Gov. Nikki Haley plans to give lawmakers a proposal for new road funding, but she is releasing no details and doesn’t plan to tell lawmakers until January, two months after voters decide whether to re-elect her.
Critics pounced on the governor’s lack of specifics, and some lawmakers questioned her statements Tuesday that she had shown legislators how to craft last year’s road-funding bill.
“Nikki Haley’s first idea to fix the crumbling roads of South Carolina was a magical, mystical ‘money tree,’ Andrew Whalen, campaign manager for Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley’s Democratic rival in the governor’s race, told The Greenville News.
“Now she has a super secret roads plan that she can’t share with the people of South Carolina. South Carolinians need real leadership and they need real plans.”
On his campaign website, Sheheen advocates using the state’s bonding authority, using more revenue surpluses and finding new revenue streams to repair roads and bridges.
“I am overjoyed that she is now going to want to tackle roads,” said Sen. Ray Cleary, a Georgetown Republican who unsuccessfully pushed this year for passage of a roads-funding bill. “But I think she needs to be fair with the public and tell us what that story is prior to her election.”
Asked about the criticism, Rob Godfrey, a campaign spokesman, said that under Haley, “South Carolina is one of the best places in the world to do business — and that’s thanks, in no small part, to the billion-dollar investment the governor made in roads and bridges.
“We’re on the move. Unemployment has hit a 13-year low, we have been named the fastest-growing economy on the East Coast and cut taxes on small businesses.”
Haley earlier this year proposed the idea of lawmakers using the difference between initial and final revenue budget estimates — what she calls the Legislature’s “money tree” — for road and bridge needs. She estimated that funding could produce $100 million a year.
But lawmakers never warmed to the idea, and the Senate adjourned without even debating a road-funding bill it had given priority status. Cleary said that debate was stymied by Haley’s threat of a veto of any tax or fee increases.
Haley said she will show legislators in January how to find funding for roads the same way she mapped out an education funding plan, the result of which was a bill that included funding for added technology for schools, reading coaches and a weighting for students in poverty.
“We saw that legislators wanted to do it, they just didn’t know how to do it,” she said of changing education funding. “And that really is my job. That’s why we spent that whole year. Once we told them how to do it, they ran with it. The same thing with transportation.”
Haley said, in fact, of the road-funding plan produced by lawmakers last year, “We told them how to do it.”
She said she plans to once again give lawmakers a funding solution, “show them how to do it and hopefully from there, they will appreciate the solution and run with it.”
Haley made her comments after receiving the re-election endorsement of the South Carolina chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, the state’s leading small-business group.
Bruce Shealy, the president of Shealy’s Truck Center, where the endorsement was made, was asked whether he thought more should be done about the state’s roads.
“The roads do need improvement,” he said. “There’s no question about that. The issue is how do we fund that.”
That prompted Haley to talk about her plans to deal with the state’s roads. The governor said once again she wouldn’t support any plan that includes raising taxes.
“When you raise the cost of transportation, you are hurting businesses,” she said. “You are hurting the businesses that want to come to this state, and you are hurting businesses that are in this state.”
Asked about the possibility of new revenues, Haley said the state’s revenues have grown “just by being smarter.”
“That’s what we have to remember,” she said.
“This is what I keep cautioning the Legislature. South Carolina is doing very well. It can drop as well as it rose and we have to be smart about that.
“It’s the reason I showed them how to pay for the infrastructure. It is the reason I showed them how to pay for education. It’s the reason I will show them how to pay for transportation.”
Senate Transportation Chairman Larry Grooms said he doesn’t recall Haley giving direction to lawmakers during the crafting of the last road-funding bill.
Sen. Nikki Setzler, leader of Senate Democrats, also said he doesn’t recall Haley’s involvement in the road-funding bill. He said the bill was a bipartisan effort that grew out of a push by Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, who wanted to use vehicle sales tax money, and himself, who wanted the state to borrow money by using funding to leverage bonds for the State Infrastructure Bank.
Both ideas were features of what passed.
“That was a concerted effort by both sides of the aisle in the Senate to accomplish what was done last year,” he said. “That was a major undertaking and the first time anyone tried to address the roads situation in the state, which is deplorable and unsafe.”
In 2013, Haley’s executive budget proposed re-directing some gas tax money that was diverted away from the state’s transportation agency and to dedicate $10 million in capital reserve funding for roads.
She later called on lawmakers to dedicate most of the new revenue from updated budget forecasts for roads in addition to her earlier ideas, for a total of about $90 million.
Some business leaders praised her leadership on roads funding when she signed the bill last year, which allocated more than $141 million, including $50 million a year that could be leveraged for more than $500 million in bond funds. Haley estimated the bill will mean more than $1 billion over 10 years for the state’s infrastructure.
On Tuesday, Haley didn’t give any details of her latest revenue stream plan, other than to say it would be different than the “money tree” idea.
Cleary said roads funding is very different than education funding.
“In education, we don’t really know what we can do to fix the problem,” he said. “But with roads, we know what it means. It means $1.4 billion a year in revenue.”
He said he doesn’t believe Haley can achieve the type of results on roads she wants without increasing some fees. He says any solution for funding road repairs without a gas tax increase excludes out-of-state motorists from a solution, since 34 percent of gas tax revenue comes from those who live outside the state.
A state transportation task force two years ago estimated the state’s infrastructure needs at least $29 billion over 20 years.
Grooms said he has met with the governor over his road-funding plan, which would dedicate a certain amount of new revenue in years in which there is a surplus to a highway trust fund, the goal being to raise an amount equal to 5 percent of the General Fund. He said it could take about seven years.
He said Haley liked the idea.
“She was very receptive,” he said. “But I never heard her voice any support publicly for the plan.”
Setzler said he hopes the Legislature will pass a funding plan next year.
“It is one of the critical needs of this state,” he said. “Frankly what we need is to be able to move goods across this state for commerce, which is economic development.”