Democratic candidate for governor Vincent Sheheen said Tuesday that he does not think South Carolina should increase its gas tax to pay for badly-needed road repairs. Instead he is pushing a plan that would borrow about $500 million and redirect millions more from elsewhere in the state budget.
Sheheen released his plan to improve South Carolina roads on Tuesday, basing it partly off recommendations he previously made in his book “The Right Way.” The proposal calls for the state to issue an estimated $500 million in bonds to pay for immediate work. It also calls on the legislature to dedicate five percent of the general fund budget on top of the approximately $500 million it collects in gas tax revenue each year. Sheheen said he also wants state officials to consider other means to expand funding, including possible tolls to repair and widen Interstate 95, or a new tax on out-of-state trucks that travel South Carolina highways.
But he rejected any increase to South Carolina’s lowest-in-the-nation 17-cent fuel tax. “The gas tax is a declining source of revenue,” he told reporters, adding that vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient. “It’s why we’re in the mess we’re in now, because we solely rely on it. If all we do is rely on the gas tax, we’ll be right back having this discussion five years from now (or) ten years from now.”
Sheheen is challenging Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who has previously said she will propose a plan to increase road funding when state legislators return in January.
South Carolina’s massive $24 billion road maintenance backlog has become an issue the past two years. The state Department of Transportation has said it will need more than $1.4 billion each year for 20 years just to get South Carolina’s roads to “good” condition. Sheheen said he would support a “Fix-It-First” plan to focus on repairs and improving infrastructure over new construction.
The governor also opposes increasing the gas tax, but has largely deferred to legislators on highway reform proposals since taking office. She did sign into law a 2013 measure that legislators passed to issue $500 million in bonds and redirect roughly $70 million from elsewhere in the state budget. Haley has also called on lawmakers to dedicate any budget surpluses (which she refers to as the “money tree”) towards road and bridge repair.
But Sheheen criticized the governor for “a lack of leadership” as the maintenance backlog grows each year. “The governor has the power of the bully pulpit and the governor appoints the major officials in the state,” he said. “What we lacked for a road reform and improvement plan is support from the governor. That’s what I think my job is as governor. I think we will pass this.”
Sheheen’s proposal to dedicate up to five percent of the general fund budget (equal to roughly $350 million this past year) is similar to a 2013 bill by Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley) which failed to even clear a Senate committee. But Sheheen insisted that Grooms’ bill died because the governor didn’t use her power to lobby its passage.
Independent candidate Tom Ervin, who supports raising the gas tax, criticized Sheheen’s plan. “What he’s doing is make highways and roads and bridges compete with education, mental health, law enforcement, and prisons,” Ervin told Greenville radio network WORD News. “That’s just simply not going to work. All he’s doing is kicking the can down the road.”
Haley’s campaign spokesman Chaney Adams told the Associated Press the governor “is glad” Sheheen supports what the governor has always backed — finding money already in the budget instead of raising taxes.
Sheheen also said he would support revamping the Department of Transportation’s leadership structure. Currently the agency is led by a Transportation Secretary who is chosen by the governor, but reports to a legislative-appointed Transportation Commission. The commission makes the final decision on most road projects, following a 2007 state law that sets strict guidelines for how new construction must be prioritized. Meanwhile, the independent State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) handles separate projects using bonds and other outside revenue sources.
Sheheen proposed eliminating the commission and folding the Infrastructure Bank directly under the Transportation Secretary’s control. Previous efforts to do that have largely failed, however, as House and Senate leaders say they are reluctant to give up oversight over the powerful agency.