The Buzz

Senators could reach roads deal in coming weeks

The Senate’s Thursday session will end early so a group of senators can continue working behind the scenes on a road-repair deal, Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said Wednesday.

“Hopefully, the Senate will bite,” Leatherman said of the compromise that emerges from the working group of eight senators.

In an ideal world, the senators would wrap up their work Thursday, said state Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, the working group’s co-leader. But if that doesn’t happen, the senators will work long days next week to reach a compromise that can be debated on the Senate floor, he said.

“There’s a good chance we bring a compromise amendment to the floor of the Senate in a couple weeks,” said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, a senator working on a deal.

Lourie said senators in the working group realize it is critical to pass a bill to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. “I don’t think anybody wants to wait until June.”

Senators will have to agree on how much to increase the state’s 16.75 cent-a-gallon gas tax, the third lowest in the nation, and other driving-related fees. They also will have to agree on how much to cut taxes, likely the state income tax, and how to change the structure of the Transportation Department, now legislatively controlled.

The Transportation Department’s current structure does not make sense, S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Ted Pitts, a former legislator and aide to Gov. Nikki Haley, told a S.C. House oversight panel Wednesday.

Pitts, whose organization endorses a gas-tax increase, said the Transportation Department’s structure makes it difficult to determine who is responsible for the agency. Seven transportation commissioners are elected by legislative delegations, and one is appointed by the governor. The Transportation Department secretary, who heads the agency, also is appointed by the governor.

Pitts praised legislation, passed in 2007, setting criteria to be used by the Transportation Department in prioritizing road repairs.

But he criticized lawmakers for sending money to the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which does not have to follow those priorities. In addition, Pitts criticized lawmakers for sending $216 million to counties last year, saying local governments also do not have to follow a prioritization process.

Michael Covington of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League told the House committee that his organization recommends abolishing the Infrastructure Bank. The bank’s bonding powers should be transferred to the Transportation Department, making the bank’s activities part of the statewide transportation-planning process, he said.

Only interstate and primary routes that existed prior to 2016 should be eligible for the borrowing, he added.

The Coastal Conservation League opposes new road construction, largely to protect the environment from what it says is unnecessary sprawl and over-development.

“Funding must be addressed. There’s no question about it,” Covington said. “But do you put water in a leaking bucket?”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Senators working on a roads deal

The eight senators appointed to work on a roads deal are:

Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, co-chair

Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, co-chair

Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester

Wes Hayes, R-York

Darrell Jackson, D-Richland

Joel Lourie, D-Richland

Shane Massey, R-Edgefield

Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw