S.C. Senators Move Bill That Raises $800M for Roads

The Senate Finance Committee advanced a bill March 25 that raises roughly $800 million yearly for road and bridge work, a day after Gov. Nikki Haley pledged to veto it.

Tue April 14, 2015 - Southeast Edition

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The Senate Finance Committee advanced a bill March 25 that raises roughly $800 million yearly for road and bridge work, a day after Gov. Nikki Haley pledged to veto it.

A 16-7 vote sent to the Senate floor a bill that increases the state’s gas tax by 12 cents over three years — to 28 cents per gallon on July 1, 2017 — and allows it to increase further with inflation starting in 2018.

Sen. Ray Cleary, the bill’s sponsor, said it’s the fair way to fund roads since those who drive on them will pay.

“How do you get more fair than that?’’ asked Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, who calls it a user fee, rather than a tax. “I think if you’re using the roads, you pay for the roads.’’

The proposal also raises the sales tax cap on automobile purchases from $300 to $600. It increases the fees on driver’s licenses and vehicle registration fees. It also creates a fee for drivers of hybrid vehicles, since they use less gas, of $60 every two years.

After the vote, a senator placed an objection on the bill in an attempt to block debate on the floor.

On March 24, Haley sent a letter to both House members and senators opposing separate road-funding proposals being considered by their committees. She promised to veto either one, saying each represents a massive tax increase.

House Speaker Jay Lucas responded with his own letter March 25, inviting her to work with legislators toward a compromise on the complicated issue rather than “issue a pre-emptive veto threat.’’

Since January, Haley has said she would consent to a 10-cent hike in the state’s gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 1988, but only if the Legislature also gives the governor’s office full control of the Department of Transportation and massively cut the state’s income tax. Currently, the DOT is a Cabinet agency, but its director also answers to a commission elected by legislators. Haley’s plan would reduce the state’s general fund revenues by $1.8 billion yearly when fully implemented in a decade, while raising $400 million yearly for road construction.

The bill advanced neither restructures the DOT nor cuts income taxes. Earlier, the Senate Transportation Committee postponed voting on a separate restructuring bill.

Cleary said his measure is meant only to address the state’s road needs. The governor has pledged to veto all of his road-funding proposals for the last three years, so it appears she won’t compromise on anything, he said.

“Our job is not to pass a bill based on whether or not the governor will veto it,’’ said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. “Her plan is a nonstarter. ... If she wants to veto it, she’ll have that opportunity.’’

On March 26, the House Ways and Means Committee took up two bills. One would raise about $400 million yearly for road construction, while the other would reduce state income taxes by $51 million once fully implemented. Haley said that tax cut is not nearly enough.

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