Politics & Government

House backs $60-a-year tax hike to repair SC’s ragged roads

Governor Henry McMaster on Raising the gas tax

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster discusses the gas tax during an interview with the media.
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South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster discusses the gas tax during an interview with the media.

The S.C. House voted 97-18 Wednesday to increase the state’s gas tax and other driving fees to raise about $600 million a year to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Under the plan, the state’s gas tax would increase by 2 cents a gallon each year for the next five years. When fully phased in, the 10-cent-a-gallon increase would cost the average S.C. driver $60 a year.

The state Department of Transportation estimates it needs an added $1 billion a year to repair and maintain S.C. roads.

“We’re at crisis point when it comes to roads in South Carolina,” said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, who has championed the bill.

The House approved the tax increase with a wide enough majority to override a potential veto by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster.

McMaster, a Richland Republican who faces running for governor in 2018 in a tax-averse GOP primary, has not said whether he will veto the plan. Instead, he has said taxes should be raised only as a last resort.

After a perfunctory final House vote Thursday, the tax-hike bill will go to the state Senate.

There, the bill faces the hurdle of libertarian-leaning state Sen. Tom Davis, the Beaufort Republican who has filibustered a gas-tax increase two years in a row. Pro- and anti-gas-tax hike groups also are expected to roll out lobbying efforts.

But the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly voted to raise the gas tax Wednesday.

“Refusing to compromise will not solve our roads problem, but simply places politics above responsible public policy,” said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “A delayed resolution continues to threaten the safety of South Carolina drivers and increases costs for repair and resurfacing of decaying roads and bridges.”

The state’s 16.75 cent-a-gallon gas tax, last increased 30 years ago, is the second-lowest in the nation.

“We don’t have enough money to keep our roads in a safe condition,” said state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun.

The first priority of the new money would be to enact a safety program for the state’s deadly rural roads, costing roughly $50 million a year, said S.C. Transportation Department chief Christy Hall. That plan includes adding rumble strips to alert drivers they are near a road’s edge and widening shoulders to give drivers time to correct if they run off the highway.

According to the Transportation Department:

▪ Roughly half of an added $600 million a year from the higher gas tax and driving fees would be spent to improve the condition of the pavement on the state’s roads. The goal is to bring 58 percent of the state’s primary roads into good condition.

▪ Another $200 million would be spent to widen interstates and launch a freight-mobility program.

▪ Roughly $60 million would improve day-to-day maintenance levels to “fair,” a level with few deficiencies. Highway workers now are struggling to keep up the highway system, much of it in poor condition.

Supporters of the tax hike pointed to the condition of the state’s roads.

“You’ve got potholes on the interstate,” said state Rep. Joe Jefferson, D-Berkeley, adding lawmakers could override any veto by Gov. McMaster.

Freshman state Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Dorchester, said that when she campaigned last year, she went door-to-door, pushing for a gas-tax increase. Voters elected her, she noted, referencing a car wreck in her district Monday as another reason to approve the tax hike.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Amy and David Lee lost their 19-year-old daughter Grayson Ann Lee, when she ran off the road and hit a tree in the median near mile marker 183 on I-26 in 2014. The Lees say the area should have been lined with cable barriers which could have saved their daughter's life.

Higher driving costs

The S.C. House passed a plan Wednesday to raise the state’s gas tax and driving-related fees to pay to repair the state’s crumbling roads. Under the proposal, S.C. drivers would face an added:

▪  $16 fee every two years to register a vehicle

▪  $60 in fees every two years if they own a hybrid vehicle

▪  $120 in fees every two years if they own an electric vehicle

▪  Up to $200 in added sales taxes if they buy a used car that costs between $6,000 and $10,000. Buyers who purchase vehicles that cost more than $10,000 also would pay an added $200. That tax hike is the result of increasing the cap on the sales tax on vehicle sales to $500 from $300.

▪  A one-time fee of up to $250 if they buy a vehicle out of state and register it in South Carolina.