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Lawmakers Want Changes Before Passing Budget

Wed October 11, 2006 - Southeast Edition
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The state Transportation Department needs to make some changes before it gets more than its $1-billion a year budget, state officials and lawmakers said.

Chairman Tee Hooper said his agency needs more money, but thinks the agency has to show “we can appropriately manage funds that we already get.”

It was Hooper’s claims that the agency’s money was being mismanaged that triggered a state audit. The report from the Legislative Audit Council is due out later this year.

Gov. Mark Sanford’s spokesman Joel Sawyer said any increase in Transportation Department funding will have to wait on that report “so we can determine if the problems that have been reported are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Agency Executive Director Elizabeth Mabry in June said the department was in a funding crisis and asked lawmakers to increase annual funding by more than $1 billion over the next 10 years.

Lawmakers have said more money to repair and build South Carolina roads will be a priority in the coming legislative session. The Transportation Department gets most of its money from the federal government and state gas taxes, which haven’t increased since 1987.

On Sept. 27, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, proposed finding up to $200 million a year to improve the state’s roads.

Harrell, whose father is a state highway commissioner, proposed two years ago sending to the Transportation Department some motor vehicle fees that were going into the state’s general fund. The Legislature approved the idea, and the agency will eventually receive $70 million a year as the result.

Harrell said he will propose that the state’s car tax revenue, approximately $86 million a year, be transferred for use by the Transportation Department and the State Infrastructure Bank.

He said he also is looking for other revenue sources for the agency.

“We need to do something about the state’s roads maintenance as quickly as we can,” Harrell said. “But I agree that the department ought to be reformed before they get any more money.”

Both Harrell and his father, Bob Harrell Sr., said they don’t want to raise the state’s gas tax.

State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he supports dedicating a revenue stream for roads, but wants to be sure the state doesn’t do anything to jeopardize its credit rating.