Cindi Ross Scoppe

Biggest legislative accomplishment in 2017? Not the gas tax

From all the self-congratulations, you’d think passing a gas tax increase was the most important thing the SC Legislature did this year. It wasn’t.
From all the self-congratulations, you’d think passing a gas tax increase was the most important thing the SC Legislature did this year. It wasn’t. gmelendez@thestate.com

THE YEAR THE Republican Legislature ignores a GOP governor’s veto threat and raises the state’s gas tax for the first time in three decades will be remembered as one thing and one thing only: the year the Republican Legislature ignored a GOP governor’s veto threat and raised the state’s gas tax for the first time in three decades.

It’s true that some legislators could lose their seats for supporting the tax, and Gov. Henry McMaster could find himself weakened in a general election for opposing it — well, he could if this weren’t South Carolina, where the governor is elected in the Republican primary.

But raising the gas tax was not the most significant thing about this legislative session. At least not by itself. Or in those terms.

All the celebratory back-slapping among the political class would make you think that raising taxes was a good thing in and of itself. It is not — just as cutting taxes is not a good thing in itself.

What’s good in itself — what we haven’t seen enough of lately — is the Legislature stepping up and accepting its responsibility to meet our state’s needs.

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When we aren’t adequately funding the most essential services, meeting our state’s needs means either raising taxes or eliminating less-important services — and not just make crippling cuts — so there is enough money to pay for things that are more important.

When we are running programs in a way that does not serve the public interest or that costs more than it should, it means bringing them back into line.

When the state is collecting too much money or there is objective evidence that we are being hurt because our taxes are too high, it means cutting taxes.

And yes, again, when there’s not enough money to meet our state needs, it means raising taxes.

However it gets the job done, the object is to … get the job done: to address our state’s problems, to fulfill our state’s obligations, to provide the services we need.

What’s significant about this year is that the Legislature made difficult decisions in order to address not just one of our state’s biggest problems but two. Maybe not the two biggest problems — there’s still that whole make sure every child has an opportunity to get a decent education thing that lawmakers keep nibbling around the edges of — but two extremely big problems: our deteriorating roads and a state employee pension system nearing meltdown.

Opponents of raising the gas tax love to claim that the Legislature’s go-to answer for everything is raising taxes. But if history didn’t provide enough evidence to thoroughly discredit that claim — and it does, with tax cut piled atop tax cut piled atop tax cut for a quarter century and a total of two tax increases over that same period (the other was the cigarette tax) — then consider how lawmakers handled this year’s two big problems.

Lawmakers raised the gas tax and related fees after they — and most drivers — concluded that this was the best way to pay for road improvements. But to pay for the pension fix, they used revenue we’re already collecting — and in so doing reduced the amount of money that will be available in future years to pay for other obligations.

Indeed, one big reason House leaders were so adamant about raising taxes to pay for the roads was that they knew the pension fix would consume so much normal revenue growth for years to come that it would be a challenge to pay for that and everything else in state government — much of which also needs additional funding.

(You know the litany: kids dying while they’re under state protection because we can’t afford to hire enough social workers, riots at our youth prison and murders in our adult prisons because we can’t afford to hire enough guards, dams breaching because we couldn’t afford to inspect them regularly, and kids in poor schools getting stuck with less-than-adequate teachers because we can’t afford to hire good ones. And more.)

Trying to fix the roads with that same pot of money was simply not feasible.

(And no, lawmakers did not do enough beyond “fill the hole” for the pension system, but they seem to be committed to tackling larger reforms next year. And they made the essential change at the Transportation Department, giving the governor the power to turn its focus from parochial politics to statewide priorities.)

Senators I talked with tended to see this year’s eat-your-vegetables actions as a lightning-strike event: what happens when problems the public cares about reach crisis stage.

But House leaders were optimistic that this was a foretaste of changes to come, thanks to a workhorse speaker who sees his mission as tackling the state’s problems and is pragmatic about what that requires, and rank-and-file representatives who, at least for now, are on board with that approach.

I suspect House members are overly optimistic, if not about their ability to get responsible legislation through the House then about getting it through the Senate. But this is the dum spiro spero state, and, honestly, did you really believe they’d plug the pension hole and pass a roads fix this year?

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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