REPORTS OF THE road bill’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Gov. Nikki Haley has been warning for weeks that the House would kill what once was a road-funding bill if it did anything other than swallow the Senate’s deeply flawed plan whole. And when House leaders unveiled their plan on Tuesday, she ran to her Facebook page to announce the death. (She had just made a similar pronouncement concerning ethics reform, two legislative days before the Senate shocked us all by reviving the income-disclosure requirement she mourned.)
Senate Transportation Chairman Larry Grooms told his colleagues on Wednesday that the House’s vote to require legislative rather than just Senate confirmation of the governor’s appointments to the Transportation Commission “leaves only one conclusion: They do not want a roads bill passed this year.”
It left me with a very different conclusion: The House gave itself some negotiating tools, to increase the chance that the Legislature will be able to reach a compromise that finally enacts the smart reforms to the Transportation Department that the Legislative Audit Council just reminded us we so desperately need.
The House passed a road bill 11 months ago. When the Senate passed its version last month, the House had three options: It could adopt the Senate bill, even though senators acknowledge that their revenue plan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. It could reject the Senate’s plan for putting the governor in charge of the agency and make other changes that would make an agreement with the Senate impossible. Or it could embrace every one of the Senate’s reforms, remove the fraudulent funding plan and throw in some provisions that House members can give away in negotiations, in return for the Senate abandoning its faux funding plan.
The House chose the third option, and anyone who actually wants to see the Transportation Department finally reformed ought to be ecstatic.
The road-reform bill stopped being a road-funding bill when the Senate rejected the House’s gas-tax increase and instead promised that the Legislature would give the Transportation Department an extra $400 million every year. That’s meaningless, because without other changes to the law, the Legislature has to decide every year whether to keep that promise, in the state budget, and the Legislature routinely ignores similar promises in other laws.
The House has already passed a budget for next year that includes around $400 million for roads, and when it amended the roads bill on Wednesday, it took a step toward making a small part of the Senate promise real: It added a provision that permanently redirects all vehicle sales tax revenue from the general fund to the Transportation Department. That should generate an extra $68 million next year.
I don’t like that part of the plan. I don’t think we should steal money from our schools and colleges and police and prisons and courts, and I certainly don’t think we should make any changes to the vehicle sales tax that do not include fixing the vehicle sales tax. That’s the tax our legislators have capped at $300, so people who buy a $5,000 clunker pay the same $300 sales tax as someone who buys a $150,000 yacht, or a $300,000 Cessna, or a $400,000 Lamborghini.
But if you want to provide a permanent source of revenue for roads, a source that the Legislature does not have to scrounge up and approve every year, this is an incredibly obvious way to do it.
Does the House provide enough money to get our roads up to even “fair” condition? No. But neither would the Senate, even if the money it promises were real. What both bills do is give us a Transportation Commission that answers to a statewide elected official rather than a commission that is appointed by seven separate groups of legislators. It gives us the possibility that the Transportation Department will finally start spending money on our state’s most important needs instead of doling it out based on the whims of a parochial, horse-trading commission that answers to no one. The Legislature can come back next year and decide how to provide funding for an agency that can be trusted to spend that money wisely.
It’s obvious why Gov. Haley would exaggerate the plight of the road bill: She wants to make sure the Legislature does not raise the gas tax, and the Senate’s faux funding plan allows her to claim there’s no longer a need for that. It’s obvious why senators would parrot the governor: They need to deflect the criticism that will come if they actually do leave the bill for dead.
But none of us should be fooled by this death talk: The road bill is very much alive right now.
Yes, it still could die. And there are many ways it could be killed. But at this moment, only the Senate has the power to kill it. And that is what the Senate will do if it adopts Gov. Haley’s position that the House has no right to play a role in writing state law.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.