COLUMBIA — Getting more money to South Carolina roads was a top priority of the governor, lawmakers and businesses for this year. But with one day left in the 2015 session, the road-funding bill appears dead on the Senate floor.
There likely will be extra money sent to roads this year. The House and Senate seem to overwhelmingly support sending $150 million in extra revenue directly to the state’s 46 counties for local repair projects, with the money distributed in part by county size, population and road network.
But the Department of Transportation said it would need at least $400 million in extra revenue a year just to keep the crumbling bridges and pothole-filled roads in their current condition.
To improve roads, increase lanes and build new highways would take $1 billion extra or more annually, the agency said.
Some of the state’s most fiscally conservative lawmakers said there is no need to raise the gas tax or other taxes to do that. Instead, the state could find enough money by reforming DOT and making the agency spend its money better and by setting aside more money from an improved economy and extra revenue generated by a population growth of nearly 5 percent in the past four years.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, stopped business in the Senate for the final two weeks of the session making this argument in a filibuster. Other lawmakers point out about 35 percent of the state’s gas tax is paid by out-off-state drivers, while the additional revenue almost comes entirely from in-state sources
The fiscal conservatives are joined by Gov. Nikki Haley, who wants to pair any possible increase in taxes to pay for roads with income tax cuts.
Whatever plan emerges is going to have to wait at least until next January. And in 2016, all 170 members of the Legislature are up for re-election, which may bring more pressure from angry constituents tired of flat tires and front-end alignments or more caution from lawmakers leery of ending up with a primary challenger.
“I can’t see them just dropping the issue. The public wants better roads,” said Bill Ross, executive director of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, a group of more than 100 businesses and their associations that spent the past year using social media to pressure lawmakers to fix roads.
Rep. Gary Simrill led a special roads committee that crafted a bill that passed the House on an 87-20 vote in April. When asked where road funding got lost, he pointed toward the Senate chamber. “Between here and the hall,” said Simrill, R-Rock Hill.
A Senate committee trying to find a way to raise more money for roads Wednesday spent most of its time trying to place blame on Haley, who vowed to veto any bill that increased the gas tax or other taxes and didn’t include a significant income tax cut and DOT reform.
“The governor did not introduce a roads plan. She introduced an income tax cut plan,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. “And that poisoned the well.”
But Sen. Shane Massey said that the people pushing roads reform aren’t willing to seriously talk to more conservative Republicans that want significant tax relief and think the DOT is broken.
“There have been a lot of us who have been begging for weeks to talk. You get a lot of show,” said Massey, R-Edgefield. “You’ve got 18 to 20 Republicans who really, really want to do something long-term, but they feel they have been completely ignored.”
In the end, the only agreement reached was that the roads issue has been studied to death and lawmakers didn’t need to create any new committees.
“Please don’t have another study committee. I’m not willing to be part of another study committee,” said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia. “I’m not willing to travel the state to hear citizens tell us what we already know: Roads are crappy, and they need to be fixed.”