COLUMBIA, S.C. - Lawmakers in South Carolina can't go to the grocery store without constituents reminding them how bad the roads are. The leader of one of the most vital companies in the state told business school students that South Carolina's highways are a disgrace. The new House speaker said extra money for roads is the most important priority in years.
So getting more money into South Carolina's highways, roads and bridges is a certainty this legislative session, right? Maybe not.
The devil is in the details. The plan that got the most traction in the Senate last year called for raising the state's gas tax. But Gov. Nikki Haley has said repeatedly she can't support any plan that just raises taxes. A special House committee wants to put a proposal before South Carolina voters in 2016 to raise the sales tax 1 percent, while lowering the gas tax.
Just days before the 2015 Legislative session starts, there is no plan that all lawmakers are rallying around. The proposals by Rep. Gary Simrill's special committee to increase the sales tax to pay for highways, turn more roads over from state control to the counties and reform the Department of Transportation dominates that body. But its support outside the House is less clear.
"The Senate has 46 plans," said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.
And Haley likely has her own plan coming out before the end of the month.
There is the constant competition from other needs. The Highway Patrol wants more troopers. The Department of Social Services needs more money to hire additional case workers. Prosecutors want more money to handle domestic violence cases.
But road funding has moved to the top, thanks to pressure from the business community because South Carolina lawmakers almost always list economic development at the top of their goals.
After calling South Carolina roads "a disgrace," Michelin North America Chairman Pete Selleck followed it up with a statement saying it is easy for any driver to see the poor condition of South Carolina's roads and suggesting if the state doesn't care, Michelin could expand elsewhere. His comments hold a lot of weight. Michelin built its first American plant in South Carolina in 1973 and employs about 7,500 people in about a dozen plants.
Smaller businesses are also urging action. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce is calling for an increase in South Carolina's gas tax - which has been at 16.75 cents a gallon for nearly 30 years - as part of a broader plan. The South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, made up of 100 businesses and their associations, plans a social media blitz as the session begins, telling people how much extra they pay in car repair bills and other expenses because of the deteriorating roads.
"They've got to do something significant," Alliance Executive Director Bill Ross said of lawmakers, "I don't anticipate they will come up with $1.5 billion of additional revenue. That's dreaming."
Ross is talking about the $1.5 billion per year the DOT said it needs over the next 20 years or so to get the roads to good condition. But that also includes roads like Interstate 73 that are not yet built and some leaders think never should be built.
Simrill suggests $400 million a year might be enough to solve the problem, and his proposals have the support of new House Speaker Jay Lucas, who said fixing roads is the most important issue South Carolina has faced in several years.
Simrill, R-Rock Hill, also wants to send shorter, less-traveled state roads back to control by the counties, along with money to pay for them. That idea is strongly opposed by the South Carolina Association of Counties, which said lawmakers could easily take that money away and the Legislature has already struggled to keep its funding promises to counties. The group also points out state law passed in the last decade greatly restricts property tax increases, which are one of the few ways counties can raise money.
Just about every other idea to raise money for roads is opposed by some group. Truckers don't like tolls. Conservatives are skittish at borrowing money and issuing bonds. Churches don't like the casino idea pushed by House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford and some Democrats. And looming over it all is a possible governor's veto, likely impossible to override.
Republican Sen. Ronnie Cromer said he knows he is not alone when he thinks he is driving in a Third World country when he leaves his home in Newberry. But while his constituents want better roads, they might not be ready to put their money into it.
"When it comes out of your pocket, you don't want to pay that extra money," Cromer said. "You want someone else to do it."