The agency that runs South Carolina’s highway system is in the crosshairs of the state General Assembly. Ongoing financial problems at the state Department of Transportation have prompted several calls from legislators to change its command structure.
A House panel advanced a bill Thursday that would shift more of the agency under the governor’s control. The legislation sponsored by Rep. Jay Lucas (R-Hartsville) would eliminate the seven-member Transportation Commission that currently approves new highway projects.
Lucas has previously tried to push for the governor’s appointed Secretary of Transportation to run the agency, instead of overseeing administrative functions while answering to the commission. However, Lucas says he’s had trouble getting other members to support the move. “It’s not a good process,” Lucas said, “But the problem is no one can come up with a better idea.”
The Department of Transportation had several problems over the summer paying its contractors in a timely matter– eventually having to ask for an advance payment of $52 million from its federal appropriations. DOT officials say the problems were caused by too many projects that started before the agency balanced its cash flow.
Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge told senators in a separate hearing Thursday that his agency has since made a point to change how it pays contractors. Current law requires the payments to be made within 30 business days. St. Onge said the DOT is now using a 30 calendar day window.
Lucas wants the legislature to get more involved in highway funding, saying that lawmakers don’t have any say in the billions of dollars that flow from the federal government to the commission.
“What is the best way that we can do our job… without using one line item to send $5 billion to a commission that we have no control over?” Lucas asked his fellow House members.
However, the lone Democrat on the panel, Rep. Walt McLeod (D-Little Mountain), said Lucas’s proposal would lead to “micromanaging” by the legislature of even small projects. “That flies straight in the face of Cabinet government,” he argued.
McLeod said legislative involvement would bring even more politics into a process already embroiled by it. “I appreciate your idealism, but I wish I could convince you that your idealism is misplaced,” he told Lucas in one exchange.
St. Onge was not able to address the House representatives Thursday, but said he was neutral about eliminating the commission. During a Senate hearing Thursday, he said he was open to serving two bosses– the governor and the commission– but added one of those bosses was micromanaging.
“(Some commission members) want to see everything we do to the gory detail,” St. Onge said. “They’re way down in the weeds.” He added he would be open to legislative oversight, as long as it was not too intrusive into the agency’s day-to-day operations.
The Senate Transportation Committee is also taking up a similar bill, but they did not act on it in Thursday’s hearing.
St. Onge said DOT has put $44 million in new projects on hold as the agency tries to regain control over its finances.