A year ago, a gas tax increase appeared nearly inevitable. Gov. Nikki Haley stunned the entire Statehouse by saying she could support a gas tax increase if there was a corresponding tax cut.
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The House speaker and some other lawmakers were cautious while many Senate Republicans and the governor celebrated a plan that could set aside an additional $400 million to repair South Carolina roads without raising the gas tax.
House Speaker Jay Lucas said the Senate needs to come up with a better plan, while Sen. Ray Cleary said all the proposal does is make sure the Department of Transportation has money for one year and even if it's available after that, it won't be enough to expand roads in a rapidly growing state, only maintain them.
“If we go into another recession, what are you going to cut?' said the Murrells Inlet Republican, who is in the last year of his 12-year Senate career. He has spent most of that time trying to get a stable source of money for roads, such as by raising the gas tax.
Lucas' statement pointed out the 323 days since the House passed its road plan, which raised the sales tax on fuel for a more stable funding source.
“The current Senate amendment simply kicks the can further down the road and frankly, into a pothole. The General Assembly has been using general fund dollars to slap a Band-Aid on roads for years with very little to show for it,' the Hartsville Republican said.
A year ago, a gas tax increase appeared nearly inevitable. Gov. Nikki Haley stunned the entire Statehouse by saying she could support a gas tax increase if there was a corresponding tax cut. The state Chamber of Commerce followed with a poll saying most South Carolinians could support raising the gas tax for the first time in 30 years to fix potholes and bridges. Claims for damage caused by poor roads have increased rapidly and business leaders suggested the economy might slow if the state didn't improve its roads.
But three senators, led by Sen. Tom Davis, filibustered at the end of the 2015 session against a gas tax hike and stuck their ground this year, eventually bringing nearly all the Senate Republicans to their side. The governor also praised the plan on her Facebook page as “exactly what we need in South Carolina.'
Davis shrugged off whether he is the new hero for Republicans with libertarian leanings. “It was about making sure the dollars people send up here for roads and bridges are spent in a responsible way,' the Beaufort Republican said.
Others aren't as happy. Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler said Democrats never got a say during the weeks of stalling and now would only get a day or two to debate and possibly change the Republicans' plan.
Cleary said raising the gas tax was never discussed in public before his fellow Republicans decided their plan was the way to go.
“You let the body decide. We didn't get to debate it today. We didn't debate it last year, we didn't debate it this year. We were held hostage until we gave up and surrendered,' Cleary said.
Rep. Gary Simrill helped get the House bill through that chamber. He said $400 million from the general fund is better than nothing, but there are shortcomings to using general fund money. The gas tax is a much more stable source of funding, and out-of-state drivers pay it too, the Rock Hill Republican said.
“When it's from the fuel pump to DOT, that stream of revenue cannot be taken,' Simrill said.
Business leaders also are behind the proposal with some reservations.
“It may be the best we would hope for under the circumstances,' said South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads Executive Director Bill Ross. “This is just a temporary fix. It's not a long term fix.'
The $400 million would get the pavement on almost all South Carolina interstates to good condition. It fixes less than half of the state's primary roads and reduces the number of deficient bridges by half. It also falls short of the roughly $1 billion the DOT said would allow it to widen interstates.
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