In a 22-21 vote, state senators on Tuesday narrowly rejected an effort to set aside an extra $70 million for repairs on South Carolina’s aging roads and bridges instead deciding to try to create a permanent, long-term solution.
This specific budget proposal would have taken the money out of higher-than-expected tax revenue— but the debate quickly shifted to a Senate plan that would try to raise more than that through increases in vehicle fees and tying the state’s gas tax to inflation. State Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley) wanted road money to come from existing funds.
“We’re locked in to this mentality that the only way we’re going to fund the Department of Transportation (SCDOT) is with gasoline and a diesel fuel tax and I don’t subscribe to that,” Grooms said in the Senate.
In addition to SCDOT’s normal budget request, the Senate budget includes an extra $51 million to address bridge repair and road improvements. Grooms proposed taking an additional $70 million out of higher-than-expected general fund revenues.
However, Sen. Ray Cleary (R-Georgetown) says $70 million is still nowhere close to what the Department of Transportation needs. “It might fix six miles, seven miles of highway. It’s really, as you say, a raindrop in Lake Murray,” he argued, saying that fee increases and $1.3 billion in bonds would be a more stable source of funding.
But Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) took the podium to say lawmakers could easily fund millions of dollars in repairs by making cuts elsewhere in the budget.
He accused fellow senators of trying to make the public believe that fee increases were the only option. “My sinuses are bad and I can’t really smell the manure, but I can see it stacking up and just had to come up and confront a little bit of it. It can be put to a lot better use, but we just kind of spread it around in here and nothing really grows from it other than government,” Bright jabbed.
Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Columbia) opposed the Grooms proposal. He became upset when some Republicans accused him of wanting to raise taxes. “You really believe that, senator, that every day I wake up thinking, ‘Gosh, how can I raise taxes?’ That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
The vote came during the ongoing debate over next year’s budget. Senate leaders hope to debate increased road funding next week.