We were standing in the S.C. Senate antechamber, and Sen. Larry Grooms was gesticulating excitedly over that stuttery cadence he drops into when he’s being earnest, recounting a conversation with a constituent who simply couldn’t afford to pay a higher state gasoline tax.
It was the spring of 2017, and Mr. Grooms was explaining that the key to the big fix-our-roads-raise-the-gas-tax bill that was stalled on the Senate floor was finding a way to raise the tax while also providing relief to all those people for whom it would be a real burden.
I suggested that the key to actually getting the bill into law — and not just passed in the Senate — was giving governors control of the Department of Transportation, which had always been run by a horse-trading commission selected by small groups of legislators and fixated on the needs of their districts,.
Lawmakers ended up raising the tax and giving the governor significant control over the agency, and Mr. Grooms put together his tax relief offset: a convoluted income-tax credit for drivers who were willing to keep track of the receipts from their gas purchases and car repairs.
Flash forward to the summer of 2019. The state Department of Revenue reports that in their first opportunity to claim them, 80,600 filers applied for a total of $2 million in gas-tax credits on their 2018 income-tax returns. That comes to around 3 percent of all tax filers, and an average of $24 for each credit.
And it falls $38 million short of what the Legislature officially expected people to claim.
“There was an outcry that gas taxes were too high, that people wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Mr. Grooms told The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox. “I came up with the gasoline tax credit so those most opposed to the tax would have a mechanism to get every dollar back.”
I have no idea whether Mr. Grooms really believed the gas tax increase was going to be a burden, or whether he was simply working a math problem, trying to figure out how to get enough votes to get the bill passed. But I know there were good reasons to realize it wouldn't be a burden — and bad "reasons" to believe it would be.
Legitimate polling had consistently shown that South Carolinians overwhelmingly supported the gas tax increase, which they wouldn’t do if they thought it was going to bankrupt them. And common sense suggested that when most people won’t bother crossing a busy highway to save 3 or 4 cents a gallon at a cheaper gas station, they won't even notice an annual increase of 2 cents per gallon.
But there also were well-financed out-of-state special-interest groups that were working around the clock to convince South Carolinians the gas tax would be the end of the world, and to convince Republican legislators they wouldn't survive the next primary if they voted for it.
The gas-tax credit was in fact a fig leaf, designed to allow legislators to say they didn't raise taxes for S.C. drivers, because they gave us an impractical option of getting the money back: People could claim a tax credit for the lesser of the amount of money they spent on the higher gas tax or on preventive maintenance on their vehicles. That meant they had to keep track of a year's worth of receipts for both, and then do the math. For $24.
You might not have noticed, given how much gas prices fluctuate from week to week and even day to day, but South Carolina’s gas tax went up another 2 cents a gallon on Monday.
Yes, there were some shrill voices claiming they couldn't afford the tax increase. There will always be a few shrill voices opposing any significant change in policy, be it a tax increase or a tax cut or … well, anything. The problem is that with the exception of the most ardent and vested constituents, people won’t bother to let their legislators know that they sort of like whatever’s being debated, much less that they simply don’t oppose it.
This distorted prism of public opinion has always been there, but the danger it poses to good decision-making has increased exponentially as more and more people live their lives not in the real world but on social media, where algorithms act like megaphones for the shrill, and people pile on based on information that’s not only insufficient but often misleading and even incorrect.
When you add that to lawmakers paying attention to the messages that match their expectations while ignoring the ones that don’t, we get laws that don't make any sense.
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook @CindiScoppe.