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Senate Looks for Its Own Plan for More Money for S.C. Roads

As the South Carolina House prepares to begin debating how to raise more money to maintain and repair state roads, several other plans are being discussed by a special Senate committee.

Tue March 17, 2015 - Southeast Edition
Jeffrey Collins - ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) As the South Carolina House prepares to begin debating how to raise more money to maintain and repair state roads, several other plans are being discussed by a special Senate committee.

While two bills in the House look to raise about $400 million more for roads a year, the Senate appears to want to direct a larger amount to roads.

The Senate also appears less interested than the House and Gov. Nikki Haley in changing the way the South Carolina Department of Transportation operates.

In a report last year, the DOT estimated it needed more than $1 billion extra to get the state’s roads and bridges to good condition.

A special Senate committee is reviewing six bills with four different plans to increase road revenue. Here are highlights of the plans.

Grooms’ Funding Plan

Sen. Larry Grooms has two bills to increase road funding. Both would involve raising the gas tax by 20 cents over a decade, while incrementally cutting the state’s income tax rate 2 percentage points.

He also wants to take 20 percent of any new revenue South Carolina gets each budget year and put it toward roads until 5 percent of the state’s general budget is paying for highways and bridges.

Grooms said his plans will raise much more than the $400 million per year the House and governor seem focused on.

“Four-hundred million dollars doesn’t even buy us any new lane capacity,’’ said Grooms, R-Charleston, at the subcommittee meeting.

Gas Tax Rebate

South Carolina drivers would get a break from gas tax increases under a plan sponsored by Sen. Paul Thurmond.

After DOT submits its budget, any tax increase needed would be considered by a financial accountably board of state leaders, said Thurmond, R-Charleston.

But South Carolina taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay the extra tax under Thurmond’s plan. He is still working out the details, but said he would like a system where South Carolina drivers could scan their licenses at the pump, and get a printout at the end of the year of how much fuel they bought and taxes paid. They would then get that money back on their income taxes.

Thurmond acknowledges there may be problems with the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution by charging out-of-state drivers and not South Carolina residents. But he is asking for more research.

“We can charge more for out-of state people who go to college and out-of-state fishing licenses,’’ Thurmond said.

Local Gas Tax

Counties could hold referendums to decide if their taxpayers were willing to charge a countywide 5-cent gas tax, under a bill filed by Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster.

Any county that passes the tax could use the money for its own roads. A county could hold a vote every two years.

Borrowing for Interstates

Sen. Nikki Setzler wants South Carolina to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to put new lanes on its interstates.

Setzler’s bill would place about $60 million from sales tax collected on vehicles into a Lane Expansion Fund in the State Infrastructure Bank. That money would be used to fund road construction borrowing.

“You want to do something that would put us on the cutting edge very quick? Widen the interstates,’’ said Setzler, D-West Columbia.

South Carolina has 851 mi. (1,370 km) of interstate highway. About 80 percent of it has only two lanes in each direction. But expanding interstates is expensive. A current project to make a 10-mi. (16 km) stretch of Interstate 26 east of Columbia six lanes is costing $76 million.

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