NEWS: Conferees meeting to forge veto-proof gas tax compromise

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News analysis by Bill Davis, senior editor  |  When Statehouse leaders put the finishing touches next week on what they hope will be a veto-proof bill to fix state roads and bridges, the new measure will have a reach beyond the hundreds of millions of tax dollars it will raise yearly.

Six senior legislators, three from the House and three from the Senate, are meeting today — and perhaps over the weekend — to forge a compromise on a roads bill that will raise $500 million to $600 million annually.

The current House plan calls for an increase to the per-gallon levy by 10 cents from 16.75-cents Meanwhile, the Senate plan calls for a hike of 12 cents per gallon over the same time, but includes some wrinkles such as a  tax rebate and tax relief, such as an Earned Income Tax Credit that many in the House are not excited about.  Both plans include reforms to the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT).

But according to some estimates, the amount needed to get the state’s roads system, the fourth largest in the country, up to a “good” status would actually take closer to $1 billion every year.

So this year’s legislative activity begs this question:  With this new roads bill, will the legislature no longer be guilty of “kicking the can down the road” on needed infrastructure to just being guilty of kicking the can “halfway” down the same pot-holed road?

“This is a miracle”

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, argued this week that the General Assembly wasn’t giving the state half of a haircut with the new roads bill.  He likened the idea of any bill that passed in South Carolina that increased taxes as a “miracle,” considering the usual political climate in the Palmetto State and with the election of a pro-business president like Donald Trump nationally.

Sheheen

“This is a miracle that was three years in the making,” said Sheheen, referring to what had to happen to get Republicans in both chambers to lose their “all taxes are bad” mindset.

According to GOP Sen. Paul Campbell of Goose Creek, who sits on the conference committee with Sheheen, the miracle almost came too late.

Campbell

Campbell said that with “North Carolina and Georgia already getting a jump on us” on infrastructure bills, the DOT won’t be able to find any available road-building general contractors to the work.  Additionally, the House plan doesn’t include any offsets in taxation to counter the money raised by its roads package, he said.

But S.C. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, disagreed that the timing was eleventh hour. He said that by stepping up and having the money come from a dedicated, recurring annual source, it forced leaders in both chambers to “lead and make tough choices.”

In recent years, the legislature borrowed money for roads packages, a strategy considered “deficit spending” to budget hawks who prefer a pay-as-you-go model as in the proposed roads package.

Reasonableness returns

While touring rural roads in Berkeley County on Thursday, state environmental watchdog Dana Beach praised the amount of money the bill would raise.

Beach

For a variety of reasons, Beach, the head of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, thinks the $500 million to $600 million will be plenty to do what the state needs to do to fix roads.

First off, Beach accused the DOT of “inflating” the true amount needed for state’s roads by including “would like” projects alongside “needed” projects.

“With theses bills, we are inching closer as a state every year to getting some rational spending agenda pulled together, but we’re still not there yet,” said Beach, continuing to criticize attention and money being spent on proposed projects like the I-73 “Detroit highway” and the completion of the I-526 inner beltway in his backyard of Charleston County.

Beach praised senators like Larry Grooms, the Bonneau Republican who heads the Transportation Committee, and Tom Davis, the Hilton Head Republican who waged a two-year filibuster against a gas tax increase. Beach said their combined leadership and passion slowed the legislature from putting too much money into roads bills.

Beach still holds onto a basic qualm with the legislature’s focus on the car “as the only mode of transportation” when setting out priority road-building lists. “Don’t get me wrong, this bill will improve traffic,” he said.

But he continued: “What we’ve got in the state in its metro regions are enormous transportation challenges that will require us to do more that build and pave roads. They will require we invest in other modes of transport — rail, rapid bus transit. I’m out today driving in Berkeley County and there is not a shoulder for a bike lane for people to begin to ride a bike on.”

Simrill, a boutique used car dealer, disagreed. “Tell that to the people not riding the bicycles and are instead driving cars. South Carolina is a ‘car’ state.”

McEasier to work with

There’s been a lot of congratulatory back-slapping lately across the state, as many have claimed to be the father of the roads-bill success.

Simrill

But some say the success was due to who wasn’t in the state:  Nikki Haley.  The former governor left office in January to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and with her went some of the political obstacles to advancing a roads bill.

Gov. Henry McMaster, Haley’s successor, originally came out as more willing to listen to gas tax increase supporters earlier this year. But the former head of the state GOP soon said he was against it if there weren’t offsets to the money raised, rendering the bills revenue neutral.

But that was the end of it.

Sheheen said McMaster didn’t “personally attack” those in the legislature who disagreed with him on the issue, nor was he able to run candidates against those on the other side of the roads bill discussion.

Simrill, the point man on the roads bill in the House and one of the conferees, said while he has been able to work with both Haley and McMaster, he said there was a definite difference in political styles. “I think the difference is that Gov. McMaster works to build consensus and not attack the process,” Simrill said.

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