May 30, 2015

SC Senate Republicans try offering own roads plan

Heavy traffic along Interstate 26 northwest of Columbia (Image: SCDOT/File)

Heavy traffic along Interstate 26 northwest of Columbia (Image: SCDOT/File)

Desperate to get a roads plan passed with just a little over three weeks remaining in the regular Statehouse session, Senate Republicans floated a proposal they said would raise more money for road work, but also provide some income tax relief and change how the state’s transportation agency is governed.

The plan revealed by Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, on Thursday morning tries to merge what are currently competing efforts on the Senate floor. The proposal passed by an alliance of Democrats and moderate Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee last week would raise the state’s 17 cents per-gallon to 29 cents over a period of years. But the governor (and a majority of Senate Republicans) want an income tax cut to offset the additional money that customers would be paying at the pump.

Those conservatives say they also want a revamp in the commission that approves new construction projects around South Carolina. The Transportation Commission is chosen now by legislators from each of the state’s seven congressional districts, with the governor getting an eighth pick. But the GOP plan offered Thursday would change that to the governor picking each commissioner, with the appointed commission then choosing the Department of Transportation’s next leader.

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Photos of damaged South Carolina roads being used to focus on funding

Last week, Senator Darrell Jackson (D-Richland), speaking on the Senate floor, suggested that South Carolinians should send photos of local road conditions to their elected officials to demonstrate the need for immediate action on road funding. This was in response to a failed vote to set H. 3579 for Special Order. With time running out on the legislative session, the Senate risks not passing legislation. 

In response to Senator Jackson’s call, Bill Ross, Executive Director of South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads (SCFOR), told South Carolina Radio Network that he offered to provide the Senate with the hundreds of user submitted images collected during the “Fix SC Roads” campaign. “Our digital advocacy campaign has given a voice to the people of South Carolina for months now and people have been speaking loud and clear,” said Ross. “They want action on fixing our roads this legislative session.” 

One way SCFOR has been interacting with citizens is by allowing them to submit photos of road conditions in their area to the website Users can place photos and alerts on an interactive map. “There were so many submissions that we broke the map! People are frustrated at the road conditions in their area and they are frustrated with politicians in Columbia,” Ross continued. “If the Senate needs pictures, we have hundreds. People are demanding leadership this year.” 

Ross said the situation by saying, “There is no road left to kick the can down. It’s crumbled under our feet.”

According to a recently released report, crumbling roads are costing drivers about $3 billion annually due to extra operation costs, lost time and wasted fuel from traffic congestion and crashes. The Greenville area is estimated to have the highest cost for residents at $1,353 a year per driver, followed by Columbia which averaged $1,250 annually. Charleston residents faced an average $1,168 in the costs.



SC Senate lacks votes to give road funding bill priority status

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman questioned if there is enough time to take up the road funding bill (SCETV)

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman questioned if there is enough time to take up the road funding bill (SCETV)

The state Senate has refused to give priority status to a bill that would fund road and bridge construction, leaving its status very uncertain as the Legislature enters the final month of its regular session.

Opponents of raising the gas tax were able to rally enough “no” votes to prevent the two-thirds majority needed to set the bill to special order. The motion failed 26-19.

The bill would raise the state’s current 17-cents per gallon gas tax by 4 cents per year for three years, to 29 cents by 2018. The new total would then be pegged to inflation after that. It would also double the fees for a new driver’s license (from $12.50 to $25 for a 5-year license and increase to $50 from $25 for a 10-year version) and raise biennial vehicle registration fees from $24 to $40 for drivers under age 65. It would also require any boat or utility trailers to be licensed (current state law does not require a tag), with most of the new $20 registration fee going to South Carolina’s Highway Fund.

Governor Nikki Haley has already said she will veto the bill, saying it needs to include tax relief elsewhere that would offset the gas tax increase.

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Senate committee tosses out House roads plan, income tax cut

The Senate Finance Committee spent more than an hour debating the bill (Image: SCETV)

The Senate Finance Committee spent more than an hour debating the bill (Image: SCETV)

A Senate committee decided Tuesday to scrap a House plan that would fund roads mostly through a new excise tax on gas wholesalers, substituting its own version that would instead raise the state’s gas tax by 12 cents per gallon.

The measure passed 14-8, with an alliance of Democrats and moderate Republicans outvoting conservatives who opposed the tax increase. The proposal is identical to another bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee last month but failed to get anywhere once it reached the Senate floor. The House plan would have raised an estimated $400 million more each year, while the Senate plan is estimated to bring in an additional $800 million.

But two opponents made its passage harder by placing a procedural hold (known as a “minority report”) on the bill.  So long as the objection remains attached, the measure requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, opposes such a large tax and fee increase, saying he does not think legislators are prioritizing roads even with current funds they already have. “How, in a year where we’ve $330 million in new dollars, we can’t find the political will to devote any of it towards roads and bridges?” he asked rhetorically during Tuesday’s meeting. “And we’re going to bank all of our hopes on a massive tax increase? I think that’s irresponsible.”

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Two Faifax men charged with staging Amtrak crash for insurance money

Two Allendale County men face seven federal charges after authorities say they left a stolen car on railroad tracks so they could collect insurance money after an Amtrak train crashed into it.

Federal prosecutors say 33-year-old James Love and 34-year-old Deon Roberts were indicted last week on charges of fraud and causing the September 6, 2013 train derailment near the town of Fairfax. None of the 128 passengers on-board the train were injured.

The indictment states Love and Roberts parked a stolen car on the tracks, then left until the New York-to-Miami train crashed into it around 3:30 a.m. that morning. Investigators then say Love got back into the damaged car and Roberts laid down near it, each claiming to be severely injured. Both men were taken to a nearby hospital at the time.

“The safety of the American railroad system is among the highest priorities of the country’s law enforcement agencies,” Amtrak Inspector General Tom Howard said in a release. “Those who would seek to interfere with the well-being of Amtrak’s passengers and the commerce of the railroads will be held accountable to the greatest extent allowed under the law.”

Varnville’s police chief later confirmed to news media that the car had been reported stolen from his jurisdiction.

Both Love and Roberts were charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, causing a train wreck, and unlawful interference with a train operator. Love, a convicted felon, was also charged with unlawful possession of a shotgun and live shells.