State budget negotiators say they have reached a deal on road funding that appears to clear a big hurdle in the state’s $22.7 billion overall spending plan.
Lawmakers say it hinges on a minor piece of legislation, H.3360. The bill was originally crafted as a way to make it easier for the state to turn over roads to local governments, but senators are now seeking to include language that would authorize up to nearly $800 million in road and bridge funding.
A joint conference committee of House and Senate members is trying to reach a budget compromise as quickly as possible this week. The full chambers return for a special session on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler (R-Gaffney) and Minority Leader Nikki Setzler (D-Lexington) said the bipartisan deal was reached with House leaders late Friday. “This addresses the infrastructure needs of our state without a tax increase,” Peeler said, “I want to emphasize that.”
The transportation funding deal has three sections. First, South Carolina would allocate $50 million in General Fund revenue to the State Infrastructure Bank. The bank would then use those funds to raise up to $500 million in bonds for work on interstates and primary roads. The half-million dollars in bonds were a key part of the Senate budget proposal.
Meanwhile, the compromise would also authorize that half of the state’s sales tax revenue on cars (estimated to be equal to $41 million) go solely towards secondary roads which are not eligible for federal dollars. It holds harmless money from the tax that is currently going towards public education.
The plan would also set aside an extra $50 million or so left over from last year’s budget to specifically go towards bridges deemed a highest priority for replacement under state Department of Transportation rankings. That money would then be used to get a 4-to-1 federal match.
Both the sales tax revenue and one-time bridge funding were key parts of the House budget. In all, the state would be able to do $291 million in immediate work under the compromise. When combined with the $500 million in bonds, the total is nearly $800 million.
South Carolina already spends about $1.1 billion on roads each year. However, the state Department of Transportation says it needs an additional $1.47 billion on top of that each year for 20 years just to get roads to “good” condition.
State Rep. Gary Simrill (R-Rock Hill) said the money still falls short of South Carolina’s massive backlog on infrastructure repairs, but he adds that it provides immediate help. “By taking that money and being able to get some immediate relief, it gives you about two years’ worth of road needs in one year,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “So we double the effort.”
The full House and Senate are expected to give a second joint conference committee free power to make the necessary changes to H. 3360 on Tuesday. Officials say that would then clear the way for the full budget to reach a vote this week.
However, it’s not clear whether the governor would support the compromise. Gov. Nikki Haley has been on record as saying she does not wish to borrow a half-billion for road repairs, instead wanting it to come out of current tax revenue. But the proposal she was addressing at the time did not include the immediate repairs.
Gov. Nikki Haley has not yet said if she would veto this particular proposal.