Cindi Ross Scoppe

The governor’s fourth pig

Add a fourth pig to a trough that’s already low on slop, and you’re gonna have problems.
Add a fourth pig to a trough that’s already low on slop, and you’re gonna have problems. MCT

THINK OF THE state budget as a trough where three pigs are jostling for position: Medicaid, public education and higher education. After years of tax cuts, there’s just enough slop to keep all three pigs alive. Not healthy, but alive. Barely.

Now imagine what would happen if you let a fourth pig in the pen.

That’s what Gov. Henry McMaster is proposing when he suggests that legislators borrow money to fix our roads.

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McMaster urges lawmakers to borrow up to $1 billion for road repairs

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

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

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You see, government bonds do not grow on those magical money trees that Nikki Haley used to talk about; you have to pay back the money you get from issuing the bonds, plus interest. The $1 billion that Gov. McMaster wants to borrow to fix our roads would be paid back from our state’s general budget fund, which currently feeds those three jostling pigs along with everything else state government does except roads. That means the plan steals money from schools and colleges and Medicaid (which increasingly pays the nursing-home bills for people most of us would not consider poor), from law enforcement and prisons and dam inspections and child protection.

So it creates the same problem as proposals to just raid the state’s general budget fund directly. In fact, the main difference between Mr. McMaster’s borrowing proposal and his earlier roundabout suggestions that we use general fund money for the roads is that it’s smaller (more on that in a moment). So it would generate a lot less money and siphon money out of the general fund at a much slower pace, but it also would saddle us with those interest payments.

The governor might be right when he says that road maintenance is more important right now than college renovations and deferred maintenance on other government buildings. But his plan — paying that money back with money that’s collected to pay for schools and colleges and nursing home care for our parents and public safety and child protection and all that other stuff we’re just barely able to almost take care of, sometimes — means adding that fourth pig to the trough. Which we should not accept.

Neither should we accept some of the claims in the letter he sent to House Speaker Jay Lucas on Tuesday recapping his proposal.

First is the idea that “If all of the $600 million raised by our current gas tax had been going to our roads instead of being diverted to other government functions, we would not need to find more money now.”

According to The Greenville News article that he cited for that claim, all but $138 million of the $601 million that the gas tax is projected to generate this year does go to the Transportation Department. So the first problem with that claim is that another $138 million a year probably wouldn’t have kept us out of the fix that we’re in.

But that’s neither here nor there, because most of that $138 million already is being spent on roads: More than half ($75 million) goes to county transportation committees, and $36 million goes to the Transportation Infrastructure Bank.

That leaves about $25 million this year — about 4 percent of gas tax revenue — that’s being spent on things other than building or repairing roads. There are legitimate reasons for most of those diversions, as I explained last month. But even if you don’t think they’re legitimate, sending every bit of that $25 million a year to the Transportation Department would not have meant that “we would not need to find more money now.” Less money, to be sure, but nowhere close to no money.

Now, maybe we should stop sending money to the infrastructure bank and the county transportation committees. As that same Greenville News article reminded us, the county committees are spending their share of the money on the local roads and streets that carry just 7 percent of the state’s traffic. And by law, the infrastructure bank must spend all of its money on new construction.

It could in fact make a noticeable difference to take that $111 million a year and spend it instead on the repair and upkeep of our primary roads, which Mr. McMaster said he wants to focus on. Again, that wouldn’t be enough to take care of the problem, but it could help.

The other thing in his letter that doesn’t add up is the claim that revenue from a $1 billion road-repair bond bill, combined with a $4 billion bond plan passed last year, “can accommodate the critical shortfall we now face and help launch us on the road to recovery.”

That’s true — if the key word in that sentence is “launch.” As in, the plan is to come back next year or the year after and find a permanent funding source. Because $1 billion is the amount we need to spend every year or two — depending on whose numbers you use — for the next two decades.

But under the McMaster plan, we’d run out of money after that first or second year, and we’d still be repaying those loans for the next three decades. And those four pigs would be getting skinnier every day.

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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