A stubborn state senator’s risky roadblock

A pothole forms in this 2015 file photo on Hwy 61, in front of Ashley Missionary Baptist Church, in Dorchester County. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

Wonder how many hidden tax dollars have been paid by South Carolina motorists since Tom Davis began his latest filibuster against proposals for critically-needed additional road funding?

Or how many vehicle crash injuries have been related to our state’s unsafe roads and bridges, while this politically ambitious state senator works his nattering procedural spells upon his colleagues?

Or how many lost “quality of life” hours South Carolina’s working men and women have compiled while commuting through highway congestion — in a state that struggles with this simple but inconvenient truth: We proudly promote our jobs-growth economic development strategies and record, but we’ve allowed our roads system to devolve into a generational cycle of gross decline.

Sen. Davis, a bright ultra-conservative Republican from Beaufort, is due his props. Just when it seemed that the Senate would fully debate a comprehensive road funding bill, he deftly continued his filibuster that effectively blocked votes last year.

Highway system funding is parked — as it should be — at the very top of the Senate agenda. Davis’ singular intent is to block higher motor vehicle fuel tax assessments. The procedural consequence is a blocking of Senate attention to all of our state’s pressing needs.

And that means road funding and related reforms have entered a troublesome zone of uncertainty. These proposals must begin moving through Senate debate promptly, or the most important strategic issue facing our state will lose its priority position.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, describes next week as “do or die” for a road funding package this year. “We simply cannot keep stalling this. It’s our economic future. It’s our public safety future. It’s about making our state modern and safe. It’s time to get this done and our constituents are sending us that message very clearly.”

As for reports that Sen. Davis had assured Sen. Leatherman and other Senate leaders he would not repeat his “hold hostage” filibuster, Leatherman replied sternly and without elaboration, “That would be accurate.”

Reportedly, Davis gave support groups similar assurances. But speculation is the state’s revenue surplus gave him fresh reasons to run the stall once again and hone his leadership credentials with the ultra-conservative political groups now railing against increased fuel taxes. One example — the Americans For Prosperity, funded by the Koch Foundation — is running phone banks “warning” South Carolinians their legislators are about to raise revenues and increase funding for roads and bridges.

It is understandable that in a general election year some incumbents seem paralyzed by re-election fear.

So the Senate will either start moving a highway funding bill next week or Davis will once again declare victory.And his ideological “no new taxes” pals will surely cheer his good work.

And the proverbial can will once again be kicked down the South Carolina’s corroded and potholed road system.

And our state’s industrial leaders will once again nod their heads and wonder if South Carolina will ever get its roads and bridges act together.

But another stall would likely produce new equations of very different political consequences. Statewide polls and surveys over the last four years have confirmed that South Carolinians are weary of congestion and potholes and too many injuries and deaths.

The latest Winthrop University poll shows 61 percent of S.C. taxpayers favor higher motor vehicle fuel user fees to fund better basic maintenance and some improvements in state roads and bridges. That number moved six points over six months — and probably is still growing.

This support is fanned by the “higher tax” reality Sen. Davis and his phone bank allies always ignore or swerve around, those growing “hidden taxes” that rise as our roads and bridges decline.

Credible studies show that S.C. drivers, especially those in Greater Charleston and other urban regions, pay more than $100 monthly for additional repairs related to roads with insufficient capacities and crumbling potholed pavements, and related higher insurance costs.

The quality of life costs related to congestion and lost time from family and recreation are harder to measure but it’s a “frustration” reality that’s helping move the polls. Every additional hour behind the wheel because of outdated congested roads is an hour not spent with family and friends, or in recreation, or at church, or simply resting. This tension equates to a strategic struggle between the no-new taxes minority and the growing majority of South Carolinians favoring sustained road funding through user-pays fees.

Senate rules and protocols give some tactical advantage to Davis. Those same rules also cloak the senator with accountability, something he seems to welcome.

Physically, what he is doing is not easy. Politically, what he is doing is risky, with huge potential consequences to a state in dire needs of better roads.

Last week, Davis’ discursive filibustering arguments addressed conceptual reforms of the State Infrastructure Bank and the S.C. Department of Transportation, but his bottom line remains crystal clear — no increase in the state’s 16.7 cents per gallon fuel tax which hasn’t been raised since 1987.

Here’s hoping he’ll conclude his case early next week and move aside for a full debate on a critical public policy issue. That would not guarantee a meaningful roads system funding bill could be nurtured to final enactment, but it is a necessary step.

And should Sen. Davis win again, his biggest challenge will be explaining to a growing majority of South Carolinians about those costly hidden taxes, too many injuries and deaths on state highways and too many hours sacrificed from their quality-of-life time banks.

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.