South Carolina lawmakers go back into session in Columbia Tuesday, and the state senator who had been blocking a plan to fix state roads says he won’t continue to filibuster the bill. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, says he was blocking the bill last June when lawmakers adjourned because senators had changed what the House passed.
The House plan included a 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase, an income tax cut, and reforms at the state Department of Transportation. Sen. Davis says, “All those reforms were stripped out by the Senate Finance Committee and the tax was tripled, and they were simply going to dump that money into a system that has demonstrated its inability to address our critical needs.”
But he says since lawmakers have been out of session, things have changed. “There’s a lot more appetite and sentiment in the Senate right now for those reforms to the DOT and the State Infrastructure Bank that weren’t there last June. And so I think you’re going to find an entirely new dynamic when session resumes,” he says.
Still, it’s not definite that lawmakers will pass a road-funding plan. One of the biggest obstacles is the fact that it’s an election year. Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, says, “The citizens don’t want you to raise their taxes but they also want you fix their roads. So if you don’t fix their roads they’ll be mad but if you raise their taxes they’ll be mad.”
He thinks a plan will get majority support, though, as long as it includes a gas tax increase, an income tax cut, and DOT reforms.
House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, says Republicans are making the issue harder than it needs to be by tying those three things together. “The answer is that we need to fix our roads,” he says. “Everybody knows this. Why is it that as soon as it comes time to give money towards roads we keep talking about two other things? We need to fund our roads. We need to raise taxes to order to fund our roads because we can’t do it with what’s currently available.”
The DOT has said it needs at least $1 billion more per year in order to fix and maintain current roads. That does not include building any new ones.
Another complicating factor in the debate is that the state has a budget surplus of $1.3 billion. Some lawmakers say that shows there’s no need to raise taxes to fix roads, but the majority of that surplus is one-time money, while the DOT needs a stable source of funds to be able to budget and let contracts. Other state agencies have also made budget requests that total more than the surplus.