Debate on road funding continues in the South Carolina Senate, but Thursday’s discussion was more debate about the debate itself than any discussions on specifics.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said actual work on road funding legislation needs to begin, but he wants a tax cut elsewhere before he votes to raise gas taxes for road funding. Peeler and some other conservatives also want changes in leadership at the state Department of Transportation.
“I think it’s past time for us to have a debate on the floor on this subject. We started it a year ago, the need to address our infrastructure needs,” Peeler said on the Senate floor Thursday. “We all understood at that time, and this time, that to address this challenge we must have reform, we must have relief, we must have revenue. That’s where I am, that’s where I stand. Members of the Senate today is the time.”
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said he wants members to get a better understanding of how SCDOT and the state Infrastructure Bank operate before a full debate begins later this month. Leatherman said previous committee meetings on the bill seem to show that many senators do not understand how the agencies make decisions on road construction.
The South Carolina House passed a bill in April 2015 that tries to use expanded taxes to raise an additional $428 million each year for road and bridge work. Gov. Nikki Haley threatened to veto the bill, saying it did not include enough tax breaks or reform measures. A coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats than effectively replaced the House bill with their own version that would raise more than $800 million through a 12-cent increase in the gas tax and increases in various vehicle-related fees. However, more-conservative Republicans angry at the lack of tax relief or SCDOT changes effectively stalled the bill through filibuster until the session ended in June.
The bill remains at the top of the Senate agenda in the second year of the current session, but various efforts to negotiate a compromise in the Senate Finance Committee have gone nowhere. Leatherman last week announced the committee would put off future debate until they could hear from SCDOT Secretary Christy Hall and others.
Peeler decried what he sees as another delay that would also essentially postpone debate on other controversial bills, under Senate rules. “The Senate calendar is swelling like it has a peanut allergy,” he said.
But Senate Democrats blamed Gov. Haley’s veto threat for being the real reason that the bill’s progress is hampered. Senate leaders know the governor’s allies (including Peeler) would sustain such a veto, meaning tax relief and SCDOT changes would have to be included in any final bill.
“That’s the hurdle and I didn’t place it there,” State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said. “And I’m sorry that it’s held up this bill. But, the reality is, it has. And we need to understand the truth: if we were here just to focus on fixing potholes, we’d be done.”
But many Republicans remain insistent that they will not support a net tax increase in the same year budget forecasters predict an additional $1.3 billion in new revenue.
Thursday’s floor argument lasted nearly two hours, even though there was technically no bill on the floor to debate. Some lawmakers like State Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, clearly became frustrated at times. “I’m flat-out baffled how last year we were on a racetrack to pass an $800 million tax increase and people didn’t know what DOT does,” he said on the floor. “It’s 2016’s top issue and we’re going to have this the fifth week (of the session). Y’all are wasting my time. And I’m ticked off about it.”