April 18, 2015

SC Big Story: Competing roads bills now on House, Senate floors

Students from the Future Farmers of America tour the Statehouse grounds last week

A roundup of what’s making news in South Carolina state government.

The House Ways & Means Committee advanced a roads funding bill Thursday, sending it to the House floor. The move came one day after the Senate Finance Committee did the same.

But both bills seek to raise money through very different means. And neither may be able to withstand a threatened veto from Gov. Nikki Haley, who has indicated she will not support increasing gas taxes without corresponding income tax relief.

The House version that headed to the floor Thursday tries to accommodate the governor by trimming the state’s 16 cent per-gallon gas tax and shifting it to a new sales tax paid for by wholesalers. In exchange, an income tax break (averaging $48 for the average filer) would be offered to offset any higher price at the pump. Budget analysts predict the proposal would bring in an additional $400 million each year.

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BMW celebrates 3 millionth vehicle manufactured in SC

BMW employee puts finishing touches on an X5 model in this file image provided by BMW Manufacturing

BMW employee puts finishing touches on an X5 model in this file image provided by BMW Manufacturing

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the three millionth BMW produced in South Carolina!”

With those words, a grey metallic X5 Sports Activity Vehicle drove off the factory floor at the German automaker’s Greer plant as onlookers watched in a Tuesday ceremony. BMW is celebrating the milestone, as the company enters its 21st year in the South Carolina Upstate.

“The growth of this plant has been quite extraordinary,” said BMW Manufacturing President and CEO Manfred Erlacher. ”Today, as we witness another historic moment, I am delighted to announce that BMW’s profound impact in South Carolina continues.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Commerce confirmed that BMW is the largest US exporter of passenger vehicles by value. Nearly 250,000 vehicles were exported from the South Carolina plant to locations overseas, according to the company. South Carolina officials have spent millions improving state infrastructure to benefit the state-owned port’s largest customer, including building an Inland Port rail terminal that opened near the plant in 2013.

The Greer plant manufactures BMW’s X series SUVs and “Sports Activity” crossovers, including the X3, X4, X5, X6. The company says the site produced nearly 350,000 vehicles last year.

Several dignitaries were in attendance, including Gov. Nikki Haley, Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, and State Ports Authority President & CEO Jim Newsome.

BMW said the three-millionth X5 paraded before media outlets and guests on Tuesday will eventually be delivered to a customer in Sweden.

Jenna Kochenauer of Greenville affiliate WORD News contributed to this report

Senate looking at more than gas tax increase to pay for roads

State Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, is pushing the proposal (Image: SCETV)

State Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, is pushing the proposal (Image: SCETV)

More than just a gas tax increase will be on the table when a prominent South Carolina Senate committee considers how to pay for a backlog in road repairs. But at least one group (and even a few senators) are questioning if the move is even constitutional.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up the Collective Road Act on Tuesday afternoon. The measure by State Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, would be the product crafted by the Transportation Funding Subcommittee that he chaired. The panel, whose five members have previously expressed support for a gas tax hike, voted unanimously for the package last week.

Gov. Nikki Haley has already warned she will veto any legislation that tries to raise the gas tax without a corresponding reduction in income tax rates. Cleary said he will try to push on with the idea anyway. “The committee needs to look inward and see what we can get through… and we have to craft our own plan,” he said. “At the end of the day, what’s important is that in June the Senate is not held responsible for roads not being fixed.”

However, the legislation is raising constitutional concerns. South Carolina’s 1895 constitution requires any bills dealing with revenue (including new taxes) to originate in the House of Representatives. Cleary questioned if classifying the changes as “fee increases” would allow the proposal to pass legal muster. He even jokingly threatened to bring a glass jar requiring senators to donate $1 for roads each time they called the increase a “gas tax” rather than a “user fee.” He also wondered aloud himself if legislators would need to copy the bill word-for-word and reintroduce it as a House bill.

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Governor Haley: Raise gas tax and lower income tax, or no deal

Gov. Haley emphasized Thursday that any increase in the gas tax must be offset elsewhere to avoid her veto

Gov. Haley emphasized Thursday that any increase in the gas tax must be offset elsewhere to avoid her veto

Another warning from Governor Nikki Haley to lawmakers about raising the gas tax. During a press conference at the Statehouse Thursday, the governor repeated that she will veto any plan to raise taxes to fix roads if it does not also provide relief.

“You can’t just up it on one side and not give a tax cut on the other side,” Haley said. “So we’re going to stay pretty true to that,”

The governor said she is open to working with the legislature, but there has to be a tax cut if the gas tax is raised. If not, then nothing will happen. “They might as well not waste their time, because we just won’t go there at all. We will let everything fall to the wayside before we let the people of South Carolina see a tax increase,” she told reporters.

The governor made the comments one week after a Senate panel voted to increase the state’s 17 cents per-gallon gas tax to 37 cents within five years. That plan does not have any income tax offset and would raise an estimated $700 million more, according to the panel’s chairman Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown.

Cleary said the Senate is anticipating the governor’s veto and is moving forward regardless with the hope of gaining enough support to override her. He said an income tax cut would not help those who are in the lowest income tax bracket and would only provide an extra $48 for the average taxpayer.

Haley said she is open to compromise with the House and Senate, but to a point. “(We’ll) try to be really honest with them and tell them what we think is realistic that I can stomach. And where they want to go in terms of what they want to get passed,” Haley said.

Haley favors a 10-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax if the state income tax rate is cut by 2 percent — a plan she outlined in her State of the State speech. The governor is insistent that any a proposal also needs to have a tax break. Otherwise, she said there would be no money for roads this year. That threat came despite continued pressure from the business community, particularly the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.

 

Moped safety bills before South Carolina legislature

The state House has passed a bill that would require not only moped riders to wear vests but also have flashing moped copyred tail lights on the moped. The bill passed the chamber last week and is now in Senate committee.

It’s one of 10 bills filed by legislators this session seeking a safety solution to moped accidents that have risen in recent years, injuring or killing hundreds annually.

“The biggest issue is people don’t see them,” Representative Mike Ryhal, R-Myrtle Beach and chief sponsor of the bill told the Greenville News. “They get up on them and before you know it, there is an accident.”

The House is also considering a separate bill that would bar mopeds from any roads with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour or higher.

The number of moped-related traffic deaths is increasing, however. State Department of Public Safety figures show 23 people died in moped accidents in 2013. Last year, that number increased by nearly 40 percent to were 32 moped fatalities. The number of moped crashes involving injuries did decline over the same span, from 677 to 581 incidents.

Moped drivers are not required to have a driver’s license or to carry liability insurance. Operators can be as young as 14 and even those with a suspended driver’s license are allowed to use mopeds for six months. Lawmakers have filed a number of bills to make moped use safer.

A bill by State Rep. Bill Crosby, R-North Charleston, would require mopeds to be registered and carry insurance. It would also ban drivers with a suspended license from using them. His bill also would keep them off any public road with a speed limit of more than 35 mph.

A bill by State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington; Sen. Greg Hembree R-Horry; and Sen. Larry Martin R-Pickens, would classify a moped as a motor vehicle for the purposes of insurance and registration.

Another bill by State Reps. David Hiott, R-Pickens, and Murrell Smith, R- Sumter, would ban mopeds from public highways and streets.

Dillard said she wants vests required because people just don’t see mopeds until it is too late. “It’s to protect everybody’s life out there,” she said.