Gov. Nikki Haley took to Facebook Wednesday to argue that changes made by the South Carolina House to a transportation bill effectively killed any chance of it passing this year.
The House voted 113-6 to remove language that sets aside $400 million from the General Fund budget each year, arguing the Senate’s plan was financially risky and that roads should instead be funded through an independent source like a gas tax increase or other fees. It also changed how commissioners are approved for the state board that approves road construction projects.
Haley said the Senate is highly unlikely to agree with the House version with just six weeks of debate time remaining this session. “The House… voted to insert legislative power further into the process, essentially killing any possibility for a good roads bill,” Haley posted on her official Facebook page. “Those who voted NO voted to move forward with a roads plan, and we thank you. Those who voted YES voted to insert more legislative power, killing the bill. #NoExcuses”
Legislators are no longer arguing about how to fund the state Department of Transportation. Instead, the issue is how should the agency be governed. Wednesday’s House plan agrees with the Senate in that it would have the governor pick the board’s members from each of the state’s congressional districts (they are currently chosen among each district’s legislators). But it differs from the Senate in that it would have both chambers approve each pick, rather than just the Senate.
“Given those dynamics, and what we face in here in building consensus, I think this is the best way to go,” State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said on the House floor. Other House Republicans accused the governor of being too willing to give up reform in order to get a bill passed this month.
Members voted for the change after a recent audit of the State Department of Transportation said the agency’s current structure leads to confusion and undermines its leaders. The governor picks the Transportation Secretary to run the agency, while the legislature picks the Transportation Commission to approve all work projects.
Both the House and Senate plans would have the governor choose the commission and the new commissioners choose the Secretary. Democratic (and some Republican) representatives complained the new bill no longer addresses road funding at all. “I am concerned that this is just pushing the issue off yet another year,” State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said. “And we’ll be back next year. We’ve got to reach a permanent solution.”
The House last year approved a $428 million package that included a new sales tax on wholesale gas. A Senate committee threw that plan out and replaced it with their own version that would have raised the state’s gas tax by 12 cents per-gallon the next three years and increased other vehicle-related fees. But a conservative filibuster led by State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, blocked that plan. Earlier this year, senators instead agreed to require that $400 million be set aside from the state’s general operating budget each year. House leaders oppose that idea, but did set aside $415 million in next year’s proposed budget.
House members said the road-repair ball now is back in the Senate’s court. Senators either can agree with the House’s roads proposal or let a House-Senate panel work out the differences between the two proposals.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, doubted the Senate would agree. “Moments ago the House of Representatives struck a lethal blow to the chances of passing a commonsense plan to fix South Carolina’s roads,” he posted on Twitter a few hours after the vote.
But House Speaker Jay Lucas challenged the upper chamber to try. “The most important action here is for the Senate to take a vote and bring us one step closer to fixing our roads,” he wrote in a statement. “At the end of the day, South Carolinians want progress on this issue and repairing our crumbling infrastructure starts with SCDOT reform.”