Senate leaders say the chances of any road funding bill passing this year are slim, meaning motorists may have to wait another year for the hope of lawmakers addressing the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
With just three days left in the regular legislative session, a Senate transportation funding bill technically remains the top priority on the body’s calendar.
But attempts to bring it up for debate this week failed, and some senators say there are too many issues ahead of it.
“It’s apparent that we just can’t get to it,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin of Pickens told The Greenville News. “There are lots of other issues we’re trying to wade through at this point. It’s the art of the possible and there’s just not time.”
Never miss a local story.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms said the body lacks the interest in passing the bill, which at a minimum would send $41 million next year to the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank from vehicle sales tax revenue to issue bonds for several hundred million dollars.
“It’s unlikely this bill will be successful this year,” he said. “I imagine it will die on the Senate calendar.”
Grooms said he has introduced a similar bill several times in the past “and it never went anywhere because there were some members of the body who were not comfortable with the bill not having a straight up gasoline tax.”
Because this year marks the end of a two-year legislative session, any bills still on the calendar when the Legislature adjourns die and cannot be carried over to next year.
Supporters of road funding say delaying the issue will only increase the cost, which was estimated two years ago at $29 billion over 20 years by a state transportation task force. A business coalition estimated the need at $6 billion over 10 years.
Last year lawmakers spent more than $140 million on infrastructure needs, which was used to leverage about $500 million through bonds. Most of the money will go to a handful of interstate improvement projects, including some along I-85 in the Upstate.
Sen. Ray Cleary, a Georgetown Republican who has pushed the road funding bill, repeatedly pleaded with colleagues in recent weeks to debate the bill and its 15 amendments that offer a variety of additional funding choices.
But when he moved Wednesday to set the bill for immediate debate, the Senate rejected the idea.
“I think we’re behind the eight ball,” he said. Cleary said it is still possible for the bill to come up during the last three days of the session, but he isn't optimistic.
He has argued that the state is out of time to add money to its road funding, noting that the percentage of the state’s roads in good condition is now estimated at 16 percent and that nearly half the primary and secondary roads are rated by the state as in poor shape.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson said he thinks one hindrance to the bill is a concern over an amendment to raise the state’s gas tax, last raised in 1987.
“I think the body is probably split on that issue,” he said. “The governor has said she would veto any gas tax increase, so I think there is a reluctance to get to it if that’s going to be a component.”
Some senators predicted the bill would have a much easier time if no amendments were offered, but the leader of the Senate Democrats said the Senate needs to have that debate.
“I think the proponents of doing something for road funding would rather have the opportunity to debate it in full and take time to do it,” said Sen. Nikki Setzler, leader of Senate Democrats. “Even if it means next year. It’s too important an issue.”
Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat, said lawmakers have to make some tough decisions and the longer they wait “the worse it gets.”
“It affects our ability to recruit jobs, it affects our quality of life, it affects public safety,” he said of road conditions.
“We just keep passing the buck to future generations. We’re talking about $1 billion a year. These are tough decisions and the money is not going to fall from the sky. It’s not a popular subject, but it must be done and it’s our responsibility to do that.”
Martin said he believes the basic bill would pass “without any problem.”
“But they are not going to sit there for hours on end while folks discuss and talk about all the various and sundry ways that roads ought to be funded when it isn’t going to happen this year,” he said.
“It’s not in the cards for that to play out on both sides and get it to the governor and for her to sign it. It’s not going to happen this year.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said he’s supportive of the bill but can’t predict what the Senate will do.
“We’ve got to have money for the highway infrastructure,” he said. “Sen. Cleary’s bill is the way to do it. I’m not interested in Band-Aids, we’ve got such a tremendous need.”
Bill Ross, executive director of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, described the bill’s chances as “dim.”
“There’s just not a willingness there to do it for some reason,” he said. “There’s probably nothing more important they can deal with than roads for the future of our state.”