Many of us have heard the saying, “You’ll never go broke as long as I owe you.”
That was the message earlier this month from Senate Republicans who muscled through a plan to restructure the state Transportation Commission to allow the governor virtually unchecked influence over billions of dollars in highway contracting.
And, almost as an afterthought, Senate Republicans pledged to take $400 million a year out of the state budget and put it in a special account for roads.
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We can’t fill potholes with promises. And an IOU is useless without some do-re-mi. But Senate Republicans can’t show any of us the money for roads.
State transportation officials tell us South Carolina needs close to $1.5 billion a year for 25 to 30 years just to bring our roads and bridges up to a rating of “good.” Should the Senate Republican plan become law, the General Assembly would have to carve an extra $400 million out of the budget for roads every year for 20 or 30 years.
Recent history suggests lawmakers cannot be trusted to keep such commitments — even if it’s required by law. Consider for example:
▪ The Legislature passed a law to send money to our cities and counties to fund operations of local government. The funding, helps offset the need for property tax increases. However, the GOP-controlled General Assembly is nearly $111 million short of that obligation.
▪ The Legislature passed a law to fund public education through a prescribed formula. However, the GOP-controlled General Assembly has set per-pupil funding roughly $500 million below the required level to fully meet this commitment to our school children.
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If lawmakers cannot be trusted to do what’s best for property owners and school children, why should a pledge to do more for roads carry any clout?
In difficult financial times, lawmakers have shown that no account, no commitment is sacred. When the state experienced some of the worst financial times in history early in this century, the Legislature raided trust funds and skimmed interest off other accounts to cobble together an annual spending plan. Tens of millions of dollars were plundered from accounts created for specific public purposes, some established by law.
Budget writers raided everything from funds set aside to clean up environmental hazards such as the low-level nuclear waste site in Barnwell County and the Pinewood facility to one established to meet health needs through a settlement with the tobacco industry. Critics called this a breach of trust.
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The beauty of other transportation funding proposals being considered was that the revenue would bypass the General Assembly. It would go directly to the Transportation Department. As I said at a Senate Finance Committee meeting last year when we discussed setting aside surplus state dollars for roads: “Let us talk about what it would take to raise billions of dollars to fix the road problem — because this is not it. And I don’t even want to call this a fix for the roads. Just call it something else. Call it the ultimate example of a Band-Aid. Whatever you want to call it — this is not a fix for the roads.”
We owe our residents and the business community something better.
Rev. Jackson represents Richland County in the state Senate; contact him at DarrellJackson@scsenate.gov.