COLUMBIA- Republican state Rep. Tommy Pope said Tuesday he plans to run for governor in 2018, calling the job an opportunity to advocate for statewide needs such as improving roads and bridges.
The 51-year-old York representative and former prosecutor said he made the decision after praying about it with his wife, adding that a formal announcement is likely two years away.
State leaders "need to focus on something larger than ourselves. The governor's office gives the opportunity to lead in that direction on issues that are important to everybody, like state infrastructure," he said. "We need to come up with a way to fund it, and we need to come up with a means of fairly distributing it."
Pope's comments come five months before voters decide who will be governor for the next four years. He is running for a third term in the House in November.
A legislative effort to find money for road construction is dead for this two-year legislative session. That effort would have to start over next year.
Last year, the House passed a bill shifting money collected from car sales taxes to road and bridge repair, to eventually transfer more than $80 million yearly. But that proposal was nowhere close to funding estimated needs.
The state Department of Transportation has said it needs an additional $1.5 billion yearly over 20 years just to bring roads to good conditions.
The Senate Finance Committee advanced a separate plan last year that raises money for infrastructure through a combination of redirecting taxes, borrowing money and raising fees. But, with just two days before the session officially ends, that proposal has yet to be debated on the Senate floor.
Gov. Nikki Haley, who is seeking a second term in November, has repeatedly promised to veto any bill that increases the 16-cents-per-gallon fuel tax, which hasn't changed since 1987. She instead wants legislators to fund roads through what she calls the "money tree" - increases in revenue projections that state advisers normally make each spring. If legislators put all of that money toward roadwork every year, that might generate $1 billion over a decade. But it appears none of that excess will go toward roadwork in the 2014-15 budget that the Legislature is still finalizing.
In Pope's home county of York, highways have been improved and widened thanks largely to an extra penny on sales taxes that voters first approved collecting in 1997, then renewed by overwhelming margins in 2003 and 2011.
Early projects included widening Interstate 77 to eight lanes to the North Carolina line.
Clearly, York County's roads are in better shape, Pope said. But he stopped short of advocating for a gas tax increase statewide. The difference in York County is that voters were told exactly what the extra penny would fund and felt comfortable that it would be done, he said.
"I think it's a measured step. The first thing we've got to do is prove to the people we are efficiently using every dollar that could be available for infrastructure," he said. "We need to prove to the people that we'll have a well-crafted plan to roll out."
Pope was chief prosecutor for York and Union counties from 1993 to 2006, when he went into private practice. He vaulted to nationwide fame in 1994 while prosecuting Susan Smith for killing her two sons by rolling her car into a Union County lake.
He sat on Winthrop University's board of trustees from 2009-2011.
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