While senators rejoiced this week at the passage of a roads funding bill that has been stuck in their chamber for nearly a year, their counterparts in the House were not nearly as happy.
“The Senate’s deceptive plan to fix our crumbling roads system is irresponsible and prioritizes politics over a sound solution,” Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said in a statement released by his office. “Not only does their plan mislead the people of South Carolina into thinking that a large pot of General Fund money will be available every year for roads, it also practices reckless budgeting that jeopardizes the prosperity of our economy. While I acknowledge the Senate’s governance reform efforts, kicking the can further down the road and into a giant pothole defies the test of real leadership.”
Senate Republicans were able to break through a months-long impasse by proposing that $400 million in new roads money come from the general budget each year instead of a new funding source like a gas tax increase. Conservatives had said they would not support a net tax increase in a year where the state budget is expecting more than $1 billion in unallocated money.
“The Senate’s bill proved how well we can work together to develop a plan that can receive support from the entire Senate leadership,” Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said in his own statement.
But House budget-writers are irked at the lack of a long-term funding source in the Senate’s plan. Budget chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said the Senate is relying on the House “to budget them out of their inability to pass a comprehensive roads bill.” This year’s proposed House budget included an additional $287 million for road work, in addition to the state’s gas tax revenue.
House Republicans had pushed their own plan that would lower the state’s gas tax and begin collecting an excise tax on wholesale fuel sales. But that plan suffered a potential setback when the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office said Friday the change would bring in $195 million than originally expected. The forecasters blamed a drop in gas prices over the past 12 months.
Republicans in both chambers did appear supportive of the Senate’s other major change: reforming the state Transportation Commission. The Senate plan would have the governor appoint the commission’s eight members, instead of the one she does now.
Gov. Nikki Haley, who has favored the reform element of the bill, is urging legislators to take the Senate’s plan seriously. “Senate moved on roads,” she tweeted after Wednesday’s vote. “Reforming so that improvements are based on safety and traffic not on legislators in power. House, your turn.” The governor had previously said
House Democrats also criticized the Senate plan, with Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, saying the GOP chose “political expediency over a real solution to our crumbling roads.” He blamed the governor for threatening a veto of any gas tax increase and threatening to fundraise against certain senators’ reelection this fall.
“I’d like to congratulate Governor Haley on successfully scaring enough Republican senators into voting for a bill that looks good but does nothing instead of a real, sustainable funding plan for our roads,” he continued.
House leaders do not expect to take up the bill until they finish budget votes later this month.