The S.C. senator who last year blocked a proposal to increase gas taxes to fix the state’s crumbling roads said Thursday he expects a road repair plan to pass the Senate by mid-February.
A bill to increase the state’s gas tax is among the first issues that the state Senate will take up when lawmakers return to Columbia Tuesday.
“There’s going to be a lot more appetite in the Senate this year for reforms,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. Davis filibustered the last three weeks of the 2015 session, arguing state budget surpluses and existing revenues should be used to pay for road repair needs.
Davis, who has advocated for giving control of the state Transportation Department to the governor, said Thursday the Senate likely will pass a road-repair bill quickly because other senators now agree that agency needs to be reformed.
Davis said senators need to show taxpayers the state is spending wisely the money available for roads and deserves more. If senators properly allocate money and additional money is needed, “at that point and time, I’ve got no problem voting for a gas tax increase,” he added.
However, Davis said he believes that, after reforms are made, the state will have enough money to pay for road repairs without a gas tax increase.
Other lawmakers were not as optimistic as Davis on the timeline. Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said he expects senators to approve a road-repair plan by the June end of session.
Passing a proposal could take time, allowing senators to work out a deal on how to reform the Transportation Department, how much to cut state income taxes, and how much to increase the gas tax and other driving fees. However, Democrats likely will fight a large income tax cut, which Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has demanded as part of a roads deal.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the argument that an income tax cut will make South Carolina more attractive to businesses is a fallacy. “It would be a radical tax policy to give that much money back to the most well-to-do in this state, and to the point that it's a competition (among states for new industries) — Boeing, Volvo, BMW, the tire companies — they're all here. They didn't look at our 7 percent (state income tax rate) and go somewhere else.”
When fully enacted, the roads-and-tax-cut plan put forward by Senate Republicans would save the state’s highest-earning taxpayers — those who make more than $2 million in taxable income — an average of $62,066 a year, according to projections by the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs office.
Meanwhile, 1.1 million S.C. residents would not get any tax cut because they do not earn enough to pay income taxes. That includes the working poor and some retirees, who would pay higher gas taxes and fees related to driving a vehicle.
If lawmakers try to enact a tax plan that heavily favors the wealthiest taxpayers, “then we're not going to pass anything,” Hutto said.
Lawmakers also speculated on whether the March 30 deadline to file for the June primaries would impede passing a roads bill.
State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said pressure from the business community will force lawmakers to act early.
But Hutto said some lawmakers will be reluctant to vote to raise the gas tax before they know whether they will face primary opposition.
Senate Republican leader Peeler said voting for a road-repair proposal could cut both ways on Election Day. “People will vote against you if you vote for a gas-tax increase, and they’ll vote against you if you don’t fix their roads.”
2016’s key legislative dates
Jan. 12: First day of session
March 30: Filing deadline for primary races for all seats in the Legislature
May 1: Crossover deadline for bills that have not passed either the House or Senate to be considered this year
June 2: Last day of session