with somewhat different opinions as to what the new governor had said.
"He was not for any tax increase at all, made that real clear,” state Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, told The State after the meeting.
However, House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, said his takeaway was McMaster was aware of the House’s roads proposal and was monitoring the bill’s progress.
"What he is saying is really what the constituents are saying," Pope continued. "Make sure we've looked at every alternative, make sure we're using the money efficiently.
“If we've looked at all of that, and we're still at a gas tax, we may be at that last resort," Pope said.
McMaster also told lawmakers he wants to work with them to find solutions to the state’s other problems. During Tuesday’s meeting, he briefly mentioned rural schools and the state’s pension system — both underfunded — as needing attention, lawmakers said.
“He said he wants to work with legislators,” Norman said. “His door is always open.”