It appears a roads bill that has dominated debate this Statehouse session may be close to passage.
The South Carolina House of Representatives approved a bill 102-3 Tuesday that would both restructure the state Department of Transportation’s (SCDOT) leadership and borrow up to $2.2 billion for projects the next 10 years. The plan effectively merges a pair of bills that crisscrossed back-and-forth between the House and Senate over the past two years.
“This is the best we could do. This is a good start,” House budget chairman State Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, said. “It’s surely not what’s needed for the long term, but it’s a good first start.”
Tuesday’s vote added SCDOT reform language to the bill that passed the Senate earlier this month. Senators passed a similar proposal separately, which is now being negotiated in conference committee. White indicated the latest plan would effectively override that version and has the support of Gov. Nikki Haley.
The bill diverts car sales tax money and various Department of Motor Vehicles fees towards the SCDOT. Those additional $200 million in annual recurring funds would then be leveraged through bonds for up to $2.2 billion in total borrowing over 10 years. SCDOT officials hope that would free up agency money to spend on rural roads that are not eligible for federal aid. It matches an earlier House bill in that it moves the state’s eight-member Transportation Commission from mostly legislative control to one appointed entirely by the governor.
“With this bill, you are putting the mechanism in place to start the process of fixing the roads,” White said. “If you don’t have something like this, you are not starting the process.”
Opponents questioned the large annual interest payments South Carolina would make on such a large amount of borrowing, which State Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, argued is money that would be taken away from other needed services. “With five days left, we’re going to put this state in debt for the next 20 years,” he said during Tuesday’s debate. Norman and fellow libertarian-leaning State Rep. Jonathan Hill, R-Townville, were the only GOP “no” votes, while State Rep. Bill Bowers, D-Hampton, also opposed.
Even supporters admitted the borrowing is just a temporary fix and does not address the lack of a permanent long-term funding source beyond the state’s low 17 cents per-gallon gas tax.
“Ultimately… we are going to have to continue in coming sessions to work to find a sustainable funding mechanism for our roads,” State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said.
All of the governor’s picks for the Transportation Commission would have to be approved by the legislature, under the bill. Senate leaders have previously thought only the Senate should have the final say on those picks, as is the case for all other Cabinet agencies. But House members say they should get a say, as well.