State treasurer refuses to see light on road-funding urgency

South Carolina Treasurer Curtis Loftis speaks at a Statehouse rally organized by the group Americans for Prosperity who are against raising the gas tax on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

No doubt Curtis Loftis figured he was playing the anti-tax superhero with his speech and social media postings Tuesday about our state’s highway system funding crisis.

But now the state treasurer should not be surprised that his performance — taken in the most constructive light — registered as a cavalier commentary on an issue that fairly affects the economic and social well-being of every South Carolinian.

While Gov. Nikki Haley and legislative leaders were finally digging in at the Statehouse to work on road system reforms, Loftis was outside leading a small but lively no-taxes group rally.

He challenged the S.C. Department of Transportation’s projected 20-year funding shortfall of $42 billion as a baseless formulation of outside consultants.

He gratuitously mocked the DOT’s concept that 4 percent of long-range funding and policy reforms should address bike paths and transit systems.

“We will worry about leisurely strolling down a bike path in 2040,” he said.

In an earlier Facebook posting, Loftis curiously subordinated the road system crisis to a conspiracy of “special interests”: “They’ve designed a $42 billion wish list to ‘fix’ South Carolina’s roads, but it is riddled with potholes and dead-ends. Bureaucrats and politicians always want our money, but the desired results rarely follow. In this plan, the tax is real — the rest is only a promise.”

And in a continuous flow of hackneyed cliches, he promised that any fuel user fee increase proposal would be “a pig in the poke ... a dog that won’t hunt.”

That Treasurer Loftis opposes tax increases is hardly surprising. Most of us don’t like them either.

That he questions DOT funding shortfall projections is fair. Most legislators have, too. But even at half the projections, a crisis persists.

That he opposes any increase in the user-pays levies of the highway funding system is curious.

Pray tell, who else is supposed to pay? Money trees really are fictional. Even Loftis has correctly cautioned against infrastructure investment commitments that “may cause funding crises in the basic functions of government such as education, health care and security.”

That he offers no leadership solutions and counsel is disappointing.

And if his point really is that all the fuss is about “special interests,” then he should tell us exactly what that means. The most “special” interests are we South Carolina motorists who now understand that in the grand proposition of safe and modern roads and bridges, we have — and will have — pretty much what we pay for.

This adds up to some “come-lately” political playing with what is probably South Carolina’s broadest and deepest challenge.

Loftis has rear-ended a groundswelling debate with a backward ideological sway, seeming to have hardly noticed that most South Carolinians and the businesses that operate the state economy now demand highway system reforms. He seems more interested in nurturing a collective illusion that a pandering “no tax” dogma debate will somehow make the problem go away.

Has he not noticed that Gov. Haley and legislative leaders finally are doing some heavy lifting, working to meld funding formulas, priority reforms and better management proposals? For sure, this process at its beginning is fragmented and polarized, but it’s underway — and Loftis might have offered constructive advice. He might have noticed, too, that Gov. Haley’s meager proposal is about one-fourth of what the Department of Transportation says it needs over the next decade.

But the most alarming part of his rhetorical dogma messaging is the treasurer’s dismissive tone about a broadening public policy urgency.

If Loftis really believes the road system is not in crisis, he should explain that to the family of the next fatality on one of South Carolina’s interstate and rural highway stretches known as “killing fields.”

He can explain it to the truckers who see up-close and personal the capacity and safety deficiencies of our state’s roads and bridges, and who support higher fuel user fees and management reforms.

He can try to explain it to the average motorist who pays hundreds of dollars annually in the hidden costs of pothole damages and higher insurance costs related to deficient roads and bridges.

He can rationalize it to the single mother who spends extra hours each week, extra days each year behind the wheel commuting to work over hyper-congested highways.

He can tell it to Michelin North America President Pete Selleck who last fall publicly described South Carolina roads as a “disgrace,” and therein affirmed the connections of economic development and prosperity in our state with the imperatives of a modern highway system.

Better, though, that the treasurer step beyond the ideological corner of easy leadership and rhetorical non-solutions — and help resolve a crisis our state can no longer abide.

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