Politics & Government

Road funding debate begins again

Weeds grow out of a deep pothole in downtown Anderson
Weeds grow out of a deep pothole in downtown Anderson Independent Mail

Lawmakers are poised once again to debate road funding in South Carolina but say a solution will not be quick.

A week before the two-year legislative session begins, lawmakers are divided along many of the same fault lines that have stymied passage of bills in past years to increase the state's gas tax, last raised in 1987.

The Legislature last year stalled on plans to increase the tax but passed a bill that could mean almost $4 billion more for South Carolina roads over the next decade, primarily through bonds. The state's leaders said then they would tackle the issue of how to provide a more sustainable revenue source for road and bridge needs this year.

A new House proposal would raise the tax by 2 cents per year over five years, while a Senate plan would increase it by 4 cents over three years.

But two potential obstacles remain to any increase. Some senators say they want to see true reform in governance at the state Department of Transportation passed first.

Last year, lawmakers gave the governor the authority to appoint all highway commissioners with the advice, consent and screening of legislators, who would also have to approve the removal of any commissioner.

Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican who has filibustered past attempts to raise the gas tax to force debate on DOT reform, described what was done last year as "fake reform."

"We haven't put the governor in charge," he said Thursday at a panel of lawmakers during a South Carolina Press Association workshop. "We don't have a restructured DOT. It is still controlled by the Legislature."

Davis said he does not want to discuss any gas tax increase until the Legislature first passes, and the governor signs, what he says is actual reform at the highway agency.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield said the current governance system at DOT "is not where I think we need to be."

"I think we need to continue to work on the structure of the department," he said. "I think it makes sense to do the reform first. It's just going to be a little more difficult."

House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope says the agency is not responsive to people.

"When you look at agencies that are strictly under the governor's office, not necessarily from a fiscal standpoint but from a citizen standpoint ... bringing all the power up top is not necessarily the answer," he said. "I think transparency and accountability are the answer. We've got to show that they are accountable. I believe from what I've seen that they are, but we've got to do a better job of telling the citizens that."

Sen. Sean Bennett, a Dorchester County Republican who is is a sponsor of a bill that would increase the gas tax and enact tax cuts and credits, said he is not OK with delaying debate on that bill until a reform measure is passed..He said to do so would take lawmakers down the same rocky road they traveled last year on the issue.

"We've got to deal with both of these issues," he said. "Most people agree we need more resources to our Department of Transportation to fix these roads and we've got to have that discussion on the best way to do that.".

The other possible roadblock to any gas tax increase, lawmakers say, is whether a new governor will continue Gov. Nikki Haley's demand that any gas tax increase be accompanied by significant tax cuts as well as DOT reform or face a veto. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster is set to take over as governor if and when Haley, nominated by President-elect Donald Trump as United Nations ambassador, is confirmed, and he hasn't voiced his feelings on the issue.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat, said if McMaster takes Haley's stance he doesn't believe any gas tax bill will pass.

"If he says he would sign a bill like that, then there will be enough votes between Democrats and some Republicans to pass it," he said. "If he says he will veto it, then I would not anticipate you would see something."

Sen. John Matthews, an Orangeburg County Democrat, agrees.

"If he's willing to work with the General Assembly, we can probably get something done," he said.

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill of Rock Hill, who last year championed road-funding legislation in the House, said the need to increase funding remains, but he is advocating for a phased-in approach because contractors would not be available if all the funding were provided at once since North Carolina and Georgia last year passed road-funding bills and contractors will be busy there.

But he said the state needs a sustainable funding increase like the gas tax if it wants to attract contractors and paving companies to invest in the state.

He also said in addition to crumbling roads, safety also is now a major issue because of large increases in road fatalities. He said DOT is asking for an additional $40 million over two years for safety improvements.

Democrats said they are not interested in a road-funding bill that provides tax relief mostly to the state's most affluent, repeating their complaint of past tax-relief proposals.

"If it is more targeted, if it focuses on a real problem in South Carolina, which is local industrial property tax rates which is a tremendous problem for local South Carolina businesses, then maybe there is room for consensus to emerge," Sheheen said.

He said he thinks tolls also need to be on the table to improve or widen interstates, including I-95, which he called a "disgrace to South Carolina."

"We ought not be be afraid to talk about it," he said.

Even with many of the same political obstacles that existed last year, Massey said he is optimistic that lawmakers can reach some agreement.

"I think there is now more of an opportunity than in years past," he said.

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