South Carolina’s Legislature is heading into the final turn of this year’s session, with little to show for the time spent in Columbia thus far. The state has every reason to expect lawmakers to complete work on strong bills for road funding and ethics reform. Anything less should be counted as a failure.
The funding shortfall for state highways and bridges is generally recognized, and the Senate finally has a bill that begins to deal with it.
That bill, sponsored by Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, would raise the gas tax and ease the sales tax cap on vehicle sales. Both actions are long overdue.
So far, not even Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman has been able to get the bill to the Senate floor for debate. His effort to do so under special order last month got the support of a majority of the Senate, but not the two thirds needed.
“It’s do or die time,” Sen. Leatherman said late last week. The Florence Republican plans another effort this week to advance the bill. Sen. Cleary’s proposal deserves the Senate’s support.
Only two local senators backed Sen. Leatherman’s earlier effort — Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, and Paul Campell, R-Berkeley.
Some of the opposition is due to the absence of a reform component in the road funding bill. If the Legislature wants to make changes in the governance of the state highway department, the highway commission and the State Infrastructure Bank, it should wait until another session. Trying to tackle restructuring would kill any hope for more road money this year.
There is a multitude of problems with the state’s inadequately maintained roads and bridges — more than enough to make the case for additional revenue to the state Department of Transportation.
The state gas tax is one of the nation’s smallest and hasn’t been raised in 25 years. The idea behind the gas tax is that users pay to keep up the roads they use. Clearly that hasn’t happened in South Carolina.
The DOT puts the 30-year funding shortfall at $40 billion, which means that the highway department needs another $1.3 billion a year. Sen. Cleary’s bill is the most ambitious funding measure yet put forward, and it would raise $800 million a year. Though that figure is short of what is needed, the bill also has a component that would eventually turn over state-maintained roads of inconsequential length to local government with some provision for state assistance. It also would limit expenditures to priority projects.
Meanwhile, ethics reform has been caught up in this tangle. Sen. Leatherman is refusing to advance the endangered ethics bill until the Senate takes up road funding.
There is no good reason that both can’t be done. They both address essential, long-standing needs.
The Senate and House should be able to get behind this responsible plan to raise more revenue, primarily from a gas tax hike. That would have those who use the highways pay for their upkeep, as envisioned. And a third of those taxes come from out-of-state motorists.
If the governor were to successfully veto such needed legislation — as she has threatened — she could then assume much of the responsibility for the state’s woeful road system. There would be no small irony in that, since South Carolina’s crumbling highways threaten to choke off economic development and new jobs — her signature issue.
Without more resources, the state’s roads will continue to crumble.
And without legislative action to provide additional funding, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.