The Buzz

Verbal lashing from House Speaker spurs Senate to pass roads deal

gmelendez@thestate.com

S.C. senators approved giving the governor more control of the state’s road-repair agency late Tuesday.

The move came after S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas took to the House floor earlier Tuesday, blaming the Senate and Gov. Nikki Haley for not passing a proposal to repair the state’s roads.

With only two days left in the legislative session, Lucas said he tried to meet with fellow Republican Haley Tuesday morning on the road-repair deadlock, but she could not meet.

“She believes her time is better spent endorsing opponents of sitting General Assembly members, rather than demand the senators across the hall do their job and pass a roads bill,” Lucas said to raucous applause from House members.

Haley is on the road this week endorsing three GOP primary candidates for State House seats, including two challengers to powerful incumbent Republican senators.

Haley’s spokeswoman said Tuesday House and Senate leaders know where the governor stands on the road-repair issue. “Sometimes, the best way to get something done in Columbia is to elect new people who actually want to serve the public rather than themselves,” Chaney Adams said.

After Lucas’ comments, GOP senators held up a proposal to forgive $12 million in loans owed the state by S.C. State University. The Republicans said the maneuver was an effort to force debate of a roads’ proposal giving the governor control of the state Transportation Department, a move some Democratic state senators opposed.

However, the move angered Democratic state senators, many African-American, who said it threatened S.C. State’s existence. Senators ultimately approved forgiving some of the state’s loans to the historically black university as part of the state budget. S.C. State needs loan forgiveness to keep its accreditation or face closure.

That left the sticking point of how much control the governor should have over the Transportation Department.

Senators reached a deal about 10 p.m. Tuesday that would allow the governor to appoint all eight members of the commission that oversees the Transportation Department. Those appointees would have to be approved by legislators.

Currently, seven Transportation Department commission members are elected by legislative delegations. The governor appoints the eighth member.

Many GOP lawmakers and Gov. Haley say the governor should have more control of the Transportation Department, and the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank should be folded into that agency.

The House already has approved giving the governor the authority to appoint all eight of that Transportation Commission’s members. Traditionally, only senators confirm appointments made by the governor.

“The Senate is the real roadblock for road repair,” Lucas said earlier Tuesday, noting the Senate had not acted on a bill the House passed last week.

Lucas also faulted Haley, saying the governor had used her bully pulpit throughout the roads-repair-and-reform process but has fallen silent at the 11th hour.

“Her silence proved that she lacks concern for good public policy, public policy that directly impacts the safety of our citizens and the sustainability of our economy,” Lucas said.

The S.C. House can agree with the Senate plan passed Tuesday night or send it to a six-member conference committee to work out differences between the two road proposals.

A House proposal to increase the state’s gas tax to help pay for road repairs failed in the Senate in March.

Instead, the Senate proposed spending $400 million a year out of the state’s general fund budget on road repairs. Critics said that plan raided the general fund budget, normally spent on state services including education and public safety. That plan also died.

The most recent road-repair proposal to emerge is a bonding plan that the state Transportation Department estimates would pay for more than $4 billion in road-repair projects. Under that 10-year plan, the Transportation Department says nearly 400 bridges would be replaced. Malfunction Junction — the Transportation Department’s No. 1 priority to fix — also would be reworked.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Military income tax breaks stall

A proposal to offer state income tax deductions to military retirees has stalled in the Senate. The plan would offer military retirees with at least 20 years of service a deduction of $17,500 a year for those under 65 or $30,000 a year for those 65 or older.

Military retirees under 65 must have a job in the state with an annual salary of at least $17,500 to be eligible.

The proposal would cost the state about $18 million a year, according to the S.C. Department of Revenue. Advocates of the proposal say it would retain disciplined workers in the state.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, has held up the proposal in the Senate. Malloy said Tuesday that few military members retire in rural areas, like the Darlington area that he represents. Instead retirees end up in more urban counties like Beaufort or Charleston, he said.

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