South Carolina has documented road and bridge needs of nearly $30 billion, and the major difficulty in dealing with them is a lack of money. But getting legislators to acknowledge that simple fact may be an uphill battle in an election year. If Thursday's pre-session discussion on the topic is an indication, legislators may be more interested in side issues than in focusing on a funding solution that will support the work that's needed.
Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, wants to increase what he calls the user fee on fuel to provide a start for overdue maintenance and repairs. He put it bluntly, "We need an additional $1.6 billion a year."
A gas tax increase to raise such an amount would be astronomical, and it's highly unlikely that the Legislature would entertain such a hike. But it's not unreasonable to expect legislators to make a start.
And that will require more focus than was evident during Thursday's discussion, where much of the talk was about the need to further reform the state Highway Commission, to use tolls on interstates or to put the expense on tourists by granting S.C. consumers gas-tax rebates.
One House leader explained how, even if the Legislature approved a gas tax hike, there wouldn't be enough votes to override an anticipated gubernatorial veto. Of course, there are any number of ways to take a defeatist attitude or to procrastinate on a difficult decision, particularly in an election year. But the voters send legislators to Columbia to take care of business, not to temporize and equivocate.
In response to criticism that he was "parsing" terms in his depiction of a gas tax hike as a fee increase, Sen. Cleary made the case that "user fee" is the correct term, considering that it is imposed on those who use the road system for the purpose of maintaining and improving that system.
But that's not the only reason to use the term. Sen. Cleary noted that many House members have taken the "no tax" pledge, vowing never to raise taxes without an equal cut elsewhere. Using the term "fee" might give those who have adopted such an ill-advised position some political leeway to do their jobs.
Certainly, the state has less and less leeway for delay as the DOT faces mounting infrastructure challenges with an insufficiency of funds.
At 16 cents per gallon, the state gas tax is one of the lowest in the nation. Meanwhile, South Carolina has one of the largest state-maintained road systems in the nation. And the gas tax hasn't been raised since 1987.
The $500 million bond issue approved by the Legislature last session will help, but it can't be viewed as anything but a stopgap, pending a continuing source of new revenue.
With that allocation, the Legislature effectively put five pounds of pressure in the tires, "but the tires are still flat," said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee. The Legislature may be unwilling to give the problem the attention it deserves, but the public wants to see it fixed, he said.
There was one area of agreement during Thursday's discussion. Legislators generally acknowledged that the state's roads and bridges need major work.
That's a good point of departure for a debate on how to fix them. And at present that discussion will always come back to the need for more money.