COLUMBIA — With time running out in the legislative session that ends May 11, members of the S.C. House angrily called on the Senate and Gov. Henry McMaster to get out of the way of a gas tax increase.
House Speaker Jay Lucas and a large bipartisan group of House lawmakers held a press conference Tuesday criticizing the Senate's inaction on the infrastructure funding bill and also McMaster's threat to veto the legislation.
Citing mounting repair costs, the importance of infrastructure for business, and hundreds of traffic fatalities on South Carolina highways, the House members emphasized the need to find a long-term funding solution for the state's roadways this legislative session that ends in four weeks.
"The people of our great state and the business community are begging us for a solution to this problem," Lucas said as he stood in front of most of the other 96 House members who voted for a gas tax increase in early March.
The state's tax at the pump hasn't been increased since 1987 and at almost 17 cents per gallon, stands as one of the lowest in the country.
The House criticism comes as the Senate opened up the gas tax legislation for debate Tuesday but took no action on the bill.
Republican Senate leaders concede they have no replacement plan for the existing legislation, which they blocked from debate several weeks ago.
Lawmakers have less than 11 working days left in the year.
The House leadership's public push for the gas tax legislation follows the release of an ad by the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads featuring the voice of Ronald Reagan as the former Republican president discusses the importance of a gas tax and highway infrastructure.
House members also used the podium Tuesday to criticize McMaster's earlier demand that lawmakers borrow $1 billion for roads through a state bond bill, which is used to help fund building projects at state universities and government agencies.
Lucas, the House speaker, said the governor's idea is misplaced.
"A responsible plan, I can tell you, does not borrow billions of dollars for state maintenance," Lucas said, adding that McMaster's offering "threatens the fiscal security of South Carolina."
Before the House's press conference, McMaster said he was standing by his proposal to borrow money through state bonds, further emphasizing the impasse.
"This is a conservative state, yet we keep continually talking about borrowing money and raising taxes," McMaster said. "We ought not to be going in that direction. That’s not the way to prosperity. You cannot tax yourself into prosperity. So I am opposed to raising this gas tax."
Some of the House leaders also suggested McMaster, who assumed the governorship when Nikki Haley became the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, should stop worrying about his upcoming political campaign in 2018.
"It is now time for the Senate to act," charged House Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia. "It is now time for the governor to stop with the rhetoric, to stop with the hyperbole and to simply act to fix our roads."
"Gov. McMaster, please be the governor of this state and stop worrying about re-election," Rutherford added.
The Republican-controlled House passed a highway infrastructure bill in early March that would increase the state's gas tax by 10 cents over five years and slightly changed the way the S.C. Department of Transportation is managed. But after senators moved to remove the DOT changes and increased the proposed gas tax to 12 cents over six years, the bill was blocked from debate by a group of Republican lawmakers.
The Republicans behind the blocking effort said they wanted to get something passed on roads this year but also are seeking to offset the gas tax increases by reducing income taxes in the state.
But as the House members pointed out, the Legislature's clock is ticking, and the Republican senators have yet to decide on what type of compromise they might agree on.
Democrats in the Senate hurried to point out that they were not responsible for holding up the infrastructure funding solution, and that it's the GOP majority.
"It's not the South Carolina Senate blocking the gas tax increase," said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden. "It is the South Carolina Republican Party, the South Carolina Republican senators and Henry McMaster who are stopping us from fixing our roads."
"It's not about, yet again, restructuring some state government agency. It's not about cutting income taxes in a state that already has low taxes. It's a question of whether we are going to fix our roads or not," said Sheheen, adding that the Senate Democrats' only remaining strategy is "shaming" Republicans into supporting the bill.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, the Senate's Republican majority leader, pushed back against those criticisms, pointing out the Republican-led Senate was taking up debate just hours after the critical press conferences of Tuesday morning. He still believes some version of the bill could pass before the remaining 11 days of the legislative session.
"There's been no intentional delay," Massey said. "We've been trying to work this out so it will move. But it's gonna have to move in a way that it gets sufficient votes in order to pass."
Tax supporters have routinely said that with every delay in acting on a gas tax increase, the cost of road fixes move upward on South Carolina's 41,400 miles of roadways that need hundreds of millions of dollars in annual repairs.