Iconic Gov. Carroll Campbell sanctioned South Carolina’s last gas tax increase, framing it as the ultimate user fee for financing road improvements. His style was optimistic and forward-thinking, and he believed that you can’t build an economy without building roads.
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Apparently every one of his successors has been more afraid of a bludgeoning re-election challenge than of a legacy of deteriorating roads and bridges. It is rumored that each whispered “we’ll reinvest after re-election.” Two never got that chance. The next two accepted the Legislature’s incremental fixes, while fixating on their own ideological purity. That worked — for them.
Three decades after Gov. Campbell signed the state’s last gas-tax increase, our highways are suffering from a political curse that only a bipartisan cure can begin to heal. Our state’s remarkable growth, combined with a corresponding growth in tea-headist nuttiness, has left us with a system that has been stretched, pasted and patched. Shallow claims and ill-informed rhetoric have caused pervasive misunderstandings and deep mistrust.
Except for critically important new lanes and replacement bridges, targeted expenditures supplemented with federal funds to relieve congestion, and state-provided supplemental financing to incentivize local infrastructure sales tax matches, the state’s road program has been starved, losing buying power to inflation and flat fees.
Conservative government is charged with looking long-term to facilitate economic growth. When it comes to roads, this sometimes requires bonding, and that requires a bank; we’ve used our own Transportation Infrastructure Bank. That much-maligned bank was “reformed” last year when it was brought under Transportation Commission purview. Its past is its past; it’s time to move on.
The call to “reform” the Transportation Department is also misleading. Further tweaks won’t change the state laws that drive the agency’s prioritization, or magically generate hundreds of millions of recurring dollars to methodically fill potholes. Eliminating the commission and making this a Cabinet agency would eliminate the benefits of an experienced citizen “board of directors.” Besides, the governor now appoints the commission.
It is disingenuous to say part of the gas tax doesn’t “go to roads.” Audits confirm that every take-away is mandated by law, and directly related to the road program, whether it’s to pay pass-throughs for designated statewide-significant projects or the counties for local roads or the miniscule amount to boat ramps (paid by boaters’ gasoline taxes).
Devolving parts of the state’s vast road system to the locals isn’t a realistic solution, as it would necessitate opening a Pandora’s box of local taxing powers that are not currently allowed, and likely wouldn’t be acceptable.
Consensus does not require unanimity. Nevertheless, South Carolinians are united in our demand for good, safe roads, and probably prefer reasonably adjusted user fees as opposed to increasing general taxes for road improvements, or defaulting on our obligations.
Among those who’ve studied the condition and finances of our highway system, there is a strong consensus that the state’s growth and maintenance needs exceed its current resources.
It should not be easy to raise taxes. Successful legislation requires thorough vetting and compromise. But this process — and the public’s confidence in it — has been held hostage for too long by a distinct minority roused, misled and financed by sophisticated activists, the deepest-pocketed of which have minimal connection to South Carolina.
Their internet-enabled shrill cry against “the largest tax increase in history” is relative. That tax has been frozen in place for 30 years and, after the pending Alaskan increase, will be the lowest levied in North America. What was once to some a source of pride is now a public-policy embarrassment.
We’ve been living on borrowed time. Now, the cure requires that our elected officials take bitter medicine in terms of votes — and that we accept a long-overdue adjustment to South Carolina’s road-use fees. Eighty-four percent of the House did. The Senate’s refusal extends and worsens our suffering. It’s time to end the curse.
Mr. Todd is president and CEO of the S.C. Trucking Association; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.