The state Senate has refused to give priority status to a bill that would fund road and bridge construction, leaving its status very uncertain as the Legislature enters the final month of its regular session.
Opponents of raising the gas tax were able to rally enough “no” votes to prevent the two-thirds majority needed to set the bill to special order. The motion failed 26-19.
The bill would raise the state’s current 17-cents per gallon gas tax by 4 cents per year for three years, to 29 cents by 2018. The new total would then be pegged to inflation after that. It would also double the fees for a new driver’s license (from $12.50 to $25 for a 5-year license and increase to $50 from $25 for a 10-year version) and raise biennial vehicle registration fees from $24 to $40 for drivers under age 65. It would also require any boat or utility trailers to be licensed (current state law does not require a tag), with most of the new $20 registration fee going to South Carolina’s Highway Fund.
Governor Nikki Haley has already said she will veto the bill, saying it needs to include tax relief elsewhere that would offset the gas tax increase.
Democrats condemned GOP senators for blocking the move, noting Republicans had already set abortion legislation for special order last week.
“I’m ashamed of what we did today,” State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said on the Senate floor after the vote. “It’s a sad day for South Carolina. It’s a day where we’re sending a message to the people of South Carolina that we are not serious about fixing the roads problem.
But Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said he wanted more time to negotiate with members of his GOP Caucus to reach a compromise. “We’ve moved some of the hard ‘no’s’ into some soft ‘maybe’s,'” he said before the vote. “You do not have enough votes right now to override a gubernatorial veto. I’m trying to work out that maybe we can do something that won’t even be vetoed.”
A more limited version of the bill passed the House two weeks ago with a veto-proof 87-20 majority. However, the House version lowered the gas tax to 10 cents in favor of a new excise tax on gas wholesalers. The House version also expanded income tax brackets so the typical taxpayer would pay $48 less each year. The House version did not include the various vehicle and license fee increases and would only raise a proposed $400 million each year to the Senate plan’s $800 million. The Department of Transportation has said it needs an additional $1.4 billion each year to get the state’s roads into “good” condition.
But the Senate Finance Committee tossed out the House plan and replaced it with their own Tuesday in a 16-5 vote that combined Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Senate Transportation Chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who is against the bill as it’s written now, said Senate leaders should have known it had no chance of passing when a supermajority of Republicans had already said they opposed it. “Some of y’all may be disappointed that we didn’t set a bill for special order that under no stretch of the imagination would become law,” he told fellow senators after the vote.
State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said he would not support a bill which raises $800 million in new taxes and fees, calling it the “largest tax increase in the history of the Palmetto State.”
But Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, argued senators would have had a chance to amend the bill once it was given priority status. “We’re winding down the session here, maybe five weeks left, and here we want to wait until some group, somewhere comes up with the magic solution that everybody’s going to agree to,” he said skeptically, adding he had not been part of any such negotiations.
But Republican opponents, who want tax relief included in the deal, questioned if Senate rules would allow them to add such major amendments once the bill was set to special order.
Leatherman, who supports the bill, questioned if there is enough time remaining in the session to take it up before the regular session ends in June. He noted the Senate would take up next year’s proposed budget next week, and would only have about 10 actual days to pass the bill once the budget debate is finished.