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It's official: South Carolina has a new gas tax after S.C. House and Senate override Gov. McMaster's veto

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Henry McMaster

Henry McMaster defended vetoing the gas tax bill in a video. Screenshot

COLUMBIA — It didn't take long for the Legislature to answer Gov. Henry McMaster. 

Or to slam how he handled the debate over the state's gas tax, one of the nation's lowest.

Less than a day after the governor vetoed the infrastructure bill that would raise South Carolina's gas tax for the first time since 1987, both the the S.C. House of Representatives and the Senate voted to overrule him Wednesday.

The veto override marks one of the first major political losses for McMaster, who assumed the governorship in January when former governor Nikki Haley became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. 

The first 2 cents of a 12-cent increase at the pump will take effect July 1.

As 95 members of the Republican-controlled House voted to push the gas tax past McMaster's desk, several of them heaped scorn on the Republican governor, blaming him for focusing on his political career instead of helping to run the state government. 

"I believe he chose to listen to campaign consultants instead of the people of South Carolina," House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said in a fiery speech on the chamber floor. 

McMaster, who lost to Haley in his 2010 attempt to win the governor's mansion, has already started his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, where he is expected to face a tough Republican primary. 

"Here we are again to show the real leadership in this state resides in this body," Lucas added. 

Other Republicans and Democrats also used the moment to condemn McMaster's veto and criticize his alternative proposals to fix the state's roads. McMaster opted to request nearly $5.2 billion from the federal government and to issue more than $1 billion in state bonds — a plan that would require the state to pay back that money in the future along with interest. 

"Leadership matters, and what we are getting from downstairs is not leadership," Rep. Micah Caskey, R-West Columbia said, before crumpling up McMaster's veto letter and walking away from the podium. 

Caskey, a freshman lawmaker, said McMaster had the opportunity to have his voice heard, but hoping for billions of dollars from an often-gridlocked Congress or asking for state bonds wasn't a valid plan. 

"He chose to remain silent. He chose to not to act. He chose not to lead," Caskey said. 

The 32 senators that pushed the gas tax past the governor's desk were less critical of McMaster and more focused on the large bipartisan group of lawmakers they were able to bring together. They called it the largest infrastructure investment in state history. 

"I want to say 'thank you' to the Republicans and the Democrats that had the courage to work together, something that is all too rare in our modern-day politics," said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden. 

"I wish the governor had supported our efforts," Sheheen added. "But truthfully, this was the Legislature stepping up where the governor and the past governor refused to provide leadership." 

The highway funding bill will increase funding for state roads by roughly $600 million a year once the gas tax increase and other driver-related fees are fully phased in. The legislation also changes how the state's DOT Commission members are chosen and removed, and it includes a spate of alternative tax cuts and rebates that Republican senators demanded. 

For months, McMaster had vowed to oppose any tax increase, and when he issued his veto announcement late Tuesday, he called the bill an "act of capitulation."

He pointed out the gas tax increase will be the largest in state history when fully implemented, falling heavily on the poor and working families. He also favored more reform of how the DOT operates and spends state dollars. 

"For the governor, this is simply a policy disagreement," said Brian Symmes, the governor's spokesperson. "As he laid out in his veto message, he doesn't believe raising taxes is the best way to address government inefficiencies."

South Carolina's gas tax is currently 16.75 cents per gallon. Adding the 12 cents at 2-cent per year intervals, will move that up to 28.75 cents when complete.

The DOT has estimated that it needs an additional $500 million a year to improve repaving operations in the state, and even more for highway widening projects, improving dangerous roadways and repairing substandard bridges. 

The scenario of a Republican-led Statehouse fighting against a member of their own party to get legislation passed isn't new. Haley, who was recruited by President Donald Trump for her new post, also acted as a roadblock for some legislation during her time as the state's top executive. 

But political observers say it's obvious that McMaster has his mind on the upcoming election. 

"McMaster is clearly thinking about his re-election prospects and the challenges he might face in a Republican primary," said Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist with the College of Charleston. 

The governor is trying to head off a far-right challenger in his election, Knotts said, but that could come with its own risks, especially as the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have advocated for the gas tax increase.

"He's in a tough position," Knott said. "It's not a clear win either way." 

Reaction to the new tax drew praise from those who have fought for years for the Statehouse to act on a roads plan.

“Finally,” said Bill Ross, President and CEO of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads. “South Carolina lawmakers have listened to their constituents, and they have acted to provide for the current and future needs of South Carolina roads.”

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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