Cindi Ross Scoppe

Could reform be the essential piece to road-funding puzzle? (Hint: Yes)

dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

LAWMAKERS have been using three puzzle pieces to try to assemble a roads fix: raising the gas tax to generate money, reforming the Transportation Commission so it will spend the money better, and cutting some other tax … so legislators can say they cut taxes. Some legislators want to use just one piece, some two and some all three.

Two years ago, the House passed a bill with all three puzzle pieces. Most senators supported raising the gas tax, and the Senate voted at one point for reform. But it never was serious about reform, and it never managed to pass the tax increase, and we ended up with a law that didn’t raise taxes and didn’t cut taxes (it just stole money from other state needs) and claimed to reform the commission but didn’t.

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Yes, your gas taxes do go to pay for SC roads

What a difference an amendment can make

Why we still need reform at the SC Transportation Department

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Last month, after acknowledging that it was counter-productive to pass a road-funding bill that increases taxes with one hand while reducing them with the other, House leaders told me they were worried they didn’t have the votes to pass their gas-tax-only bill. Then they added reforms to let the governor appoint the commissioners he wanted rather than having to play mother-may-I with parochially oriented legislators, and they passed their bill by a vote of 97-18. Which is astounding.

The day after the Senate launched its 2017 deliberations with members of a subcommittee declaring that they couldn’t be bogged down with reform, Gov. Henry McMaster stopped talking about a gas tax increase as “a last resort” and declared that we don’t need one.

Perhaps the role of the reform puzzle piece in these three events was irrelevant. Perhaps it was insignificant.

Or perhaps it provides a clear roadmap for those who believe we need to raise the gas tax in order to repair our roads.

On Thursday — the day after Mr. McMaster’s latest comments — Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms told me the only way a gas tax increase would pass was with both of those other puzzle pieces. He recalled a conversation with Mr. McMaster in which the governor said he had to have an answer for the guy at the convenience store with ladders on his truck who asks what’s in it for him.

If only all political questions had such easy answers:

What’s in it for him, or anyone in our state, is better roads. Roads that aren’t so pocked with potholes that they throw your car out of alignment on your evening commute. Roads that don’t steal an extra 30 minutes of your morning because a sinkhole — not a pothole, a sinkhole — opens up on the interstate, and that lane has to be closed, creating a Malfunction Junction bottleneck (true story, from last week). Polls suggest that voters recognize this, if you give them a little more context than “do you support raising the gas tax?”

But there should be a second good answer, and it’s not “a tax cut.” What’s in it for all of us should be a good chance that our road money will be spent a lot better than it has been — because the governor for the first time in 80 years could appoint people who care about the whole state, and not just their little corner of it, to the Transportation Commission. And remove them if they keep playing parochial politics instead of putting our limited road dollars to the highest and best use.

Yes, I’ll admit that this is a fixation of mine, far more important to me than increasing funding. But unlike a lot of people who talk reform, I’m willing to go along with more funding in return, because I recognize that fixing the roads is a priority for practically everyone who actually cares about South Carolina.

Although some senators simply don’t want to give up their ability to meddle in the Transportation Department, there are some who oppose reform because they fear it will mean no more funding for low-population areas that they represent. And last week, an insider told me there could be an effort to assuage some of those senators’ concerns about rural roads being left behind by requiring a certain portion of funding to be spent in rural communities.

I prefer to concentrate our road dollars where they will do the most good for the most people — an approach that admittedly will not do much for the dying crossroad communities in so much of our state. But we’re already spending more on low-use roads than I would like under the current system, because the people calling the shots are the Legislature’s commissioners, who soon will be replaced with the governor’s commissioners, assuming the governor agrees to pick the commissioners whom legislators want him to pick. Which means they won’t really be his choices.

The exciting thing about this percentage possibility is that it could transform a purely philosophical argument — can the governor appoint the people he wants to appoint or not — into a numbers debate: What percent of funding is appropriate for rural areas? And that is the sort of thing that can be negotiated.

And negotiation is the way you end up with laws — instead of continued stalemate.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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