Lawmakers have yet to get behind a single plan to fix the state’s crumbling roads with just days to go before the legislative session starts.
Legislators said road repairs will be a top priority in 2015 as they addressed the media Thursday, previewing the session.
But an increase to the state’s 16.75 cent-a-gallon gas tax appears to be off the table.
With S.C. gas prices averaging $2.01 Thursday, paying a higher gas tax would not be as great a burden for drivers as a year ago, when gas cost $1.10 a gallon more. But lawmakers are averse to raising the gas tax, in part because Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, has said she would veto a gas-tax hike.
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Lawmakers are divided on how to raise the nearly $43 billion in added money needed for road repairs and expansion through 2040.
That means it may take more than one legislative session to come up with a roads fix, new House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, has suggested.
In the S.C. House, a special panel has been studying roads for months.
The panel, chaired by state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, is considering a plan that would give local roads to counties. The plan also includes an indirect gas-tax hike. It would cut the state’s gas tax but apply the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline sales at the wholesale level, an added cost that wholesalers likely would pass on to drivers in the form of higher prices.
“The Senate,” as Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said Thursday, “ has 46 plans.”
Meanwhile, Haley, who said during her re-election campaign that she would study the roads issue and release her own plan this month, has yet to suggest what legislators should do.
The House plan
The House transportation committee will meet Monday, the day before the legislative session starts, to consider Simrill’s proposals.
His plan would:
• Give roughly half of the state’s 41,000 miles of roads to counties, which then would pay the cost of maintaining those roads
• Give counties more money to maintain those roads by promising to fund the state’s local government fund and increase the 2.66 cents a gallon that counties get from the state’s gas tax
• Put a question on the 2016 ballot asking whether S.C. voters want to pay an added statewide penny tax to finance roads repairs
• Change the state Transportation Department to a cabinet agency, reporting directly to the governor. The department now is governed by an eight-member commission, controlled by the Legislature. Simrill proposes the governor appoint all the commissioners, who then would hire a secretary of transportation.
County leaders oppose taking over state roads because they distrust the General Assembly, which has not fully funded the local government fund since the Great Recession.
House Speaker Lucas said Thursday he expects the House to introduce a comprehensive roads bill to address the state’s needs. But because a plan will require approval from the Senate and governor, Lucas said he could not say whether a plan would become law.
“We’re seeking consensus from the governor, the Senate and the local units of government,” Lucas said. “I can’t tell you what those entities will do. But I can tell you the House will take their bill very seriously.”
‘In a Third World country’
Peeler, the majority leader in the GOP-majority Senate, agrees road repair will be the top issue this session.
“If we don’t pass it this year, it will be generations before we address it,” Peeler said.
“Our big industries are telling us we need to address infrastructure. Our chambers of commerce are telling us we need to address infrastructure,” Peeler said, adding all options should be on the table, including toll roads, restructuring the Transportation Department, using general fund money and borrowing.
But, he added, any plan adopted must avoid a veto by Haley or have enough votes in the General Assembly to be able to override her veto pen.
That leaves little hope for increasing the gas tax, a step that road advocates say is necessary to raise enough money to put a dent in the problem.
Peeler did mention the possibility of a tax swap Thursday — increasing the gas tax and reducing another tax, such as the state income tax.
State Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, said every time he goes out in public, he is asked when lawmakers are going to fix the roads.
Cromer said he had his own experience with the state’s bad roads when traveling to Key West, Fla., more than a year ago, pulling his 17-foot boat on a trailer with his truck.
“It was heaven coming through Florida and Georgia,” Cromer said, adding that when he reached South Carolina, “I felt like I was in a Third World country.”
‘You want somebody else to pay’
But finding money to improve S.C. roads — some of which Cromer described as being like parking lots because of overcrowding — is difficult, he said.
Cromer said when he talks to residents in his district about increasing the state’s gas tax, they oppose the idea. Instead, they say lawmakers should use some of the state’s roughly $7.5 billion-a-year general fund money, now divided among education, health care, Social Services, roads and other needs.
“When it comes out of your pocket, you don’t want to pay that extra money,” Cromer said. “You want somebody else to pay it.”
Democrats, the minority party in both the House and Senate, have their own ideas.
The last four years, state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, has proposed levying a toll on Interstate 95. For three years, his bill did not even go to committee to be debated, he said.
Thursday, state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, criticized House Assistant Majority Leader Simrill’s plan as being too complicated.
“At the end of the day, the person at the pump, they just want to know what they’re going to pay,” Lourie said, adding there is some sentiment in the Senate to look at a gas tax increase.
But other senators, including Cromer, disagree.
Cromer noted Lexington County voters handily rejected a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike in November, including money that would have gone for roads.
That result showed voters do not want a tax increase, he said.
“While it’s easy to say, ‘Let’s just increase the taxes,’ it’s a little hard for those of us who are sitting here, trying to get re-elected, to openly say, ‘We’re going to take more money out of your pocket.’ ”