Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: An old culprit is blocking a big part of SC road fix

Longs Pond Road in Lexington County might get widened if the county had the authority to levy a gas tax to pay for it.
Longs Pond Road in Lexington County might get widened if the county had the authority to levy a gas tax to pay for it. tdominick@thestate.com

<drop_initial>THE SUREST way for the Legislature to improve our crumbling, overcrowded roads and bridges is to:

A. Raise the gas tax, and cut the income tax by three times as much.

B. Give all the state’s surplus money and unanticipated new revenue to the Transportation Department.

C. Raise the gas tax a good bit more than it cuts the income tax.

D. Replace the state’s parochial, horse-trading road-building commissions with a body that has a statewide perspective.

E. Pass a fix-it-first law that requires state tax dollars to repair or improve existing roads and bridges before we build a bunch of new ones.

F. Remove the legislative constraints from elected city and county councils, so that whether and how much they raise taxes, to pay for roads or anything else, is between them and the voters who elect them.

If you picked “A,” you might as well stop reading right now, because you are too out of touch with reality to be reasoned with.

Option “B,” which Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler is insisting on as lawmakers gather in Columbia this week for a brief extended session where they were supposed to sign off on next year’s budget but won’t, would help. But it would do so at the expense of obligations the Legislature has reneged on in recent years and ought to be trying to meet. Ditto option “C.”

Options “D” and “E” certainly would help, and both need to be part of any plan that devotes more money to roads.

But the question was which was the surest way to get our roads and bridges repaired and improved, and that, without a doubt, is option “F.”

All roads lead to Columbia

South Carolina doesn’t have the nation’ fourth-largest state highway system because we’re the fourth-largest state, and probably not even because we have too many roads, or roads that are too loopy. We have the fourth-largest highway system because the state owns most of the roads that cities and counties would own if we lived in a state where the Legislature does not insist on controlling everything. Nationally, 19 percent of highways are owned by states; in South Carolina, it’s 63 percent.

I’ve written, since before road improvement became the it issue at the State House, that lawmakers needed to turn all those local roads over to cities and counties — along with the authority to raise the money to fix them. That won’t solve the problem: There are lots of state-owned roads that ought to be state-owned roads that are in desperate need of repair, and the state wouldn’t suddenly get a windfall, because it is spending precious little now taking care of those local roads.

But it will help, and as I was reminded last week when I was talking to Sen. Tom Davis, it’s something I haven’t written about much lately.

“It’s crazy to hold on to all of those roads,” said Sen. Davis, who spent the last three weeks of the regular legislative session filibustering to prevent the Legislature from taking up the gas-tax bill. “I don’t understand why they won’t turn them over to the cities and counties” and let them raise the gas tax.

Because, I answered, the South Carolina General Assembly has never been willing to give local governments the power to tax.

Ah, yes, he said, “It’s a microcosm of the Legislative State.”

Limits, bad options

Legislators will tell you that they’ve given local governments the power to tax — both in general and specifically in several options for improving roads.

What they won’t tell you is that while cities and counties can levy a property tax, the Legislature has strictly limited how much it can be increased — as if senators and representatives from Charleston and Greenville had any idea what level of taxes people in Lexington are willing to support for Lexington County projects.

What legislators won’t tell you is that the only option they have given local governments to pay for road improvements is the sales tax. Which is also the only option they’ve given local governments for offering significant property tax relief to homeowners. And the only option they’ve given local governments to pay for other infrastructure needs beyond roads.

What they won’t tell you is that South Carolina’s sales tax is already getting high enough to do what fiscal conservatives say they never, ever want to do: influence market decisions. In this case, it’s driving people to the internet and across state borders to make purchases they otherwise would have made in South Carolina. And that does all manner of damage to our economy.

What they won’t tell you is that it makes no sense to pay for roads by increasing the sales tax on everything that’s taxed, when we don’t even charge a sales tax on gasoline. What they won’t tell you is that even if they lifted the sales tax exemption on gasoline — which they absolutely need to do — it makes no sense to increase the overall sales tax that is among the highest in the nation when our gasoline excise tax is among the lowest.

If legislators won’t lift the gas tax exemption or increase the gasoline excise tax — which the Senate clearly isn’t going to do this year, if ever — then they ought to let cities and counties do that themselves. To whatever level they see fit.

And trust me: City and county council members are far more likely to get voted out of office if they raise a tax too high than are legislators, who can always find a way of blaming someone else.

Promises broken

The problem is that the Legislature has never lived up to the promise it made to the public and to cities and counties way back in 1975 when it passed the Home Rule Act, which purported to give city and county councils the power to run their cities and counties, but didn’t. Not really.

To the Legislature, this has always meant the councils have the power to run their cities and counties as long as they do it the way the Legislature wants them to, and as long as they don’t raise taxes — no matter how overwhelming the support is in their communities — any more or in any more ways than the Legislature sees fit.

It would be bad enough for legislators to horde all this power if they were actually doing their jobs of tending to the needs of our state. But as our deteriorating, overcrowded roads and bridges remind us every day, they’re not.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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