COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Getting more money to South Carolina roads was the No. 1 priority of this year’s legislative session.
Executives of companies with a major presence in the state — such as Sonoco and Michelin — have urged lawmakers to do something to fix crumbling, crowded highways or the economic growth South Carolina has experienced since the Great Recession ended might stop.
Gov. Nikki Haley, the House and Senate each have a different plan. All now have extra revenue for roads, an income tax break and some form of restructuring the Department of Transportation. But there are major differences too.
Hopes are still high at the Statehouse that a roads bill will get passed this session and significantly more money will start going to highways. But there are still plenty of stumbling blocks that could delay it for another year.
Starting Tuesday, there are just 12 days left in this year’s legislative session. A roads bill not only has to pass the Senate, but the differences must be negotiated between House members and senators before the session ends June 4.
The House has dealt with most of the major things on its calendar. But the Senate still has plenty of controversial issues.
An abortion bill is in the prime debate spot, and the Senate also could take up a $236 million borrowing bill for National Guard armories and schools.
Twenty of the Senate’s 28 Republicans were on hand last week when Majority Leader Harvey Peeler announced their new roads plan. It would raise the gas tax and several fees to get an additional $800 million to roads. It would cut income taxes by a total of about $710 million and give the governor the ability to appoint all eight members of the Department of Transportation board.
But missing were the most conservative members of the chamber. They want to see the new plan in writing and detailed before they will support it. Sens. Shane Martin and Lee Bright both said any plan must cut taxes by a dollar for each dollar it raises through another tax.
Senate Democrats are even less enthusiastic. Sen. Vincent Sheheen called it an income tax bill with a roads plan tacked on to it that will benefit only for the wealthiest South Carolinians. Sheheen, who lost to Haley in last year’s race for governor, said she doomed the road bill’s chances when she tied it to an income tax cut in her State of the State address.
“I think the chances of us passing a roads bill this year were basically determined in January this year,” the Camden Democrat said.
The House passed its own road plan that differs significantly from the latest Senate plan.
The bill that passed the House already passed its own roads plan that raises about $400 million through increasing the sales tax on gasoline while providing about $51 million in income tax relief. It also reforms DOT as well as the State Infrastructure Bank, which approves borrowing for large highway projects.
Rep. Gary Simrill has spent seven months crafting a road bill. The House passed its version 87-20. During the debate, an amendment that would have cut income taxes by $900 million was easily defeated.
Simrill said he remains confident a road bill will pass this year, and the new Senate plan has a better chance than the bill right now on the Senate floor that has no income tax cut or DOT restructuring. But the Senate plan still does nothing to return state roads to counties or reform the State Infrastructure Bank, which critics think tilts borrowing toward larger counties on the coast.
The Senate plan “seemed to be a little bit of an afterthought,” Simrill said.
The governor has not been shy about letting lawmakers know what she thinks. In her State of the State address, she called for DOT reform, a gas tax increase of 10 cents that would raise about $400 million a year, and a $1.8 billion income tax cut over 10 years.
She has threatened to veto the House proposal because it didn’t have enough tax relief. Last week, she didn’t praise, but she didn’t criticize the new Senate plan, saying she was always willing to work with lawmakers. She said nothing about it on Facebook or on her old campaign website, where she has kept lists of lawmakers who did not support her proposals on ethics or were against her on pay raises or bond packages.
That veto threat is why the 87-20 vote to pass the House bill was so important. Eighty-two votes are needed to override a veto in a full chamber. In the Senate, there are only 28 Republicans, so some Democrats will have to be on board to reach the 31-vote mark guaranteed to override a veto.