The state Senate gave key approval Wednesday to a $400 million roads-funding plan that does not include an increase in the state’s gas tax.
After a final perfunctory vote Thursday, the Senate bill heads back to the S.C. House, which passed a different roads-funding bill last year. That bill includes a 10-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase as well as a small cut in the state income tax.
Both bills give the governor control of the S.C. Department of Transportation, now controlled by lawmakers.
The House will vote either to negotiate with the Senate over its proposed changes or adopt the Senate plan.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, last week panned the Senate proposal, saying it was not a solution to the state’s multi-billion-dollar roads needs. The Senate plan "kicks the can further down the road and into a giant pothole,” Lucas said. “It's not really a new idea, and it's not a solution."
The Senate plan will arrive in the House during the same week that filing opens for all seats in the Legislature. Many Republicans — who control the House and a majority of the Senate — do not want to be associated with a tax increase while seeking re-election. Also, the House’s roads plan was passed before the General Assembly learned the state had an added $1.2 billion to spend in extra tax revenue.
The Senate proposes to use $400 million of that excess revenue on roads, money that has flowed in as the state recovers from the Great Recession, which began in 2008.
The Senate’s 30-15 vote was mostly along party lines with Republicans, the Senate’s majority party, holding firm to an agreement they announced last week.
State Sen. Ray Cleary of Georgetown was the only Republican to vote against the plan. Cleary, who is not seeking re-election, has said the state needs to increase its gas tax — the third-lowest in the nation — is provide a steady stream of money for road repairs.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said lawmakers have little to celebrate with the roads bill.
Hutto said the bill falls short of a long-term fix for roads, which should include raising the gas tax. Unchanged since 1987, the gas tax is partly paid by out-of-state drivers, who would share the burden of fixing the roads with S.C. residents, he said.
Instead, the Senate plan proposes spending money from the state's general fund, money that could go to pay for public education, corrections officers and other needs at agencies that experienced recession-era cuts, he said.
Dismissing criticism, Senate Republicans said Wednesday the outcome could have been worse — they still could be in a standoff over whether to raise the gas tax.
"It was a realistic possibility we could have nothing," said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who introduced the plan approved by the Senate. "Perhaps they (S.C. House) will see the wisdom of this plan."
Earlier Wednesday in a sign of their resolve, Senate Republicans rejected a roads-funding proposal introduced by the state’s most powerful politician, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman.
The Florence Republican, who said he will not back a state gas-tax increase this year, proposed using $200 million a year to pay for bonds for interstate repairs. Leatherman’s plan also called for a one-time earmark of $200 million to fix other state roads and bridges.
Critics of Leatherman’s proposal said the Transportation Department can decide how much of the $400 million to use for bonds.
The proposal from Leatherman, who also heads the Senate’s budget-writing panel, was rejected by a 27-17 vote. Leatherman and Cleary were the only Republicans voting in favor on the plan.
“We are united,” said Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee. “As far as I am concerned, the case is closed.”