Leatherman to the road-funding rescue

State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, is chairman of the finance commettee. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)

A couple of weeks ago, it seemed critical road funding proposals in the Legislature had collided head-on into another cycle of feckless do-nothingness. A thoughtful House bill had been matched up with a Senate measure that pussy-footed around realities of user-based fuel taxes. The Senate action amounted to a fearful yield to that vacuous right-wing ideology of “no new taxes, any time for anything,” not even for safer roads in a state long on notice that its highways are in a cascading dynamic of costly and treacherous neglect.

There were competing plans, too, for reforming or restructuring the Department of Transportation, including giving the governor appointment control for the commission. Governor Haley was yelling at just about everybody, especially House leaders who just wouldn’t accept the Senate’s no-new-fuel-tax alternative and the Senate-only confirmation of highway commissioners. Road funding and system reform legislation for 2016 had careened into a deep and dirty election-year ditch.

Senate President Pro Tem and Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, took his licks during floor debates and from detractors who questioned his leadership tactics. He heard the claims that he was insular, too focused on fuel tax revenues, too resistant to institutional reforms of the DOT and the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) — and just too darn powerful. With a chuckle, he says he never considered that all of that might be true, “... but I did consider that what mattered most was getting some level of road funding passed this year and then to try again next year to pass a long-range solution to the most critical issue before us. Time was running out and our roads problems are creating major economic development issues for our state.”

Three weeks ago, one senator quietly suggested that Sen. Leatherman’s leadership style was at once old and wearing thin: “He hasn’t changed; everything else is.”

But detractors can quickly become admirers and a few days ago, that same senator had a different commentary: “Wow, Sen. Leatherman is skating again.”

Leatherman probably appreciates the “skating” metaphor. He turned 85 two weeks ago, about the time, he says, he became determined to repackage road “funding” proposals into a 2016 “financing” program. He started with a concept of aggregating $200 million of fines and user fees collected annually by the Department of Motor Vehicles. This would be combined with a portion of the state’s collection of vehicle purchase sales taxes, long capped at $300 per transaction. For 10 years, these collections would be directed to the SIB, leveraging $2.2 billion of road and bridge improvements. From that standing start, his concept quickly evolved into a plan that has passed the Senate and seems to be gaining support in the House.

But the creativity of a wily elderly politician is but one part of this story. In fact, his plan in its raw form was pretty much dead on arrival. But with his critics taking full notice, Leatherman purposefully moved his package by readily welcoming compromises and the ideas of others. The state’s long list of deficient bridges and overpasses are priority projects, rural projects are emphasized, too. Every weight-deficient bridge will be addressed. And the eligible projects list will include only existing roads and bridges.

That requirement excludes Greater Charleston’s I-526 completion and the controversial Interstate 73 project to Myrtle Beach. But it could include the Interstate 20 and Interstate 26 “Malfunction Junction” rebuild in Columbia.

Leatherman and his colleagues worked out compromises, too, to mandate legislative oversight of the Department of Transportation projects selected for State Infrastructure Bank financing, and he has signaled his support of DOT restructuring and commissioner appointment reforms.

A “gentlemen’s agreement” among conference committee members about linking such reforms to the financing package cleared the way for the Senate’s final approval vote. Compromises etched a more focused package — and broader support. “Nothing surprising about that,” Leatherman declared. “Compromise is a rule of legislative leadership.”

The S.C. Alliance to Fix our Roads has been a vociferous coalition lobbying group sounding the road funding crisis. Bill Ross, the alliance’s executive director, calls the Senate bill “surprising and remarkable.” Ross said: “Mr. Leatherman guided the legislation through the Finance Committee, working closely with Senators Larry Grooms, Davis, Setzler and Sheheen to develop a bill that would be bipartisan and relevant. It was legislative process at its best.”

The Leatherman package is still not quite a done deal, but prospects for final passage seem positive. And with DOT restructuring and reforms included and fuel tax increases excluded, Gov. Nikki Haley should have no veto issues.

But we South Carolinians should also understand that this creative “financing” package is not a lasting solution to the roads funding crisis. One point was well made during the Senate debate of the Leatherman package: South Carolina roads and bridges are being managed in decline and the road funding deficit is plus or minus a billion dollars annually. The social and economic effects are broad and regrettable.

And that’s so unbecoming a state that is so ambitious.

Ron Brinson is a North Charleston city councilman and former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.