An effort to eventually raise South Carolina’s gas tax by 10 cents per-gallon unanimously cleared the state House budget committee Thursday. The measure now goes to the full House floor.
The Ways and Means Committee only slightly altered a proposal that would pay for $600 million in additional road repairs each year through the eventual dime per-gallon increase. The tax would increase by 2 cents per year for five years, eventually growing from 17 cents per-gallon to 27 cents.
It would be the first such increase in 30 years.
“If you were still making today the same wage that you made in 1987, you probably would not be a happy camper,” State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said. “The deal is, we are operating DOT under 1987 dollars. And then we ask ourselves why our roads look the way they do.”
In addition to the gas tax, the proposal would also increase the biennial personal vehicle registration fee from $24 to $40 and create a $250 fee for new South Carolina residents whose vehicles are registered out of state.
While the vote was unanimous, some of the committee’s more conservative Republicans said their support was conditional on the state Department of Transportation keeping politics out of road decisions and only focusing the new money on maintenance for the current system. To ease those concerns, Simrill backed an amendment which would clarify the money raised by the increase must go into an “infrastructure maintenance trust fund,” and not for new roads.
Most of Thursday’ debate focused on rural vs. urban/suburban roads and complaints from rural legislators who feel the state has neglected them the past decade. “For those of us who don’t live in urban areas, but pay the same taxes as people in Greenville County pay… also need sustainable and good roads for us to bring businesses and jobs to our counties,” State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, noted South Carolina’s Department of Transportation relies on traffic levels when it ranks which projects must be given priority. She said that puts less-populated counties at a significant disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts. However, State Rep. Garry Smith, R-Simpsonville, said the state risks making political decisions if it strays too far from its priority rankings.
Murrell Smith said he expects an amendment on the House floor that could address rural concerns. He added he is happy with current Transportation Secretary Christy Hall, whose administration has ensured all counties receive money to repair roads based on the county’s priority needs.
The House plan differs from a Senate proposal in that it does not include a provision that tries to offset the tax increase with an income tax cut and a business property tax cut, similar to what previous Gov. Nikki Haley supported last year. Haley’s successor Gov. Henry McMaster has avoided any positions so far and has not said whether he favors the House or the Senate plan. He did say Wednesday be believes taxes should only be raised as “a last resort.”