Politics & Government

How, after 3 years, the SC Senate passed a gas tax increase

Gov. McMaster opposing gas tax to fix South Carolina roads

Gov. Henry McMaster explained his reasons for opposing a gas tax to repair South Carolina roads.
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Gov. Henry McMaster explained his reasons for opposing a gas tax to repair South Carolina roads.

After hours of debate about raising the state’s gas tax, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman made a formal motion Wednesday to sit down a gas tax opponent who was blocking a vote.

It was a rare move to halt a filibuster in the sometimes painfully tradition-bound Senate.

But senators voted to force state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, to stop talking as part of his plan to block a plan to raise money to fix the state’s crumbling roads.

“It was time to give the people a vote,” Florence Republican Leatherman said afterward.

Getting to that vote was three years in the making.

First, the overwhelmingly Republican, tax-averse S.C. House had to pass a gas tax hike with a veto-proof majority. It did. Twice.

Then, senators had to withstand pressure from gas tax advocates and opponents as outside groups doubled down in elections in their districts last November.

Eventually, senators had to find the magic combination they needed all along: Tax cuts and reforms to the state Transportation Department that could be paired with a tax hike. That deal garnered the support of 34 state senators, far more than the two-thirds needed to withstand a threatened veto by Gov. Henry McMaster, R-Richland.

Then, senators had to agree to end Davis’ talkathon, started two years ago.

‘Pass the damn bill’

Pressure from the House was key to keeping the Senate focused on passing a roads fix.

In early April, with only four weeks left in this year’s legislative session, House leaders held a press conference.

The House initially passed a gas tax increase in 2015, but the Senate failed to approve that plan last year as Davis filibustered. Starting over, the S.C. House passed a 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike in March by a 97-18 vote.

Fed up by the Senate’s inaction again this year, House Republicans and minority party Democrats held a joint news conference to send a message.

“Pass the damn bill,” said S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, referring to a plane that flew over the recent RBC Heritage golf tournament in Hilton Head, towing a sign that read: “Fix the damn roads.”

On Wednesday, the House doubled down on passing a gas tax hike, adding its plan to the state budget that takes effect July 1.

“We continued to apply pressure because the House recognized how important infrastructure in South Carolina was,” said Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, who sponsored the House plan.

Outside groups

In addition to pressure from the House, senators have taken heat from outside groups on both sides of the road repair and gas tax hike debate since 2015.

Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers of Kansas, drew the ire of senators last year. The group sent a barrage of robocalls and mailers into senators’ districts, opposing a gas tax hike. At the time, senators said AFP had misrepresented the gas tax debate. Senators also complained AFP is an out-of-state group that gets “dark money” from unknown donors whose agenda is unknown.

Last week, the S.C. Campaign for Liberty, another anti-tax group, targeted senators again, including on social media.

Meanwhile, pro-roads groups – the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads and the S.C. Chamber of Commerce – tried to rally support for a gas tax hike.

Leading up to last week’s debate, the chamber sent out mailers urging constituents to tell their senators to pass the gas tax hike. Both groups also pressured senators on social media.

After the Senate’s vote, the groups – pro and con – reacted.

“Finally. It’s been three years of debate, and we are now one step closer to safer, more efficient roads,” Alliance president Bill Ross said in a statement.

“We are extremely disappointed by the Senate’s decision to pass a gas tax hike on residents of South Carolina,” AFP S.C. director said Phillip Joffrion in a statement.

Governor’s veto

A new governor also changed the dynamics of the gas tax debate.

Then-Lt. Gov. McMaster’s early support of long-shot GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump paid off when the new president named S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That move elevated McMaster to governor.

As governor, Haley had demanded lawmakers offset any gas tax increase with a far larger income tax cut. She also ran GOP primary opponents against senators who opposed her policies.

Like Haley, McMaster also opposes raising the state’s gas tax.

But unlike Haley, McMaster has not publicly targeted individual lawmakers on social media for voting for the tax hike, instead remaining quiet in the aftermath of last week’s Senate vote.

Senate deal

To get a deal, some Senate Republicans had to agree to work with Senate Democrats, the upper house’s minority party.

When senators returned to Columbia last week, Democrats and some Republicans formed a group to pass a roads bill.

“We were getting down to the finish line, where if I didn’t take action, we were not going to have a bill,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who worked with Democrats.

Grooms proposed adding targeted tax rebates – tax cuts – to the gas tax bill.

Democrats had sworn they would not support any gas tax bill that included tax cuts.

But Grooms’ rebates were targeted to appeal to Democrats – tax credits for paying the higher gas tax, for paying college tuition and for business property taxes.

The tax rebates allowed Democrats to support the plan.

Tuesday, the coalition added an amendment to the gas tax proposal to offer S.C. residents those tax credits.

Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, was steaming. He called the tax rebate plan a “horrendous, god-awful amendment,” accusing other senators – including members of the Senate GOP Caucus that he heads – of cutting a deal behind his back.

One senator, in particular, bore the brunt of Massey’s verbal lashing.

“When this session is over, we have got to give an award to the senator from Kershaw,” Massey said, referring to state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Camden Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 and 2014. “The senator from Kershaw has got to get an award for like: ‘The most effective senator.’ ”

State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, had a retort.

“I will actually go to the trophy shop and get the senator from Kershaw the award that you referenced,” McElveen said. “And ... if you’re upset about this deal ... cut behind whoever’s back and, if that’s a deal that’s going to fix our roads, I will go to the same trophy shop and get you a participation trophy also.”

Sheheen told The State newspaper last week “This is how it’s supposed to work. This is how good people of goodwill can reach a common solution, and not just yell at each other and scream at each other and get nothing done.”

Ultimately, after changes were added to the gas tax plan to limit the ability of legislators to interfere with the governor’s nominees to the commission that runs the Transportation Department, Massey and some other Republicans got on board with the gas tax bill.

“We made some changes to it that, for me, made it a little less offensive,” Massey said.

Sitting down Davis

But, last Wednesday, one final step had to be taken to pass a road-repair bill.

About 10:45 p.m., Leatherman made the motion for senators to vote to sit down the filibustering Davis.

As the bell signaling voting rang out, Davis pulled a notebook out of his binder.

Senators began their roll call vote as Davis, standing at the Senate’s podium, tallied the votes for and against sitting him down.

“I suspected, but didn’t know, that they had the votes for cloture,” Davis said.

The Beaufort Republican added he has no ill will toward those who voted to sit him down, adding the Senate’s rules permit the move.

“I used the rules to my advantage” to filibuster for two years, Davis said.

As the Senate clerk recorded more and more votes to sit him down, Davis put his notebook back in his binder, put the lid on his pen, picked up his binder off the podium and walked back to his desk.

Then, after three years of debate, the Senate immediately voted to increase the state’s gas tax.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

5 keys to passing a gas-tax hike

S.C. House passes a 10-cent-a-gallon gas-tax hike

In 2015, the S.C. House passed a gas-tax increase by a 87-20 margin. The bill sat in the Senate for two years, before senators killed it last year, instead approving a borrowing plan. Earlier this year, the House again passed a gas-tax increase by 97-18.

Outside groups apply pressure

During three years of debate, senators took heat from outside groups — for and against the gas-tax hike. Opponents were quick to muster their forces. Pro-roads groups finally showed their muscle this year.

A new governor

Gov. Henry McMaster, who has been in office since January, has had a different approach to disagreeing legislators from his predecessor.

Like former Gov. Nikki Haley, McMaster opposes raising the state’s gas tax. However, he has not publicly targeted individual lawmakers on social media for voting for the tax hike.

A bipartisan deal

A bipartisan group of senators reached a deal on a package of tax hikes and cuts last week. That package garnered even more GOP support when a reform to the Transportation Department was added.

Sitting down Davis

After reaching a deal, a majority of S.C. senators voted to end a filibuster by state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who filibustered the tax hike two years prior.

What’s next?

The gas-tax proposal now will head to a joint committee of House members and senators to work out differences between the plans.

“Generally, the House and the Senate comes together and reaches an agreement on the different versions and comes out with one version, and I anticipate that to happen here,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.