Brace yourself, South Carolina, another gas-tax fight is gearing up to take place in the state Senate.
The senator who filibustered an increase the last two years is prepared to re-take the Senate’s podium again in an effort to talk to death the proposal.
A Koch brothers-backed “dark-money” group that helped defeat the tax increase last year also is readying for action again.
Meanwhile, gas tax advocates, including the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and an alliance backed by road contractors, will urge senators to pass the tax increase as the only way to repair the state’s deteriorating roads.
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“This is the most divisive issue that I’ve seen,” said Senate GOP leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “Everyone agrees there is a problem.
“The disagreement has come about how to solve that problem.”
Prepare for a filibuster
The Republican-dominated S.C. House of Representatives is poised to raise the state’s gas taxes by roughly $60 a year for drivers in the coming weeks. That plan passed the House’s budget-writing panel unanimously two week ago and has the support of the House’s GOP leadership.
The House passed a similar plan by 87-20, a veto-proof majority, two years ago.
Once the House OKs a gas-tax hike, the proposal will be sent to the S.C. Senate.
And the fireworks will begin.
For the last two years, libertarian state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has filibustered a gas-tax hike, forcing lawmakers instead to spend money out of the state’s general fund to pay for road and bridge work.
Davis says he will try to talk to death a gas-tax hike again this year unless the plan includes offsetting tax cuts and more restructuring of the state’s roads agency.
“I will filibuster it again,” Davis said last week.
Davis, a former chief of staff to then-Gov. Mark Sanford, opposes a tax hike for several reasons.
While the state Transportation Department says it needs an additional $1 billion a year, Davis says the agency may have enough money already to repair the state’s roads if it were just spent differently.
But that won’t happen unless control of the agency — overseen by a seven-member commission — is given to South Carolina’s governor, he says.
Last year, legislators changed the structure of the Transportation Department’s commission, giving the governor the power to appoint all seven commissioners, subject to the confirmation of state legislative delegations from South Carolina’s seven congressional districts.
Davis objects that reform made it too easy for legislative delegations to reject the governor’s appointees. The reform was “just a more convoluted way to deceive the public into” thinking lawmakers actually brought accountability to the roads agency, by having it report to the governor, Davis said.
Instead, Davis wants the Transportation Department to be a cabinet agency, reporting directly to the governor, who is elected by voters statewide.
Absent that additional reform, Davis says he will filibuster a gas-tax hike.
If senators don’t like his talk-fest, then 24 of them can vote to sit him down, ending his filibuster.
But that’s a move that senators were not willing to make during the past two years. Davis says that is because senators could not justify sending more money to the same broken roads system.
However, there are signs that some senators are tiring of Davis’ demands. This year, the Senate changed its rules to make it easier to end filibusters.
“If they sit me down, I will take my seat,” Davis said.
A different tone
Davis isn’t the only gas-tax hike opponent gearing up for another fight.
Last year, Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the libertarian, conservative billionaire Kansas-based Koch brothers, launched a barrage of phone calls and mailers to constituents in the districts of state senators as part of its effort to kill a gas-tax hike.
That drew the ire of some senators, who said AFP, an out-of-state group that gets “dark money” from unknown donors, misrepresented the gas-tax debate.
This year, AFP has a new S.C. leader who says the group, which opposes a gas-tax hike that is not offset by an equal tax cut, plans to change its tone.
“The tone is going to be different,” said Daniel Brennan, the new state director for Americans for Prosperity South Carolina.
For example, mail pieces will not be filled with hyperbole or be unnecessarily abrasive, Brennan said. Instead, they will be educational, he said. “You can make a difference in the community without having to burn the whole place down.
Like Davis, AFP also wants to see the Department of Transportation become a cabinet agency, said Brennan, who previously worked for the Concerned Veterans for America, another advocacy group in the Koch brothers’ political network.
The group also wants state income tax cuts to offset any gas-tax hike, a position advocated by former Gov. Nikki Haley, who tied her support to a gas-tax hike to a much larger income tax.
Key legislative budget writers say that demand is absurd.
Raising the gas tax would repair roads, they say, but cutting income taxes would defund other state services, including schools and law enforcement, already underfunded.
That sort of tax swap also would result in a tax cut for higher income South Carolinians, who pay more in income taxes than gas taxes, while increasing the taxes of lower income residents, who would have to pay higher gas taxes but do not pay many or any state income taxes.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, says the state already has cut taxes to the point that it can’t meet the needs of its residents.
“I have no intention of getting involved in tax cuts,” he said.
‘The year to finally fund DOT’
Gas-tax advocates plan to fight equally hard to urge senators to raise money to fix the state’s roads.
Meanwhile, they warily will be watching new Gov. Henry McMaster, who wants to win a four-year term in 2018.
While Haley’s veto threats helped doom a gas-tax increase during the past two years, McMaster has been vague in his position on the issue, not saying whether he would veto a gas-tax hike or demand offsetting — and deal-killing — tax cuts.
Instead, the Richland Republican has told House Republicans only that he sees a gas-tax increase as a last resort, signaling to legislators that they need to make the case vocally that there is no other option to repair the state’s crumbling roads.
Pro-gas-tax groups hope to give legislators and McMaster enough political cover to increase the tax.
The S.C. Chamber of Commerce plans to urge S.C. residents to contact their legislators on the issue. The chamber also plans to work with local chambers on the effort, said chief executive Ted Pitts, a former Republican legislator and Haley aide.
“The business community understands that this is the year to finally fund DOT and the efforts to bring our infrastructure up to some acceptable standard,” Pitts said.
Government, ultimately, has to fix the problem, Pitts said, adding that takes money.
The business community is prepared to help make that case around the state as the issue moves through the General Assembly, he added.
Another pro-roads group — the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, backed by several groups, including chambers of commerce, AAA of the Carolinas, the S.C. Trucking Association, contractors, consultants and many other road-related organizations — also is gearing up for a gas-tax fight.
The group will continue to use social media to push its fix-our-roads message, said Jordan Marsh of the alliance.
During the last legislative session, which began in 2014, the alliance estimates its efforts resulted in more than 18,000 emails, more than 4,000 phone calls, 800 Facebook posts and 400 tweets to lawmakers.
“People realize a long-term funding solution has to be passed into law this year,” Marsh said.
Fight looms over ‘dark-money’ and free speech
The roads issue is not the only looming fight in the state Senate.
Americans for Prosperity and Concerned Veterans for America, both directed by Daniel Brennan, will fight a state Senate bill that aims to force “dark money” political groups to reveal their donors.
The groups — backed by the libertarian, conservative billionaire Koch brothers — do not reveal their donors or how much money they receive from those donors. The groups then use the money to push political issues or try to defeat candidates.
Critics say that secrecy makes it impossible for voters to know the agenda of the groups or their donors when they are pushing an issue or opposing a candidate.
The groups say that forcing them to reveal their donors would limit free speech, protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The Senate bill — sponsored by Sen. President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, who dark-money groups unsuccessfully tried to defeat in November — would require political groups to disclose information on their donors who contribute $1,000 or more, including their names, addresses and employers.
The bill would not limit the amount of money a donor could contribute to an advocacy group, such as AFP.
The S.C. gas tax fight
Opponents and supporters of increasing South Carolina’s gas tax are lining up for a battle in the state Senate. A look at the key players:
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, is pushing for:
▪ No net tax increase; in other words, an offsetting cut to some other tax
▪ The S.C. Transportation Department to be a part of the governor’s cabinet
Americans for Prosperity and Concerned Veterans for America want:
▪ No net tax increase
▪ The Transportation Department to be a part of the governor’s cabinet
The S.C. Policy Council wants:
▪ No tax increase, period
▪ Transportation Department directly accountable to the governor
S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads is pushing for:
▪ Sustainable, recurring additional money for roads by increasing and indexing the gas tax, vehicle sales tax and adjusting vehicle/driver-related fees.
S.C. Chamber of Commerce is pushing for:
▪ Sustainable, recurring additional money for roads