Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Senate GOP road plan: Keep the reform, ditch the raid

I-77 in Lexington County might get resurfaced under the Senate Republicans’ road plan. Or it might not.
I-77 in Lexington County might get resurfaced under the Senate Republicans’ road plan. Or it might not. tdominick@thestate.com

THE SENATE Republicans’ plan to reform the state Transportation Commission breaks new ground: It actually reforms the Transportation Commission. It wrests control of that board from the Legislature — entirely. It gives control to the governor — entirely.

Unlike quasi-reforms passed by the House and by the Senate Transportation Committee and proposed earlier by the moderate Senate Republicans who said reform was essential, it doesn’t require governors to pick their commissioners from lists of names supplied by legislative appointees or run them through a legislative pre-screening maze.

Most significantly, the governor will be able to remove her appointees for any reason or no reason at all — which is to say, they’ll actually work for the governor.

The plan also does more to rein in the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank than any serious plan has tried. It leaves the bank as it is, with the Senate president pro tempore and the House speaker together appointing four of its seven members (the governor appoints the out-voted other three members). But it gives the governor’s Transportation Commission veto power over the bank’s decisions.

The result of these two changes could be that for the first time ever, we’ll spend our road dollars on the state’s priorities, rather than the horse-traded priorities of unaccountable parochial politicians. And if that doesn’t happen, the voters will have the option of replacing the person responsible — which simply is not possible when the “person” who’s responsible is 170 legislators, only two of whom any voter has a chance to vote for or against and every one of whom can say — sometimes quite honestly — that it was someone else’s fault.

If the legislation skipped over Section 4, Gov. Nikki Haley would be correct to say it’s “exactly what we need.” We would have the reform we need, and the Legislature could devote some one-time money to roads again this year and adopt a long-term funding plan next year that befits the reformed Transportation Department.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t skip Section 4, which commits not just this General Assembly but every General Assembly in perpetuity to siphoning $400 million out of our state’s general budget fund and giving it to the Transportation Department.

The result is a bill that promises to break trust with the voters and strangle out other state obligations and, at bottom, isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

For as long as we have been paving roads, we have collected a gas tax and driver fees to build and maintain those roads, on the theory that people inside and outside of South Carolina who use our roads the most should pay the most for them.

We have collected sales and income taxes to pay for our schools and courts and state police and child protection and economic development and environmental protection and most other state services.

The Senate plan changes that, dramatically. It diverts $400 million in sales and income taxes — more than 5 percent of the state budget — to pay for roads. That means we have $400 million less — not just next year but every year going forward — to pay teacher salaries, including extra pay to reward and attract the best teachers for the neediest students, to pay cities and counties for holding elections and performing other duties the state requires them to perform, to hire caseworkers to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents, to employ the judges who lock up the bad guys and the prison guards who keep the bad guys from escaping and the scientists who test our water to make sure it’s safe to drink, and everything else.

The roads diversion breaks trust with voters, in much the same way lawmakers do when they raid trust funds.

But let’s pretend raiding the general fund is a good idea. It’s not, but let’s pretend. The Senate Republican plan is written essentially the same way as the law that requires the Legislature to put an amount equal to 4.5 percent of the previous year’s budget into the local government fund each year. It’s written essentially the same way as the law that requires the Legislature to fund the “base student cost” each year using a formula that includes inflation and the number of students enrolled in the public schools.

In the current budget, local governments are receiving $213 million of the $295 million the law requires; schools are receiving $2,220 per student of the $2,801 per student required. It’s been this way for years — a reminder that such promises are not enforceable, or believable.

So if this plan were to pass the Senate and win over skeptical House members, either we would have a really bad law or a really misleading law — which is really bad in its own way.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Five of the six sections of the plan are better than anyone could have hoped for. The Senate should pass those, use one-time money again this year to buy a year’s worth of road repairs, and come back next year to develop a long-term plan to fix our roads.

Anyone who tells you this is a long-term plan either hasn’t read it or is counting on you not reading it.

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

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