With only 12 days left in this year’s legislative session, the S.C. Senate started debate Tuesday of a proposal to repair the state’s crumbling roads.
The debate — of a proposal to increase the state’s gas tax and other driving fees to raise roughly $800 million a year for road repairs — quickly broke down into partisan, sometimes heated rancor.
Democrats and a handful of Senate Republicans support increasing the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax, the second lowest in the nation. However, most Senate Republicans, the majority party in the Senate, want an offsetting income-tax cut included in the proposal before they will approve any gas-tax increase.
Addressing those Republicans, state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said no South Carolinian has died because their taxes are too high, but hundreds of fatalities occur every year on the state’s unsafe highways.
Another small but noisy faction — made up of Republican libertarians — insists a tax hike isn’t needed, saying restructuring of the state’s Transportation Department and spending priorities in the answer.
State Sen. Tom Davis, the Beaufort Republican who filibustered a gas-tax hike the past two years, took to the podium and spoke for about 20 minutes, saying part of the problem is that legislators don’t want to give up their control over how road money is spent.
While the Senate’s Democrats and its factionalized Republicans were busy drawing lines in the sand, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he remains optimistic a compromise can be reached.
“There’s always room for an agreement,” Massey said.
Earlier Tuesday, S.C. House leaders urged the Senate to pass the gas-tax increase, noting the clock is running out on this year’s legislative session.
“Pass the damn bill,” said S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, in a press conference, joined by House Republicans and Democrats.
Lucas was referring to a plane that flew over last weekend’s RBC Heritage golf tournament in Hilton head, towing a sign that read “Fix the damn roads,” paid for by the pro-gas-tax increase S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads.
“We will refuse to play petty politics over policy as the Senate did last year,” Lucas said. “We refuse to mislead the people of South Carolina with a seemingly easy solution” — borrowing money — “that will do nothing for our state roads.”
GOP Gov. Henry McMaster has said he will veto a gas-tax increase. Instead, he has urged lawmakers to change a borrowing plan, intended to repair state-owned buildings, to redirect that money to pay for road repairs. That proposal has been panned by most legislators.
The cost of state borrowing is repaid out of its general fund, made up of income and sales taxes paid by South Carolinians. However, a gas-tax hike would capture out-of-state tax dollars from tourists and travelers passing through South Carolina, House leaders said.
“To be conservative is not to depend on tax earnings from South Carolinians only to pay for roads,” state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York. “It needs to be fee-based.”
“We appreciate their encouragement,” Massey said of the House’s attempt to pressure the Senate. “They’ve persuaded us, so we’re talking about the bill.”