More than half of South Carolinians say the state should raise its gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to pay for road repairs, according to a Winthrop Poll released Wednesday.
That is, if the money is used exclusively to pay for roads and bridges, and the state’s gas prices remain lower than its neighbors.
Fifty-five percent of the 1,109 South Carolinians polled between Feb. 21 and March 1 said they would support raising the gas tax on those conditions. Forty-two percent said they opposed the hike.
The gas tax increase is part of a proposal that Gov. Nikki Haley supports and one lawmakers are considering.
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Haley said in January that she would support the gas-tax increase if lawmakers also would agree to lower income tax rates by 2 percentage points over 10 years. Her plan would swap about $3.5 billion in new money for roads for tax cuts totaling $8.5 billion.
The poll results mark a shift from an October Winthrop poll, when 52 percent of South Carolinians said they opposed a gas-tax increase to pay for roads. But in a later question in that same poll, public opinion shifted to approve an increase after those surveyed were told the state’s gas prices would remain below neighboring states even with the tax increase.
In the poll released Wednesday, those surveyed were told the gas tax “would increase the cost of gas in the state, but a gallon of gas in South Carolina would still be cheaper than a gallon of gas in North Carolina or Georgia. The money raised would be restricted to use for infrastructure, such as repairing roads and bridges.”
Public opinion varies widely on the issue depending on the context of the question, said Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon.
That is because the public knows very few details about the state’s gas tax and road-funding issues, he said.
Bill Ross, executive director of S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, said the poll results show public opinion on a gas-tax hike is “moving in the right direction.”
“Most people don't support a tax increase” outright, said Ross, whose group says a gas-tax hike is needed to help pay to repair the state’s roads. But told how South Carolina’s gas tax would compare to other states, the public can support it, Ross added.
“People just don't understand that other states have moved forward with their highway funding,” Ross said. “It helps them relate to the issue.”
But Dave Schwartz of Americans for Prosperity, a limited-government group that opposes raising the gas tax, said the poll question was based on “a big if” – whether lawmakers would keep their promise to spend the money on road repairs.
“There is no guarantee that, if you pass the gas tax hike, that the money will go to roads and bridges,” Schwartz said, adding, “How would you feel about your gas-tax dollars going to pay bicycle trails and not roads?”
Schwartz said that before lawmakers consider raising the gas tax, they first must reform the way the state decides on transportation projects and how to pay for them.
A more than $40 billion list of state transportation needs includes light-rail projects and bike paths, Schwartz said, adding that cost exceeds what drivers should be forced to support.