A plan to raise the state’s gas tax failed this year – but opponents of that plan say the fight has only just begun.
On Wednesday, representatives of limited government and conservation advocacy groups gathered at the State House to urge lawmakers to change the way the state pays for transportation projects before raising more money to fix the state’s ailing roads and bridges.
When lawmakers return to work in January to finish out a two-year legislative session, proposals to raise the gas tax while providing tax relief will be at the top of the agenda.
Before then, said S.C. Policy Council president Ashley Landess, lawmakers and the public need to evaluate Transportation Department claims that the state is short $1.5 billion a year to fix and expand the state’s roads and bridges.
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That figure and other claims being used to bolster support for a gas-tax hike, Landess said during a press conference at the State House, “have gone almost entirely unchallenged.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley have called for reforms to the S.C. Department of Transportation and how money is spent.
But opponents of raising the gas tax said Wednesday that reforms must address the State Infrastructure Bank, a board that provides loans and financial assistance to transportation projects that exceed $100 million.
The seven-member board is made up of the Department of Transportation’s commission chairman and two members appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president pro tempore each.
Under that panel’s direction, millions of dollars have been “diverted to politically motivated projects,” said Dana Beach, with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, serves on the State Infrastructure Bank and serves on and appoints members to the panel that screens candidates for the Transportation Department’s commission.
The two boards combined, the gas-tax opponents said, concentrate too much power in the hands of too few legislators, leaving the public largely without any control over how transportation dollars are spent in the state, they said.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said the need to further vet the roads proposals drove him to a three-week filibuster that blocked the Senate from taking up a roads fix last week as the clock ran out on the regularly scheduled legislative session.
JoAnne Day with the League of Women Voters, Talbert Black with the Campaign for Liberty and Dave Schwartz with the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national advocacy group backed by the billionaire political activist Koch brothers, also spoke out against raising the gas tax before reforming the state’s transportation funding system.
Schwartz said his grassroots advocacy group is growing and will be ready for “hand-to-hand combat” when state legislators return for work in January, though he declined to say how much the group will spend fighting a gas tax increase next year.
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