State House members on Wednesday gave key approval to a bill which tries to raise $600 million more each year towards fixing South Carolina’s roads, largely through an eventual ten cents per-gallon gas tax increase.
The 97-18 vote came after more than three hours of debate. State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said the gas tax has not been increased in 30 years. If the measure becomes law, the current 16 cents per-gallon tax would increase by 2 cents each year until it reached 26 cents per-gallon in 2021. It would also raise the biennial vehicle registration fee by $16, create a new $250 fee for residents who purchase their car out-of-state and register it in South Carolina, and raise the current sales tax cap on vehicle purchases from $300 to $500.
“When we’re operating on 1987-level dollars for an agency that is in charge of over 40,000 miles of road, simply put, it can’t be done,” Simrill said on the House floor during Wednesday’s debate.
Some opponents among the GOP said residents do not trust state government to spend their money wisely. Those members indicated they would not back a tax increase unless it included reform plans to give the state Transportation Secretary and governor more control over the agency’s operations. House leaders struck down several efforts to add income tax cuts to offset the gas tax increase, saying the various amendments violated House rules against unrelated amendments not germane to the bill.
The measure needs another procedural vote Thursday before it heads to the Senate, where conservatives are threatening a filibuster. Gov. Henry McMaster has also indicated he does not like the House bill in its current form, indicating the gas tax should only be raised as a “last resort.”
State Rep. Neal Collins, R-Easley, warned the bill in its current form is unlikely to become law. “How can we vote for this bill when we know the governor is against it and when we know the Senate will sustain (his veto)?” he said. He noted a similar House plan last year died in the Senate amidst a veto threat from then-Gov. Nikki Haley.
However State Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Summerville, said the House cannot worry about whether the Senate lacks the votes. “If they choose not to do something, then let them deal with it,” she said. “But we owe it to our constituents. And, if the governor chooses to veto it, then the governor is doing what the previous governor did and is not listening to the people.”
State Department of Transportation officials say they need more funding to make a dent in South Carolina’s growing repair and maintenance needs, although they are not endorsing how legislators fund those needs. Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said repairs to those roads deemed in “poor condition” (more than 22,000 miles) would cost $8 billion.
“South Carolina leads the entire nation in the number of highway deaths,” she said. “An increase in funding can lead to proper maintenance and the beginning of a targeted safety improvement program on rural highways where a majority of deaths occur.”
Supporters sought to ease the concerns of opponents and taxpayer groups by creating a special trust fund for the newly-raised revenue. Money in the fund could only be used for road preservation, repairs and improvements along existing roadways. But State Rep. Jonathan Hill, R-Townville, complained legislators could simply change that once again in the future as new needs arise.
“Don’t let anyone tell you there’s a ‘lockbox’ that (lawmakers) can’t get into,” Hill said. “I mean, how stupid do you think I am?”