GOV. NIKKI HALEY may be right to worry that we won’t get a roads bill if the House changes the flawed Senate bill. The Senate has become such a dysfunctional mess that it will take a serious commitment by that body’s leaders to even get a vote on an amended bill.
But to suggest that the House should pretend it is not a co-equal body with the Senate and swallow the Senate plan whole is absurd. To claim that House leaders’ refusal to do that is “all about ownership and who came up with the idea” is nonsensical. To say the blame will be “on the House” if the Senate refuses to consider House changes is offensive.
SC House plans to spend nearly $400 million for road repairs
The governor might have a point if the Senate plan were perfect — or even close. It is not. Although its reform provisions are better than we could have hoped for, the funding side of the bill is at best irresponsible and at worst fraudulent.
The governor might have a point if the House were refusing to compromise. It is not. House leaders have abandoned their plan to raise the gas tax to provide permanent funding for roads. That’s a huge concession in a body that voted by an overwhelming 87-20 to increase the gas tax, and it shows a tremendous willingness to meet the Senate more than halfway.
The problem with the Senate bill is that it commits the Legislature to siphoning $400 million out of our state’s general budget fund and giving it to the Transportation Department. Although the Legislature has been raiding the general fund for the past few years, it has been on an ad hoc basis. The Senate plan locks this into state law, and officially abandons our state’s long-held position that how much people pay for our roads should be related to how much they use them.
Scoppe: Senate GOP road plan: Keep the reform, ditch the raid
The Senate plan says that henceforth, it will allocate $400 million less each year than it otherwise would have to pay teacher salaries, to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents, to employ the judges who lock up the bad guys and the prison guards who keep the bad guys from escaping and the scientists who test our water to make sure it’s safe to drink, and everything else. This is simply irresponsible.
Of course, Senate Republicans have no intention of following through. That’s why their bill leaves it up to the Legislature each year to decide whether to divert $400 million from the rest of state government.
That’s just like the law that promises an amount equal to 4.5 percent of the previous year’s budget for local governments — a promise that hasn’t been kept in years. It’s just like the law that promises to fund the “base student cost” using a formula that includes inflation and the number of students enrolled in the public schools — a promise that hasn’t been kept in years.
Next year’s House budget will include nearly $400 million to pay for roads, which is all the Senate bill guarantees. The House needs to eliminate the sure-to-be-broken promise in the Senate roads bill and adopt the Senate’s reform plan, which lets the governor hire and fire all the members of the Transportation Commission and gives her commission veto-power over the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. Although the House bill has some good reform provisions, the Senate’s plan is better, and accepting it should make it easier to get a bill to the governor.
EXCLUSIVE: SC has paid $40 million since 2010 to settle road claims
In doing so, the House would be saying three things: We have reluctantly abandoned our smart work to provide a permanent funding source, even though a third of the money would have been paid by out-of-state drivers. We have embraced your reform plan instead of our own. But we simply will not be party to the promise that we know and you know will not be kept. We will not perpetuate a fraud upon the public by telling drivers we have taken care of this problem; your bill does not take care of this problem, and our budget includes nearly all the money for next year that your bill promises — which is all the money that your bill is capable of delivering.
If the Senate refuses to go along, then the Senate will have failed us.
If there is failure beyond that, it’s in the governor’s office, because it was the governor who demanded that lawmakers cut income taxes by $1.7 billion per year if they wanted to raise the gas tax by $400 million per year. Please read that again, because her demand is often characterized as a dollar-for-dollar swap. What the governor demanded was so breathtakingly unreasonable that it doomed any chance of passing a reasonable plan.
The one saving grace in the Senate’s finance plan is that it took that issue off the table. Now the House needs to take the Senate’s perpetual promise off the table.