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Gas Tax Sabbatical Could Impact Roads

Wed May 24, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Cronin



By Jeff Cronin

CEG ASSOCIATE EDITOR

Michael Covington’s really hoping the math works out properly.

If South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s plan to temporarily eliminate the state motor fuel tax is approved, Covington, director of administration of the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), said the department’s funding levels should remain consistent.

The governor wants to drop the 16.75 cents-per-gallon for three months in an effort he said will ease the strain of paying for gas for the state’s drivers. The price of a gallon of gas hovered near the $3 mark in mid-May.

The issue with that is that SCDOT receives 84 percent of its revenue from that tax – approximately $40 million a month.

Covington said the proposal would transfer money from the state’s general fund to SCDOT to “break even.”

But if the plan is flawed in any way and the numbers come up short, “it will have a devastating effect on our highway program,” he said.

However, the governor pledged the state’s growing economy will not allow for an impact on its roads.

Covington said SCDOT officials recognize they are the “stewards” of the construction and materials industry as a major provider of work in the state.

“We should manage our resources in a way to provide them with predictability and consistency and a continuation of their market,” he said. “Therefore, they shouldn’t have to deal with big swings in the amount of work we put out year to year.”

While Covington said he recognizes the department’s place in the construction industry, “we don’t control the purse strings.”

The plan to temporarily eliminate the gas tax comes at a time in which SCDOT funding is already strained.

“What we really need is more money,” Covington said.

Berry Jenkins, Highway Division Director of the Carolinas AGC, said he doesn’t expect the move would make the DOT’s financial situation any worse.

Already, he said, highway contractors are getting ready to lay off workers as soon as their contracts are completed and are delaying any investment in new equipment.

Jenkins said the DOT is already planning to delay projects by four to six months and “unfortunately, a lot of the projects deal with safety and congestion.”

The proposal is included in Sanford’s overall budget, which goes into effect July 1. The state legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the summer June 1.

South Carolina lawmakers aren’t alone in the Southeast when dealing with this issue. In Georgia, Democrats are pushing Gov. Sonny Perdue to suspend the gas tax like he did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And in North Carolina, Gov. Mike Easley has said he will include a gas tax cap in his budget proposal.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.) CEG