It likely will be April before the S.C. House takes action on a Senate plan to spend $400 million on roads.
The soonest representatives could get to the road-repair proposal would be Thursday, according to House rules. But that is unlikely. Instead, the House’s GOP leaders say they want to study the differences between Senate- and House-passed road bills.
"Getting it right is more important than getting it done quick," said S.C. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville.
If representatives do not pass the road-repair plan — critics call it a roads Band-Aid — this week, it could be three weeks before they get back to it. Next week, the House will vote on the state’s roughly $7.5 billion general fund budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Then, representatives will leave Columbia for two weeks of unpaid furlough.
Delaying action on the roads bill until April also would move any vote until after filing ends for candidates to run for the Legislature. However, Bannister insisted that was not a motive. Representatives who are going to face opposition will have opposition, he said.
While lawmakers on furlough, a special House committee that studied the roads-repair issue a year ago will meet, said that panel’s chairman, state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York.
"This mad dash to complete the roads bill when money cannot be allocated until July 1 ... is not there,” Simrill said.
However, getting House members to agree on a proposal could be a challenge.
"We expect a host of amendments from both Republicans and Democrats," Bannister said, adding many lawmakers have ideas about how to improve the proposal — from how to pay for repairs to changes at the state Transportation Department.
Gov. Nikki Haley told GOP House members Tuesday that she is committed to restructuring the Transportation Department this year, Bannister said. Haley asked House Republicans to agree with the Senate bill, guaranteeing restructuring would happen, Bannister said.
At a news conference Tuesday, Haley said the plan passed by the Senate would stop horse-trading, citing the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank’s decision to spend state money to expand S.C. 51 in Florence, the district of Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
Legislators now elect members of the commission that oversees the Transportation Department. Under the Senate plan, the governor would appoint commission members, who then would select a director of the agency. In addition, the Transportation Department Commission would approve Infrastructure Bank projects.
Haley praised the Senate plan. Under that plan, she said road projects would be prioritized to reflect safety, traffic and economic development needs.
Haley added she would work with House leaders over the summer to find a direct funding stream to pay for road repairs. That way, governors in future years won’t have to worry about the cost of road repairs devastating the rest of the state budget.
A direct funding stream would not include a net tax increase, Haley said.
Last year, the governor proposed increasing the state’s gas tax by 10 cents a gallon. However, she tied that tax hike to a 2-percentage-point cut in the state’s income tax brackets. That tax cut — three times larger than the gas-tax hike — would raid the state budget of $1.8 billion a year, critics said.
Late Tuesday, Haley posted a "call to action" on her Facebook page, urging voters to contact their legislators and urge them to support the Senate plan.
"The House is faced with a clear choice this week: Concur with the Senate and give us reform that stops the horse trading and give us a real fix to our roads without raising taxes."
Senate panel approves aid for S.C. farmers
The state Senate’s budget panel approved using $40 million from a savings account Tuesday to offer aid to farmers whose crops were washed away during October’s historic flooding.
If approved by the full Senate, farmers could recover up to $100,000 via a grant, money that would not have to be repaid.
The S.C. House already has approved the proposal. The farm-aid fund also would be able to accept private donations, grants and property in order to raise more money to make awards.