‘No new taxes’ could derail S.C. road funding solution

Gov. Scott Walker, of Wisconsin, and Gov. Nikki Haley pose for a selfie on the way to the White House. (Provided)

BY RON BRINSON

What a nice “selfie” of Nikki Haley and Scott Walker, two happy young governors riding the bus, headed to the White House and a meeting with President Obama.

Smiling radiantly all the way.

These two have much in common, like higher office ambitions — and fealty to the right-wing branding of any public agenda.

They’re not shy about labor union bashing, either.

And as soon as Gov. Haley tweeted her scrapbook keeper, many responders declared the couple a presidential campaign “Dream Ticket.”

Wonder if they took a moment to talk about major challenges they’re facing back home?

Like roads and bridges.

Wisconsin has a problem. South Carolina has a crisis.

Last October, Walker was running for reelection. He appeared before the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board and talked about supplanting all or part of Wisconsin’s 33 cents per gallon fuel tax with a special road funding sales tax. Revenues would grow long term, the governor noted, but he then promised that dedicated road system funding increases would be offset with decreases in other state taxes.

Then in January, a reelected Gov. Walker seemed to forget his October creative thinking. He eschewed any adjustments to the user-based revenue system, and instead proposed borrowing $1.1 billion for highway improvements over the next two years. Walker is busily preparing for a presidential primary — and burnishing his “no new tax” credentials.

We might wonder if Nikki Haley told her bus-buddy how she really feels about his debt strategy. Last month, she got personal, pointed and loud in calling out some Upstate legislators about their proposals for state “borrowing.” Here’s betting she gave Walker a pass.

Gov. Haley delivered on her October re-election campaign promise to propose a “solution” to South Carolina’s road funding crisis when she won reelection. Problem is, it’s a fuzzy non-solution.

She proposes increased fuel user fees to 26.75 cents per gallon. That would raise $350 million annually — or about a fourth of what Haley’s Department of Transportation says it needs to modernize the state’s decrepit highway system.

She and Scott Walker apparently got the same message; Haley links her acquiescence to a fuel user fee increase to deep cuts in the state income tax.

So her “solution” is a millions-for-billions swap that would leave state roads in a sustained state of funding starvation, and mandate severe cost-cutting that would immediately impact basic state programs such as education, law enforcement, social services and health care.

It would likely make bond rating agencies do a double-take, too. Even ultra-conservative state Treasurer Curtis Loftis has urged caution and keen attention to the risks of undermining the state’s relatively sound financial strength.

With admirable candor, Haley annotated her road funding revenue goal to clarify it was a “preservation” funding program only. But our state needs more than mere preservation of a highway system in decline. And polls show that most South Carolinians are weary of inferior and unsafe roads and are ready to pay more for better and safer roads.

Unless there are good prospects for divine intervention or money tree discoveries, these ideologically-correct “non-solutions” just don’t make sense — in Wisconsin or South Carolina. It’s like an invisible hand of exogenous influence guides the agenda away from practical users-pay solutions. Better infrastructure has been subordinated to prescribed political rhetoric.

In our road-needy state, where 35 per cent of fuel purchases are by out-of-state motorists, what exactly is wrong with reformulating and increasing a century-old motor vehicle fuel user fee that hasn’t been increased in 28 years?

And if the far right agenda is to reject “new taxes,” then why doesn’t it also reject much higher hidden taxes — the increased costs of vehicle repairs and higher insurance premiums related to poorly maintained and unsafe roads?

The Senate Finance Committee last month approved an $800 million road funding bill. It calls for increases in the current 16.75 cents per gallon user fee over three years to 28 cents, indexes it to inflation and sets higher prices for drivers’ licenses and registration fees.

Senate President Pro Tempore and Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman wants a quick “special order” floor debate and a vote.

The energetic and very conservative South Carolina Chapter of Americans for Prosperity wants the Senate bill killed.

The group warned legislators last that “$5.3 billion of our money” would be squandered “on pork barrel projects like bicycle paths and light rail.”

Beyond that core message, the group offered no solutions for a road funding crisis that impacts all South Carolinians.

And it didn’t seem to notice either, that the Senate bill specifies no funding of bike paths and transit lines.

In fact, this organization and others seem completely oblivious to a growing legion of South Carolinians (and probably Wisconsinites) who want better roads and are willing to pay for them — and who also would welcome more bike paths and better transit infrastructure.

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