State Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort is trying to calmly upset the apple cart the good ol’ boys have been pushing forever in Columbia.
Davis has held the floor in the Senate for the past two weeks, putting the brakes on progress in the final days of the legislative session. This is when the rubber of the money machine finally hits the road in Columbia, and Davis is warning us to watch for falling millions.
The Republican attorney has talked for a total of 35 hours to stop a $700 million annual tax increase, most of it at the gas pump.
He has a plan to get more money to the roads, but he told me Friday he wants to change “the politically-driven and borderline corrupt way that money is spent” by the legislature.
He appears to be headed the wrong way on a one-way street, bucking the legislature’s entrenched leadership and heavy lobbying from chambers of commerce, truckers, road builders and more.
But nobody made him sit down.
Davis has been in the well arguing for a change in the annual capital reserve fund bill, saying $47 million of the $87 million in the bill should be for roads.
With 26 votes or three-fifths of senators present, whichever is less, Davis could have been put back in his seat. And the Senate could have moved on to the next bill — the one to raise the state gas tax by 12 cents a gallon, along with other tax and fee hikes.
“I think I’m moving the needle, and I think I’m playing a role in having the dollars sent where they ought to be sent,” Davis said.
Davis wasn’t born yet when U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina filibustered in Washington for 24 hours and 18 minutes. That was an attempt in 1957 to block civil rights legislation.
But Davis has talked for six days, and when we talked on the phone Friday, he sounded like he could go six more.
What did he say?
First, fix the system.
Davis said the Department of Transportation commission is political and needs to be abolished.
“Right now, the people have no idea who to hold accountable,” he said. “They don’t know the seven highway commissioners who are appointed by the legislators, and what’s more, those commission members really aren’t responsible for making the decisions. It’s the senior legislators who have the ability to reach in and direct those dollars. And, so, until you’ve got accountability, you’re never going to have any shot at having a logical expenditure of dollars.”
It’s the same for the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, he said.
The result is waste. He cites $100 million spent to four-lane a sparsely-used road to Pamplico from Florence, home of Senate Finance Committee Chairman and President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman.
Awash in money
Money isn’t the problem, Davis said.
His second point is to put more existing money into roads and bridge repair — without raising taxes. And send the money to the county level by using an existing fair formula, so it can be spent according to existing, fact-based priority lists.
Davis rolled out data to show that, when he joined the Senate seven years ago, the legislature devoted $1 billion to roads; this year it is $1.625 billion. The 54 percent increase is more than any other area of government other than health care, he said.
He showed that the money is going 3-to-1 to new projects over repair. “No politician ever held a ribbon-cutting for a pothole-filling initiative,” he said.
And he argued early on that the state would be getting $400 million more than expected to spend this year.
In a year that everyone agrees the top need is better roads and bridges, send that money to the county level to get things done immediately, Davis told his colleagues.
He argues that it’s not one-time money, because state revenue is expected to continue to rise, and in four years, we could be up to speed on roads with no tax increase.
Where Davis is upsetting the apple cart is talking openly and seemingly forever about how to spend that $400 million. He said the typical — good ol’ boy — way of doing that is for the heads of the Senate and House finance committees to keep the dollar figure undisclosed until the legislature has three days to decide on spending $400 million, then go around and dole out money for pet projects around the state to get the votes they need for the budget they want.
“I’m making people unhappy up here and, particularly, I’m making the Senate Finance chairman (Leatherman) unhappy,” Davis said.
But he does not foresee any retribution. “Things are just more transparent these days,” he said.
And he thinks a majority of Republican senators are buying what he is selling after having an extended public discussion about the facts and figures.
“We’ll find out next week,” he said. “If in fact that $400 million, as has been done in prior years, simply gets divvied up to various projects around the state, then what I have done the past two or three weeks won’t have been productive. It’s as simple as that.”