State senators on Wednesday gave key approval to a $400 million roads funding bill, not touching South Carolina’s gas tax and instead pledging to divert $400 million from its General Fund each year.
Senators voted 30-15 Wednesday in favor of the Republican proposal, with four Democratic senators joining in support. One GOP senator (State Sen. Ray Cleary) opposed.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said the legislation was a compromise after Senate GOP leaders could not reach an agreement with more conservative members on a long-term funding plan. Moderate Republicans and Democratic senators had favored a 12-cent increase to the state’s 17 cents per-gallon gas tax. But conservatives blocked any action on that, threatening perpetual filibuster until the final deal was reached last week.
“We were reaching a point where it was a realistic possibility we would have no bill,” Grooms said after the vote. “And that was not acceptable to me and a lot of other people. So we had a hard conversation on whether we could have nothing or would we rally around this.”
Senate Democrats largely condemned the bill, arguing that taking money out of the General Fund instead of new revenue would mean less available for education or local governments. They also argued the bill is a short-term fix to a long-term problem.
“What we have is the ‘Patch’ Act,” State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, argued. “Not the roads act, but the Patch Act.”
The Senate proposal would also change the commission which must approve any road construction projects in South Carolina. The Transportation Commission under its current structure consists of eight members — appointed by legislators in each of the state’s congressional districts and one member appointed by the governor. The bill approved Wednesday would instead have the governor pick the eight members from each district with the Senate’s consent.
One more procedural vote is needed, likely on Thursday, to send the bill back to the House after nearly an entire year of negotiating in the Statehouse’s upper chamber. It’s not clear what kind of support for the Senate version exists in the House, however, as Republican leaders there prefer also prefer a steady funding source independent of the General Fund. The version House Republicans passed last year would largely fund road repairs through a new excise tax on wholesale gas sales, offset by a 6-cent decrease in the state’s gas tax.
“This plan kicks the can further down the road and into a giant pothole,’ House Speaker Jay Lucas said of the Senate proposal last week. However, other House Republicans indicated they could back the bill given the political unlikelihood of the Senate agreeing to create new revenue sources.
Potentially hurting the House’s own proposal were new budget numbers released by the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office on Wednesday. The budget analysts warned the House plan would bring in $195 million less than previously expected because gas prices have plummeted since they did their initial estimate last year. In 2015, the agency had predicted the House plan would bring in $437 million.
The legislation will almost certainly end up in a conference committee that would hammer out a final version of the bill. Gov. Nikki Haley has previously threatened to veto the legislation if it results in a net tax increase.
Senate Republicans spent Wednesday voting down two dozen amendments put forward by their Democratic counterparts, not even breaking ranks when their opponents offered amendments many in the GOP had previously supported.
The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce has pushed heavily for better road funding and called the Senate version progress, but said it was not what they would like. “This plan is a step in the right direction, but the Chamber will continue to push for $600 million in recurring, sustainable funding to make our roads safer and to help our businesses succeed,” Chamber president Ted Pitts said in an email.
Pitts noted $400 million each year is not enough to eliminate the state’s hundreds of structurally deficient bridges or widen any roads to reduce congestion. Instead, he worried money would go almost entirely towards repaving and bridge repairs along only primary routes.