Time ripe to eliminate state income tax, senators said

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Gov. Henry McMaster was thumping his veto drum again Tuesday in opposition to a state gas tax hike, which again faces an uncertain future despite the evident need for more highway funding. The Legislature should simply advance a veto-proof plan this session.

The House of Representatives already has done so, as noted by House Speaker Jay Lucas in his response to Gov. McMaster’s latest veto threat. Rep. Lucas, R-Darlington, cited the importance of having motorists pay more for the wear and tear on the roads they use — and that includes out-of-state drivers who pay about one-third of the tax revenue.

Rep. Lucas added: “The House passed our roads bill with an overwhelming bipartisan and veto-proof majority, which protects the South Carolina taxpayer by providing a sustainable funding stream that requires every motorist to pay their fair share.”

Too bad, the Senate appears to have gone mushy on the topic, as it rejected a proposal last week to put the gas tax bill at the top its agenda. Mr. McMaster’s veto threat should revive the Senate’s interest in gaining approval of a bill with broad support — one that can override a veto.

The gas tax, at 16.75 cents a gallon, is the second lowest in the nation, and hasn’t been raised in 30 years. Meanwhile, the state faces a backlog of billions in road and bridge improvements.

There is a possibility that a gas tax increase can only be achieved by adjusting other taxes to ensure that it is “revenue neutral.” But it still faces foes in the Senate, who insist on the necessity of another round of DOT reform before a gas tax hike.

So while the House approved a comparatively painless 10-cent gas tax hike to be implemented over the next five years, the Senate is stumbling over itself to do the same. It needs to get a grip on the situation, or it can take responsibility for another wasted opportunity to provide badly needed funding for roads and bridges.

The Senate proposal, incidentally, would provide a 12-cent per gallon gas hike over a six-year period. Fully implemented, the Senate bill would provide about $800 million a year.

Certainly a gas tax increase is preferable to Mr. McMaster’s proposal to borrow $1 billion in the state bond bill for highway improvements. The governor’s plan would shelve all other building plans listed in the bill.

The governor’s bond proposal would not provide a recurring source of funding for highway projects. And state taxpayers would bear the full responsibility for repaying it.

In contrast, a gas tax increase would provide additional funding on a recurring basis, and a significant portion of the gas tax revenue would be coming from the pockets of out-of-state motorists.

The apparent lack of Senate resolve, coupled with Mr. McMaster’s veto threat, could scuttle the gas tax hike for yet another year. Senators who are serious about road improvements shouldn’t let it happen.

As roads conditions deteriorate, the rates of highway accidents and fatalities rise. So do the cost of auto repairs and the time spent on increasingly congested highways. Good roads are important to the state’s economy, including port operations.

South Carolina voters ought to recognize that elected officials who manage to derail an increase in the gas tax year after year aren’t doing them or the state any favors.