The S.C. House’s budget panel approved a 10-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase Thursday, sending the plan to the full House for a vote next week.
The plan would cost roughly $60 a year for a South Carolina driver who travels 15,000 miles in a vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon.
The proposal also would increase vehicle registration fees by $8 a year and increase the maximum sales tax on a vehicle to $500 from $300.
However, lawmakers approved exempting military members who are transferred to the state from a new $250 fee to register in South Carolina a vehicle that is purchased out of state.
The plan would also make it more difficult for lawmakers to reject the governor’s appointees to the commission that oversees the state’s roads agency, the Department of Transportation.
The gas-tax hike is expected to pass the House, which approved a similar bill last year. However, it faces the threat of a filibuster in the state Senate from libertarian Republicans who oppose tax hikes.
Whether new Gov. Henry McMaster would sign a tax hike also is unknown. McMaster said earlier this week that a tax increase should be a “last resort.”
However, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, a sponsor of the gas-tax bill, signaled strongly Thursday that it was time for a tax hike.
Lucas said he cannot support lawmakers continuing to use money from the state’s general fund — which pays for schools and law enforcement — to pay for road repairs.
“For the past several years the General Assembly has allotted a significant portion of the general fund surplus to roads, but pressing needs for education, Social Services and retirement deficits will require those monies this year,” Lucas said in a statement.
Will rural S.C. be left behind?
The 20-0 vote Thursday in the House Ways and Means Committee came after some legislators pushed for some of the added money to be designated for rural roads.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, responded the proposal would spend millions on rural roads, pointing to a $50 million rural road safety plan proposed by the Transportation Department.
Simrill also pointed to a state law that requires road repairs be made based on rankings from a needs-based system.
However, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said that ranking depends on traffic counts and congestion, common to urban areas but not rural roads. “There is no way that rural South Carolina will meet those standards.”
Lawmakers have approved sending $266 million to county transportation committees over the past two years, largely for rural roads.
Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, warned against using politics to direct road-repair money to one part of the state or another. “We’re certainly going to destroy our trust with the public if we go down that path.”
However, Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said assurances are needed that S.C. residents who live in rural areas and pay the higher gas tax will see their roads repaired, too. “We need to make sure that rural South Carolina is not left behind.”
What will it cost you?
The S.C. House’s budget panel approved a plan to raise taxes and fees to pay for road repairs. It would cost:
▪ $60 a year more for a driver who travels 15,000 miles in a vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon. Drivers who drive more would pay more; those who drive less would pay less.
▪ $16 more in fees, paid every two years, to register a vehicle
▪ $60 in fees, paid every two years, if an S.C. resident owns a hybrid vehicle
▪ $120 in fees, paid every two years, if a South Carolinian owns an electric vehicle
▪ Up to $200 in added sales taxes to buy a used car that costs $6,000 or more. That tax hike is the result of increasing the cap on the sales tax on vehicle sales to $500 from $300.
▪ A one-time fee of up to $250 if a buyer purchases a vehicle out of state and registers it in South Carolina. Lawmakers approved exempting military members transferred to the state from the fee.
Changing the Transportation Commission
Last year, Gov. Nikki Haley signed a proposal to borrow $2 billion to repair some state roads but criticized as inadequate its provisions to reform the Department of Transportation Commission.
Gas-tax hike opponents have argued the agency’s oversight must be changed — making the Transportation Department a Cabinet agency, accountable to the governor — before sending more money to it.
“The issue is whether to pour more money into a system that’s failing because it’s not accountable to taxpayers,” said the S.C. Policy Council’s Barton Swaim. “Most House members want to make the problem go away by treating it as a revenue problem and raising taxes. They’re just wrong. More money will change almost nothing.”
The plan passed by a House panel Thursday says the commissioners who oversee the Transportation Department will be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the full General Assembly.
Those commissioners represent individual congressional districts and can be rejected by the legislators from their congressional district.
Having the full General Assembly — vs. legislators from a single congressional district — confirm commission members would make it more difficult for lawmakers to reject the governor’s appointees.