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Senators to take up roads proposal Tuesday

Parts of Beltline Boulevard in Columbia and Forest Acres needed extensive repairs after floodwaters washed away portions of the roadway in October.
Parts of Beltline Boulevard in Columbia and Forest Acres needed extensive repairs after floodwaters washed away portions of the roadway in October. FILE PHOTOGRAPH

State senators will start debating a road-repair bill Tuesday, but deep divisions indicate they are nowhere near a deal.

State Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, made a procedural move Thursday to set up debate on a road-repair proposal starting Tuesday.

To reach a deal, senators must agree on three sticking points — how much to increase the state’s gas tax and driving fees, how much to cut the state’s income tax and how to reform the Transportation Department.

“There’s just a lot of people in a lot of different directions,” said state Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, one of the eight senators who met behind-the-scenes in an attempt to reach a compromise.

Gov. Nikki Haley's insistence on a huge tax cut as part of a roads bill makes a deal difficult, Democrats say.

Senators also remain divided on whether to give up legislative control of the state Transportation Department. “There’s no roads bill without reform,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

Meanwhile, a senator who filibustered a roads proposal last spring says a gas-tax hike is likely unnecessary.

How much to cut taxes?

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, blames Republicans for the Senate’s deadlock, saying they are pushing for a tax break for wealthy South Carolinians, instead of focusing on filling potholes.

Haley said earlier this week she will not sign legislation that raises the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon unless an offsetting income tax cut is included.

Haley has proposed an income tax cut five times larger than the amount the added gas tax would raise. Under her plan, the average taxpayer would get a $623 tax break, according to 2015 estimates. However, an estimated 1.1 million S.C. residents, who would pay higher gas taxes, would not get a tax break because they do not make enough to pay income taxes. Meanwhile, the wealthiest 379 S.C. taxpayers would see their income taxes cut by $145,784 each.

If Haley withdrew her promise to veto any roads bill that does not include a tax cut, senators would have a better chance of reaching a deal, said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland.

Who should control roads agency?

Many senators also have firmly held positions on whether the Legislature or governor should control the Transportation Department commission that oversees the state’s roads agency, said state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.

Legislators now control that commission.

However, on Wednesday, the Senate Transportation Committee refused to advance a proposal to allow the governor to appoint the roads commission, sending it back to a subcommittee for more debate.

That proposal will be debated next week, said Grooms, who chairs the transportation panel. Grooms, who unsuccessfully pushed for gubernatorial appointments in 2007, said he sees an opportunity now to give the governor control of the roads agency.

Necessary to raise the gas tax?

State Sen. Tom Davis, the Beaufort Republican who blocked a road-repair proposal last spring, said Thursday he will push to reform the Transportation Department and abolish the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which borrows money for roads.

Davis also wants money for road repairs to come from the added $1.2 billion that lawmakers have to spend in the state budget that begins July 1, instead of hiking the gas tax.

Other senators argue some of that added money is needed to pay for other needs, including flood relief. More money for rebuilding rural schools, increased state health-care costs and higher education needs also must come from that extra $1.2 billion, said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland.

Lourie said some of the added money can be used for roads. But, he added, that will not solve the state’s long-term road-funding needs, estimated at an additional $400 million to $1 billion a year for the next 20-plus years.

‘One step forward and two steps backward’

The willingness of senators to debate the road-repair bill, passed last year by the House, shows there is a serious desire to get something done, said Bill Ross of the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said senators in the eight-member working group worked in good faith, wanting to pass a bill.

Cleary, a co-chair of the working group, said the senators involved threw “mud at the wall to see if anything sticks.”

Massey said the working-group senators made more progress in five days this year than they did in all of last year. That’s because senators were talking with one another, he said. But, he added, they remain far apart.

“We take one step forward and two steps backward,” said Jackson, another member of the group.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

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