State senators laid the framework for a road-repair bill Thursday as the Senate Transportation Committee approved changing the Transportation Department’s oversight.
However, critics said the proposed change will continue to blur responsibility and encourage “parochialism” on the Transportation Department commission.
The Senate Finance Committee debated the two other key parts of a road-repair proposal earlier in the week – how much to increase the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax and other driving fees, and how much to cut income and business taxes.
Senators hope to bring the three components together in an amendment to a House-passed road-repair proposal that has a priority spot on the Senate’s calendar, said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland. That amendment will emerge after the Finance Committee meets next week, Lourie said.
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Senators on the transportation panel Thursday approved expanding the eight-member Transportation Department commission to 10 members. The state’s 10 Councils of Government, regional planning districts, would nominate three candidates for each commission seat and the governor would choose one. That commission now is legislatively controlled.
Senators on the roads panel were divided over the proposal, voting 9-6 to approve it. That division sets up a future fight on the Senate floor about whether the governor should have more direct control of the commission.
“The idea of transparency becomes less and less” with the Councils of Government involved, said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who voted against the proposal. Grooms, who chairs the Transportation Committee, supports having the governor directly appoint commission members.
Commissioners who represent areas of the state will feel a duty to represent their district, rather than the entire state, said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, who also voted against the proposal. “We’re signaling to the commission parochialism is really important to us.”
But state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said the proposal, which he supported, was an improvement over the existing commission.
Commissioners now come from congressional districts that split up counties among gerrymandered lines, he said. “We want to start addressing transportation needs regionally.”
McElveen also said he is wary of giving the governor control of the commission, fearing concentrating too much power in the hands of one person.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has pushed for more executive control over the roads agency. The House-approved road-repair bills would allow the governor to name all commission members.
Meanwhile, others in the road-repair fight want changes to the controversial S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank included in Transportation Department reforms.
S.C. Coastal Conservation League director Dana Beach said he is hopeful senators will abolish the Infrastructure Bank, which borrows money to finance road projects. Critics say the roads approved by the bank too often are political pork-barrel projects.
The Conservation League opposes new roads —including a proposed Interstate 73 to Myrtle Beach and the extension of Interstate 526 in Charleston — saying they destroy wetlands and farmland, divide communities and encourage urban sprawl.
Despite his opposition to the reform passed by his committee, Grooms said Thursday’s vote represented progress. “The actions today will advance an overall roads bill.”