Whether it’s patching potholes, widening Interstate 85 or resurfacing local roads, it’s do or die time for roads-funding legislation this year in the South Carolina Legislature and supporters say they aren’t hopeful.
With weeks to go before the Legislature adjourns for the year, the hopes of those who want more money for the state’s crumbling infrastructure rest on whether a Senate bill will surface for debate.
Gov. Nikki Haley has said she hasn’t yet looked at the Senate’s plan, putting the issue of ethics reform at the top of her list of priorities. And Senate leaders have said they want the ethics issue to be debated next, leaving little, if any, time for the roads bill to be considered.
“I don’t think anything will pass this year,” Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told GreenvilleOnline.com. “I and about half the body believes that we can use a small portion of increased state revenues for DOT. The other half says no, it’s only going to come through increased taxes. And that’s the split.”
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Sen. Ray Cleary, a Murrell’s Inlet Republican who chaired the subcommittee which produced the pending road-funding plan, said he is skeptical his committee’s plan will pass this year.
“Politically, I don’t think we have the leadership to go forward,” he said of the Senate’s focus on the issue.
Cleary said he doesn’t believe there is enough time before adjournment for the Legislature to pass roads funding if the Senate takes up ethics reform after it finishes budget debate. But he said if there is a vote to set ethics as the next issue he would support it.
“I think the ethics will stop us,” he said of chances to pass road funding this year. “I can’t tell you if we take up the road bill we will get it through either. I just feel like we have a better chance to get the road bill through than the ethics bill.”
If no additional funding is added, supporters say, the state’s roads will continue to deteriorate, increasing repair costs and risks to drivers. In February, GreenvilleOnline.com reported that the state had paid $18.7 million in costs during the past three years for claims involving allegations of bad roads, poor design or defective maintenance.
Lawmakers have proposed a variety of ideas about how to pay for road needs, a reflection of citizens’ different ideas on the issue.
Lillian Doolittle, for example, thinks South Carolina should follow Florida’s lead and pay for needed road and bridge repairs by borrowing the money through the sale of bonds.
“Never mind raising fees on all us,” she posted on GreenvilleOnline.com’s Facebook page.
Jim Kober said the state should tax big trucks instead of regular drivers because “they do most of the damage to roads.”
Jonathan Lewis, however, wants the state to double the gas tax and not touch any fees.
“Index the tax to inflation,” he posted on Facebook. “The gas tax is a miniscule percentage of the cost of a gallon of gas.”
Others say that no taxes or fees should be raised, nor money borrowed.
Last month, the House passed a bill to shift about $80 million a year in revenue from the sales tax on vehicles to the transportation agency and to spend $60 million out of next year’s budget on bridge repairs.
But a special Senate committee, saying that isn’t enough, has proposed a package that would borrow $1.3 billion, index the gas tax to inflation, and raise driver’s license and vehicle-registration fees to pay toward an estimated $29 billion problem.
That proposal, however, hasn’t gone over well with fiscal conservatives and some have pushed instead during Senate budget debate to use surplus revenues or a percentage of the budget for road and bridge needs.
The issue is a complex one, pitting conservatives against moderates, those who insist on a continuing funding stream against those who want to use one-time monies and those who want to use existing funds against those who argue the Legislature should find additional revenue, such as increased fees or bond sales.
“The crazy thing here is that everyone recognizes it is a significant need,” said Sen. Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican who unsuccessfully proposed using all of the state’s surplus on infrastructure.
A task force last year estimated it would take $1.5 billion over the next 20 years to bring the state’s infrastructure up to adequate condition. A business coalition estimated the price tag at $6 billion over 10 years. Officials with the state Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance say they support the Senate plan.
DOT commissioners and many lawmakers have said without additional help the state cannot complete the state’s maintenance backlog and delays only increase the price because roads that deteriorate too far have to be rebuilt, not just repaved.
The state operates the fourth-largest state-maintained road system in the nation with one of the lowest fuel taxes, which was last raised in 1987.
Nearly half the state’s primary road system is graded in poor condition and more than half of the state’s secondary roads are rated that way.
Haley earlier this year proposed a plan that would shift about $4 million in fuel taxes now going to other agencies to DOT, spend $10 million in capital reserve funds and use the majority of surplus money for road and bridge needs.
She has told lawmakers repeatedly she is opposed to any plan to raise the gas tax.
Asked what she thought of the Senate plan proposed by Cleary’s committee, Rob Godfrey, a Haley spokesman, said: “Instead of leveraging South Carolina’s credit rating, or raising the gas tax, let’s prioritize our spending and pay for infrastructure this year — just like the governor proposed in her executive budget.”
Senate conservatives last week started the debate by proposing amendments to the state’s $6.7 billion General Fund budget. But those proposals last week and this week failed and the remaining chance to argue the issue will be on the bill produced by Cleary’s committee, which could surface after the budget is approved.
Sen. Tom Corbin is a Travelers Rest Republican serving his first year in the Senate who describes himself as an “extreme conservative.”
Last week, he proposed the Senate simply take 5 percent of the General Fund budget, or about $318 million, and apply it toward the road problem. About one-third of the money, he said, would go toward county transportation committees and the rest to DOT.
But some senators objected to the idea, saying it could cause tuition to rise, teachers to be laid off or would affect agencies disproportionately.
“I don’t think there’s a university or agency that can’t find that in waste,” Corbin said.
Cleary said DOT needs a permanent additional revenue stream, not one-time money. He also said that touching surplus funds could risk the state’s prized AAA credit rating.
Corbin’s proposal, however, didn’t get a vote.
“We had roughly 700 million new dollars,” he told GreenvilleOnline. “If we can’t do any more to help than what we are doing, it’s sad. People out there are still hurting. We’re not out of this recession. People are taxed enough. And I just don’t think raising taxes on them is the way to fix the problem.”
Nor does Massey, who at first thought his proposal might fly because it seemed not to attract much opposition. That changed, however, during debate and a move to table the bill resulted in a rare 20-20 tie.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell then voted to keep the proposal alive. Opponents argued that the state didn’t really have $700 million in new money because at least half of it was needed for critical needs, such as Medicaid.
The proposal later was ruled out of order, a ruling that spurred other conservatives in the Senate to raise points of order on various amendments just as had been done with Massey’s proposal.
Grooms proposed using 10 percent of the surplus, drawing opposition from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, who repeatedly wanted Grooms to say that his proposal would cut $70 million from the budget as approved by his committee.
Grooms’ proposal died 22-21.
Grooms said he thinks lawmakers are searching for a “path of least resistance.”
Sen. Lee Bright, who unsuccessfully proposed amendments to spend 10 percent, 5 percent and then 1 percent of the budget on roads, but not impacting the capital reserve fund or constitutional officer salaries, said he will fight any attempt to raise taxes.
He said he hopes Haley vetoes the budget if surplus money isn’t used for roads.
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said conservatives in the House want to fix the problem but don’t want to borrow the money.
Conservatives in the Senate have vowed to fight any package that includes borrowing and raising fees or taxes.
Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association, said the Legislature, at a minimum, needs to redirect vehicle fees to roads and to look at using surplus and new revenues for statewide, one-time, “significant projects.”
He said his group also supports a bonding plan that would provide another revenue stream and a cushion until an agreement is worked out in finding major recurring sources of revenue for roads and bridges.
“We need statewide leadership to make that get done,” he said.