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Editorial: In a race to the bottom, Cunningham counters McMaster's pandering with his own

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Former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham announced in April that he was seeking the Democratic nomination for S.C. governor. On Monday he showed off his skills at pandering.

So this is what we have to look forward during the next 12 months. Not just irresponsible and misleading pandering from Gov. Henry McMaster, as he attempts to fend off a challenge from the right, but pandering from former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, as he attempts to win the Democratic nomination to take on Mr. McMaster next November.

Just five days after Mr. McMaster’s effort to rid our public schools of “obscene and pornographic materials” that had already been removed and 11 days after his attempt to convince voters he was nullifying the president’s vaccine mandate, Mr. Cunningham told The Associated Press on Monday that he wants to temporarily eliminate South Carolina’s gasoline tax.

Unlike a sitting governor, a candidate doesn’t have any authority to make anything happen, so we wouldn’t normally even comment on a cockamamie proposal by a candidate. But this is a far worse idea than it looks at first glance, and it has a fairly high chance of attracting support from state legislators. And coming on the heels of our condemnation of Mr. McMaster’s grandstanding over a book that had already been removed from a school library, it seems important to point out that Mr. Cunningham is doing the same thing with pocketbook issues that Mr. McMaster is doing with culture-war issues.

With gas prices skyrocketing as inflation takes an ever-increasing bite out of paychecks, "we’ve got to get creative on how we lessen the burden on South Carolina families," he told the AP, calling his scheme “a no brainer.”

It’s a no-brainer alright, but not in the way he meant it.

It’s true that South Carolina's gas tax is no longer scraping the bottom nationally since the Legislature began phasing in increases since 2017 at the behest of the overwhelming majority of voters who were tired of driving on dilapidated and dangerous roads and bridges. But the state remains ensconced in the bottom half, and will remain so even after the higher tax is fully phased in on July 1.

At 26 cents a gallon, the S.C. tax constituted about 8% of the cost of gas last week. So its elimination still would leave us with prices that are significantly higher than a year ago. They’d come down just enough to offset the one silver lining of higher gas prices: They encourage people to drive a little less, or a little slower, thus making our highways a little less crowded and a little safer while spewing less carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

Meanwhile, our state’s tax revenue would crash: The gas tax is projected to bring in $1 billion this year — up to a third of that from out-of-state drivers who no longer would be helping to pay for our roads.

Mr. Cunningham says not to worry; we can just use some of that $3 billion of free pandemic relief funding (you know, the funding that Congress has no way to pay for), or all of that $1 billion in additional funding the Legislature is expected to have this coming year. So in return for a $1 billion tax cut that will discourage people from driving less, Mr. Cunningham wants to forego $1 billion in one-time expenditures that could make a transformational difference in our state, like providing access to high-speed internet and clean drinking water in areas of the state that don’t have either — both of which will greatly improve people’s lives and make those areas more attractive to businesses that come bearing jobs.

Our best hope is that by beating the Legislature's no-tax Republicans to the punch, he’ll turn this into a Democratic idea and doom its prospects.

If that doesn’t happen, we hope the rational Republicans in the Legislature will join with the rational Democrats in understanding what would happen if they agreed to “temporarily” eliminate the tax: Any effort at reinstating it will get spun as raising taxes, the “no new taxes” crowd will be afraid to vote for a return to normal, and the least unpopular tax in South Carolina could be gone forever.

Wouldn't it be great if we could realistically hope that instead of seeking out distractions, the people who aspire to be our governor would spend their time thinking up and selling smart ideas to make our state better?

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