The state Senate has been aptly described as the place where reform goes to die, and for the most part this year was no exception. It was unable approve a gas tax hike needed to provide funding for the repair of crumbling roads and bridges. It failed to pass ethics reform, despite being provided a solid bill early in the session.
And the Senate’s inability to approve a capital reserve bill last week jeopardized millions in needed funding at the state and federal levels for MUSC’s new Children’s Hospital.
Maybe the Senate can make amends on that project, at least, when the General Assembly returns briefly in mid-month to wrap up the budget.
The record of failed reform was mitigated only by the late-session approval of bills to strengthen laws on criminal domestic violence and to make a start on providing body cameras for police.
For its part, the House did its work on the reform measures for road funding and ethics rules.
The frustration was evident in the end-of-session statement from House Speaker Jay Lucas, who blamed the Senate for failing to address most of the reform agenda: “The people of South Carolina do not want these issues to fall through the cracks due to inaction.”
But the Senate couldn’t even muster the will to halt a three-week session-ending filibuster aimed at thwarting a long overdue gas tax increase. It was a startling turn of events, considering the general recognition of the deteriorating condition of state infrastructure. The gas tax serves as a user fee, and the state benefits by the fact that tourists and other out-of-state motorists pay more than a third of it. South Carolina’s gas tax, one of the lowest in the nation, hasn’t been raised since 1987.
Opponents of the gas tax were either ideologically opposed to any new taxes or were demanding further reform of the state highway department before giving it more money.
It was surprising that Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman wasn’t able to muster the votes to end the filibuster, in view of his strong support for more highway funding.
And while this is the first year of a two-year session, it seems even less likely that the Legislature will approve a gas tax hike in an election year.
The “no new tax” opponents, who prefer ideological purity over public safety, will have an additional edge in an election year. Unless, that is, voters wise up about the hidden “tax” for car repairs and accidents due to badly maintained highways.
As Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said: “South Carolina is one big pothole and the General Assembly has done nothing to fix that.”
In 2014, the Senate failed to approve an ethics reform bill in the final week of the session, but this year the bill didn’t even get past mid-February. A majority of the Senate rejected a reform plan from Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, apparently preferring the unaccountable status quo by which legislative ethics complaints are handled wholly by their colleagues.
Early in the session, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler cited the resignation of former speaker of the House Bobby Harrell for misusing campaign contributions , as he spoke of the need for ethics reform. “If we can’t get it done this year, we’ll never get it done.”
Ethics reform and highway funding were expected to be the defining issues of the legislative year, and in a way they were. They defined the Senate’s unwillingness to act on behalf of the state and its residents.
Unfortunately, it’s getting to be a habit.