The Buzz

Republican SC House leader rips Senate GOP roads bill

A state Senate Republican plan to spend $400 million on roads without raising the gas tax is on a collision course with the GOP-controlled S.C. House, despite winning the governor’s blessing Thursday.

“This plan kicks the can further down the road and into a giant pothole,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said of the proposal that Senate Republicans offered Wednesday, after nearly a year of gridlock on a bill aimed at fixing the state’s roads and bridges.

“It's not really a new idea, and it's not a solution,” Lucas said of the Senate GOP plan, adding it is “unsettling” it took the Senate so long to get to this point.

Senate Democrats expressed similar concerns about the proposal, which senators will debate Tuesday.

“Nobody who's honest will say that this ... fixes the roads problem. I think it's a fraud ... a fake,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw.

“It's really just a Patch Act” that will “raid the general fund” and other state programs, said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland. “We're putting a small-to medium-sized Band-Aid on a large problem.”

The Senate GOP plan to commit an added $400 million a year in recurring state revenues to roads is unsustainable, some Republican and Democratic lawmakers said.

That surplus money is only as reliable as the economy, they added. If the economy takes a dive – as it did during the Great Recession – the money will dry up, forcing deep cuts to roads and other state services.

The Senate GOP plan also fails to collect money from out-of-state drivers, who vacation in South Carolina or travel through on highways, several Republican legislators said.

“You're leaving money on the table,” said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, who led the House's roads-funding plan.

Simrill and House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, also worry that coming up with an added $400 million a year for roads from existing revenues could hurt the state's ability to put money in its reserve funds, key to the state's stellar credit rating.

“It is this year's solution,” Simrill said. “It is not sustainable nor is it reliable.”

For almost two years, lawmakers have failed to agree on a long-term solution to meet the state’s road-repair needs. Bringing the state’s roads into excellent condition is estimated to cost more than $1 billion a year. Instead, lawmakers have budgeted money toward roads in a piecemeal style each year.

“We've been using general fund dollars to slap a Band-Aid on roads for three years in South Carolina, and the results have not been enough to keep our families safe or our economy thriving,” said Lucas, whose chamber passed a roads plan last April that included the equivalent of a 10-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase.

The House proposal went nowhere in the Senate. The bill failed, in part, because lawmakers learned they had an extra $1 billion in state revenues to spend this year due to the resurgent economy. Fiscal hawks in the Senate insisted the state use that one-time surplus to pay for roads, filibustering the House plan.

With gas prices at near-decade lows, lawmakers have missed the best opportunity in years to raise the gas tax, last increased in 1987, said state Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown.

“The more you use the roads, the more you pay,” said Cleary, who co-authored a proposal that would have raised an added $665 million a year for roads by raising the gas tax and other user fees. “Gasoline prices are not going to go down any more. So how are we going raise the tax 4 cents when gas is $2 or $3 (a gallon)? Quite honestly, I think we kicked the can down the road.”

Not everyone is opposed to the Senate GOP plan, which also shifts power to appoint the commission that oversees the state Transportation Department to the governor from lawmakers.

Gov. Nikki Haley posted her support in a Facebook message Thursday, calling the Senate GOP plan a “great thing” and “exactly what we need in South Carolina.”

“Bring it home!” Haley exclaimed.

The Senate GOP plan also includes giving the governor far more power over the controversial State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which critics say funds roads projects based on legislators’ political clout, not the state’s needs.

Some advocacy groups, including the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and anti-road Coastal Conservation League, praised the Senate Republican’s plan.

But Lucas and one roads advocate said they did not understand Haley’s reversal. Last year, the governor said she would support raising the gas tax in exchange for far greater income-tax cuts.

“Are we happy with it?” Bill Ross, executive director of the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, said of the Senate plan. “No. But it's probably the best we could hope for.”

Ross, whose alliance is backed by business and tourism interests, said he expected more support from Haley after business leaders insisted the state’s economy is being hurt by the absence of a sustainable plan to pay for road repairs. Haley, who is her final term in office, has made economic development a hallmark of her administration.

"It's kind of difficult to understand where the governor is coming from," Ross said. "It could be ... where she just wants to go out as the governor that didn't pass a tax increase."

Jamie Self: 803-771-8658, @jamiemself Andy Shain: 803-771-8619, @AndyShain

Fixing S.C. roads

The House has passed a roads bill, and Senate Republicans hope to OK their plan next week. What the two plans would do:

House plan

▪  Increase the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon

▪  Generate $427 million in new money for roads

▪  Give the governor control of the state Transportation Department and State Transportation Infrastructure Bank

▪  Save the average taxpayer $48 a year through income-tax cuts

Senate plan

▪  Put $400 million a year in general fund revenues toward roads

▪  Give the governor control of the state Transportation Department and State Transportation Infrastructure Bank

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