Those hoping for a breakthrough solution to the state’s ailing infrastructure are being reminded this week just how difficult it may be for state leaders to reach an agreement.
A House committee that has spent almost five months studying the issue could find little consensus after hours of debate.
Meanwhile, Gov. Nikki Haley, who said last year she would unveil her plan to fix the roads this month, included $61 million for transportation needs in her $6.9 billion executive budget Monday. DOT has estimated it needs $1.4 billion annually in additional money.
Haley said the money is the rest of the vehicle sales tax money now going to the General Fund. She said she would talk about the rest of her roads plan later this month.
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House Speaker Jay Lucas, who watched the House panel debate the issue for hours without taking any action, told members of the committee that House leaders realized long ago that finding a solution wouldn’t be easy.
“We’re not afraid to deal with the big issues,” Lucas told the panel.
“Unfortunately with big issues comes a lot of decisions that have to be made. I hope we can draft something we can bring some consensus around because frankly the citizens of South Carolina are expecting something.”
Rep. Gary Simrill, a Rock Hill Republican who chairs the committee, told The Greenville News that he wasn’t discouraged by the differences of opinion expressed Monday.
“I think at the end of the day, we will have consensus,” he said.
What happens with Simrill’s committee could give an indicator of what the Legislature as a whole will do with the issue this year, the first in a two-year legislative session that began Tuesday.
Senate leaders say they will wait to see how the House acts before moving forward on funding. The Senate last year set a road funding bill as a priority but didn’t take up the bill for debate.
Simrill has urged his panel to break the issue into two major parts — reforming the management of the system and then funding. He has said Lucas and House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White of Anderson want the system reformed before giving it more money.
And Simrill has proposed three parts to that reform — changing the way the state’s highway commissioners are chosen, expanding the board of the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank board, and transferring some of the 18,000 miles of roads in the state inventory to the local governments where the roads are located.
Monday, there seemed no unanimous support of any part of the reform, especially the idea of transferring state roads to counties or local governments, which has become a lightning rod for opposition.
One lawmaker even proposed removing that idea from any legislation to prevent counties that oppose the transfer from killing the bill.
Simrill said he is proposing local governments be compensated for taking over the roads to help pay for their maintenance.
He said 2.66 cents of the state’s 16.7-cent fuel tax now goes to the counties, a figure he said could be doubled to help pay for the transfer of local roads.
Some members of the panel said counties in their district weren’t aware they would be compensated, while other legislators said they aren’t sure the compensation will make counties warm to the idea.
“The problem is they just don’t trust us,” said Rep. Russsell Ott, a Calhoun County Democrat. “They acknowledge the fact that we are talking about sending money with the roads, but they don’t believe the money is always going to be there. And quite frankly, I can’t say I blame them.”
Rep. Rita Allison, a Spartanburg County Republican, proposed making the idea more palatable to counties by proposing a pilot program and phasing in any road transfers.
Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican whose father has served as chairman of the DOT board and the first state transportation secretary, wasn’t so concerned about ruffling county officials’ feathers.
“It seems like the counties are always in favor of home rule until they find out how much it’s going to cost,” he said. “These roads need to go to the counties. It’s apparent on the face of it.”
On the governance issue, several members, led by Rep. Bill Hixon, an Aiken Republican, say they want a performance audit first of DOT to see what the problems are.
Rep. Joe Neal, a Richland County Democrat, said talking of restructuring the DOT board makes him uncomfortable “because I’m not convinced the management restructuring we’re talking about really fixes the problem. It’s really a philosophical change. I would really love to see a ground level evaluation of the agency.”
Rep. Phyllis Henderson, a Greer Republican, proposed a review by the newly created House Oversight Committee instead of the Legislative Audit Council to get the information more quickly.
Simrill says he doesn’t oppose a LAC or House oversight audit of the agency but doesn’t want that to stop the process of drafting legislation.
On the infrastructure bank, some members would like to see the organization merged into DOT, while others want it to be left alone.
Simrill is proposing expanding the board to represent more areas of the state and also to lower the financing threshold from $100 million to $25 million to allow smaller and more rural counties to participate.
Members of the panel also have prepared dozens of different ideas on new revenue for roads, including raising the sales tax on vehicles, a fee for hybrid or alternative energy vehicles, taking money for some agencies that now comes out of the state fuel tax from the General Fund, using unclaimed lottery prize proceeds, and requiring local governments to spend all of their state transportation dollars on state roads instead of just 25 percent as is required now.
Simrill has proposed lowering the gas tax by up to half and then removing the sales tax exemption on gas, a combination which he said could raise up to $300 million a year depending on the price of gas.
He’s also proposed asking voters in 2016 to approve a statewide penny sales tax increase whose proceeds would be dedicated to transportation needs.
Simrill told the panel he plans to present to them a draft proposal within a week that they can vote on and amend so that a bill will be ready by the end of the month.
Several members said while they have different ideas on what is needed, they are sure their constituents want action.
“I think we’re all going to get run out of here if we don’t come up with something, even if it’s baby steps,” said Rep. Chandra Dillard, a Greenville Democrat.
“The bottom line is that when we leave here, our constituents want those roads paved,” she said. “And that’s what it all boils down to. That is very strong out there right now.”