S.C. Senate panel advances plan for funding roads
COLUMBIA — The Senate Finance Committee advanced a plan Thursday that funds road and bridge construction by redirecting taxes, borrowing money and raising fees.
A 13-5 vote sent the package to the Senate floor, where the real debate will start. Senators on the panel that crafted the plan urged their colleagues to withhold judgment.
“What we’ve tried to do is hash something together that’s the most sellable concept to the General Assembly and the public,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, recognizing that it satisfied no one completely.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler asked if the panel could come up with something else that wouldn’t be viewed as raising taxes. But Sen. Raymond Cleary, the subcommittee chairman, said it’s impossible to fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure — and not just put a Band-Aid on the problem — without raising money.
“I don’t think anybody here believes in the road paver fairy,” said Cleary, who referred to the state’s gas tax as user fee, rather than a tax.
The Department of Transportation says it needs $1.5 billion yearly over 20 years just to get roads to good condition.
Legislators can’t continue to push the problem into the future, when costs will only increase. The DOT will soon collect even less money from the gas tax, unchanged since 1987, due to higher efficiency cars and alternative sources of fuel, said Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet.
His subcommittee’s plan would:
—Shift money currently collected from the sales tax on cars toward infrastructure, as a bill already passed by the House would do. However, the Senate plan would use the cash as leverage, taking the $80 million redirected over two years and using it to borrow $800 million.
—Borrow an additional $500 million available in the state’s bonding capacity, for a total of $1.3 billion worth of construction.
That one-time boost can meet the most critical needs, but then that money will be tied up for 15 years, Cleary said.
“This is a one-shot deal,” he said. “This helps us make sure the bridge doesn’t fall down when the school bus is going over it.”
The plan raises revenue for additional needs and upkeep by tying the gas tax to inflation, raising several fees and encouraging counties to raise the local sales tax by a penny.
Indexing the state’s 16-cents-per-gallon gas tax to the Consumer Price Index is expected to increase the tax by 4 cents in 10 years, when it would begin generating $135 million yearly.
The state would raise $50 million yearly through several means:
—Increasing biennial registration fees for passenger vehicles by $12, to $36 every other year.
—Increasing truck registration fees by 16 percent.
—Charging new biennial fees to owners of alternative fuel vehicles: $60 for hybrids and $120 for those that run on no gasoline.
—Creating a road use fee for commercial vehicles instead of property taxes.
—Increasing the fee for 10-year drivers licenses by $10, to $35.
The money raised by those new and increased fees would be distributed to counties. The counties where voters approve an additional penny sales tax on the dollar for road construction would get an extra $500,000 yearly for work on state roads.