The legislative year ended with no ethics reform and no Department of Administration. Since those were supposedly two of the top priorities, the inability to close the deal on either doesn’t reflect well on the General Assembly’s commitment to accountability.
Another year, another series of lost opportunities in the Statehouse.
So what else is new?
That means the third priority — to increase funding for roads and bridges — can actually count as something of a legislative achievement. Even though it isn’t adequate to the need, doesn’t include an overdue gas tax hike, and continues to utilize the State Infrastructure Bank, which has shown itself to be a questionable steward of transportation funding.
But let’s not quibble.
The transportation bill does provide some $40 million to the state Department of Transportation for badly needed improvements to many secondary roads, and $50 million in general tax revenues to allow the SIB to issue $500 million in bonds for major road improvements. Those funds will be available on a recurring basis.
The Legislature also provided $50 million in non-recurring funds to pay for repairs to long-neglected bridges.
Maybe those improvements will keep some hapless motorist from an untimely end on our crumbling infrastructure.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, called the funding package “a giant leap forward,” while acknowledging that “we still have a large gap between funding and funding needs.” Sen. Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, was instrumental in steering the bill to passage.
The inadequacy of new funding is evident by a comparison with figures from a study on state transportation needs, provided to the DOT late last year. It concluded that the state needs nearly $30 billion in additional transportation support over the next 20 years, or $1.5 billion a year.
That same report concluded that 30 percent of revenues from gas taxes are paid by out-of-state motorists and truckers — an excellent argument for increasing the gas tax, which is one of the lowest in the United States. Meanwhile, South Carolina has one of the largest systems of state-maintained roads in the nation.
The gas tax functions as a user fee. Those who use the roads should be expected to pay the freight for their construction and repair through gas taxes.
But the Legislature doesn’t have the stomach to increase the gas tax. Indeed, it hasn’t been hiked since 1987. The new $40 million allocation to DOT will come from sales taxes paid for motor vehicles. New tax revenue resulting from an improved economy will pay for the SIB bond plan.
Sen. Grooms said the SIB was chosen as the vehicle for funding because it can get a better rate for general obligation bonds than the DOT.
But for projects funded by this bond issue, the SIB will be required to pick from priority projects selected by the DOT. And the SIB’s decisions are subject to revocation by the Legislative Joint Bond Review Committee under the transportation bill.
Talk about a vote of confidence.
Nevertheless, you take what you can get with the Legislature, and the road-funding plan does provide for additional improvements on roads and bridges, even if hardly enough.
One day, maybe the Legislature will actually hike the gas tax so that those who actually use the roads — from in state and out of state — will pay their fair, necessary share.