The Buzz

Senators point fingers over failure to debate roads fix

S.C. senators Thursday debated their lack of a debate on a road-repair bill, wrapping up the legislative session’s fourth week without discussing a proposal to fix the state’s crumbling roads.

“I have absolutely lost my patience when it comes to this infrastructure debate that we are not having,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee.

Senators had said a road-repair bill would be the first issue debated when they returned to Columbia last month.

However, that debate will be delayed another week so that leaders of the state Transportation Department and S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank can explain how those agencies work to the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said he requested the briefings, to be held next week. He said the briefings are intended to allow senators on the Finance Committee — half the 46-member body — to understand the agencies.

Now, the roads debate could begin Feb. 16 at the earliest. To pass a bill, senators will need to reach a compromise on how much to increase the gas tax and other driving fees, how much to cut income taxes and whether to give the governor more control of the roads agency.

Democrats blame Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for the roads impasse, saying she complicated the process by insisting any gas-tax increase to pay to fix roads be tied to tax cuts.

Peeler asked whether the added $1.2 billion that lawmakers have to spend this year will be a part of the road-repair discussion. But Setzler said some of that money needs to go to underfunded schools and local governments.

Peeler also criticized Senate plans to take a week-long furlough after Easter.

“Y’all are wasting my time, and I’m ticked off about it,” said state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, noting the Senate is about to enter the session’s fifth week.

A bipartisan working group of eight senators met during the session’s first two weeks to try and reach a roads compromise. Then, the Finance Committee met to discuss a plan to raise an added $665 million a year for road repairs by increasing the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax by 12 cents and hiking other driving fees. The committee also discussed cutting nearly $400 million in income and business taxes.

Last week, the Senate Transportation Committee approved changing the Transportation Department’s oversight.

Noting the roads issue is in a priority spot on the Senate’s calendar, Peeler complained the lack of action on that issue is blocking every other issue.

“Our calendar is swelling like its got a peanut allergy,” Peeler said.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Plan to fix roads?

To reach a deal, senators will have to agree on how much to increase the gas tax and other driving fees, how much to cut income taxes and whether to give the governor control of the state roads agency

Revenue: Senators on the Finance Committee are considering a plan that, when fully phased in, would raise an added $665 million a year for roads. The plan includes increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon, increasing the sales tax cap on vehicles to $600, increasing the drivers license fee to $50 every 10 years, and imposing a $120 fee every two years on alternative-fuel vehicles and $60 every two years for hybrid vehicles.

Tax relief: Offsetting tax cuts were demanded last year by Gov. Nikki Haley, who wants a huge income-tax cut tied to any gas-tax hike. The Senate Finance Committee is considering $398 million in tax cuts, including adjusting the state’s income tax brackets and reducing manufacturers’ property tax.

Reform: Haley also said a roads plan must include giving the governor more control over the state Transportation Department, now legislatively controlled. The Senate Transportation Committee last week approved expanding the eight-member commission that oversees the roads agency to 10 members. The state’s 10 regional planning districts would nominate three candidates for each commission seat and the governor would choose one for each. That plan is opposed by those who want the governor to have more direct control over the agency.