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McMaster urges lawmakers to borrow up to $1 billion for road repairs

Promising to veto an increase to the state’s gas tax to repair the state’s roads, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster wants lawmakers instead to borrow up to $1 billion to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roads.

McMaster, governor since January, urged lawmakers to change a proposed $500 million borrowing plan to instead spend that money – and more – on roads. McMaster made his proposal in a letter Tuesday to House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington.

Lucas responded by saying borrowing money to fix the state’s roads would leave the cost of those repairs solely with S.C. residents and not capture out-of-state tax dollars, paid by tourists or travelers when they fill up their gas tanks.

“Borrowing more money to fix South Carolina’s roads and bridges will not serve as a permanent solution to our infrastructure crisis,” Lucas said. “The House passed our roads bill with an overwhelming bipartisan and veto-proof majority, which protects the South Carolina taxpayer by providing a sustainable funding stream that requires every motorist to pay their fair share.”

Last year, lawmakers approved borrowing roughly $2 billion to replace 400 of the state’s deficient bridges and fix some roads.

McMaster’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, signed that plan but said it was “not of the magnitude or sustainability” to address the long-term needs of the state’s highway system. Haley, too, opposed a gas-tax hike unless it was paired with a far larger cut in the state’s income taxes.

Putting $1 billion in borrowed money into road repairs, as McMaster proposes, would cover one year of the roughly $20 billion in repairs the state Transportation Department has said will be needed over the next two decades.

S.C. lawmakers have proposed increasing the state’s 16.75 cents-a-gallon gas tax and raising other driving fees to pay for road repairs. Only Alaska has a lower gas tax than the Palmetto State.

Last month, the S.C. House approved a 10-cents-a-gallon tax hike. New estimates say that higher gas tax would raise roughly $500 million a year for road repairs.

The Senate’s budget panel has proposed a 12-cents-a-gallon gas-tax hike and raising other fees. Those moves would raise roughly $800 million a year for roads.

Senators are working behind the scenes to add an income-tax cut to the Senate plan in hopes of securing a veto-proof majority in the Senate for a gas-tax increase.

McMaster’s request would strip roughly $250 million for maintenance and renovations to buildings at S.C. colleges, including the University of South Carolina, from a proposed House bond bill.

Those building repairs are “very important, but not urgent,” McMaster wrote, vowing to veto the bond plan in its current form.

A USC spokesman on Monday called McMaster’s proposal “short-sighted.

“This approach puts the entire burden for fixing our roads on South Carolinians, when there are ways to share the burden of years of neglect with all the people who use our roads, namely tourists and travelers,” USC spokesman Wes Hickman said. “Additionally, this small band-aid will continue to drive up costs for South Carolina students and their families by shifting the costs of public higher education away from the state and into student pockets.”

Staff writer Avery G. Wilks contributed to this report.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

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