COLUMBIA, S.C. —There’s new pressure on the South Carolina Senate to pass a plan to fix state roads, after more than half the House held a news conference to say not passing a plan the last three years has already cost South Carolinians more than $1 billion in deteriorating roads. “The cost of further deterioration to our road system is $385 million each year that we don’t act,” said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville.
He also brought up the fact that senators are running out of time, with only 11 legislative days left in the session after Tuesday.
The House’s bill would raise the gas tax by two cents a year for five years, with all the money going to existing roads, while the Senate’s bill would raise the gas tax two cents a year for six years. South Carolina’s gas tax of 16.75 cents a gallon is second-lowest in the nation and hasn’t been raised since 1987.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said, “937 people a year die on South Carolina roads. They are dying for action. It is now time for the Senate to act.”
Senators are also facing new pressure from a web ad that started Tuesday by the SC Alliance to Fix Our Roads. It features audio from President Ronald Reagan, in hopes that Republicans who oppose raising the gas tax will listen to him. He says, “Good tax policy decrees that wherever possible a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service. Our highways were built largely with such a user fee, the gasoline tax. I think it makes sense to follow that principle in restoring them to the condition we all want them to be in.”
The ad also mentions Gov. Carroll Campbell, who was the last governor to raise the gas tax. Current Gov. Henry McMaster opposes a gas tax increase and has proposed that lawmakers instead borrow up to $1 billion for roads. Many of his fellow Republicans say it would be irresponsible for the state to borrow money for an ongoing need since state taxpayers would be paying interest on that debt, while $1 billion would barely make a dent in improving state roads. The SCDOT says it needs at least $1 billion a year for 20 years to bring roads up to good condition.
But Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort says he plans to fight the roads bill. He’s filibustered them the last three years to block them, saying there’s no need to give the DOT more money. Instead, he says he’ll fight to reform the agency. “I’ve looked under the hood and I’ve figured out how those agencies make those spending decisions and it’s not based on a statewide, rational assessment of where needs are. It’s not based on what highways need repair. It’s not based on where the most people are. It’s based on where certain legislators live,” he says.
But Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, says the issue is not restructuring the DOT. “South Carolina’s DOT, their budget has not increased over the last 10 years even at the rate of inflation.” If the state’s gas tax of 16.75 cents had kept pace with inflation, it would now be 34 cents a gallon. “‘No’ is not a solution and all we’ve heard from Senate Republicans is no, no, no. Well that means yes, we have crappy roads, which is what we have right now in South Carolina,” he says.
As for the argument that the SCDOT already gets enough money but doesn’t spend it wisely, Speaker Lucas says it’s clear the agency doesn’t have the money it needs. “With 42,000 miles of center-lane road in South Carolina, there’s no way feasibly possible that we could maintain the system we have,” with the current budget, he says.
The Senate started debate late Tuesday afternoon and then adjourned around 5 p.m. Debate is expected to last several days. Sen. Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg, says it’s up to drivers who are tired of bad roads to contact their senators. “Once the people speak, we believe that, at that point, they’ll have no choice but to listen,” he says.