Competing plans expected in tug of war over fixing state’s roads

The South Carolina Statehouse.

COLUMBIA — The early push for a plan to overhaul the way South Carolina pays to repair its ailing network of roads and bridges got an extra nudge from Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday as anti-tax conservatives also flooded the Statehouse to push their message with legislators.

The tug-of-war over competing Republican proposals foreshadows the debate ahead in the General Assembly, particularly the split between the business community that wants a gas tax hike and anti-tax conservatives who have railed against such a plan.

Haley met with the House Republican caucus during a closed-door lunch meeting, saying only, “We had a good meeting,” when she emerged.

Afterward, House members said Haley delivered an upbeat message about why lawmakers should back her plan to raise the tax on gasoline by 10 cents over three years while reducing the state income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent over 10 years. The plan also makes the Department of Transportation a Cabinet agency appointed by the governor.

Haley told members that the increase in the gas tax would deliver additional dollars for roads while the state’s reduction in the income tax would spur business growth.

Rep. Tommy Stringer, R-Greer, plans to file a bill Wednesday that reflects the governor’s plan. A House ad-hoc committee, headed by Rep. Gary Simrill, has a different plan and that bill is also expected to be filed Wednesday. Simrill’s plan includes structural reforms and lifting the cap on wholesale gasoline sales tax for more transportation funding.

House Speaker Jay Lucas declined to comment after the meeting with Haley. House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Bannister told reporters that House leaders are looking to “marry” the two competing House plans before a vote on the House floor.

Bannister said Republican leaders hope to find a way to please all parties and avoid a veto — but they haven’t decided how to do that.

Stringer said he believes the governor’s plan has a good chance of passing. “This roads crisis has been brewing for a decade,” he said. He also noted that the staffs of the House Speaker and governor have been working closely.

While lawmakers and Haley tried to iron out their differences, State Treasurer Curtis Loftis led a rally by members of the conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity at the Statehouse and decried any increase in the state’s 16.75-cents-a-gallon gas tax, one of the lowest in the country.

“What many of them (legislators) don’t understand is there’s a lack of trust,” Dave Schwartz, AFP’s South Carolina state director, told about 70 people who were bused in from all over the state. “Until that trust, until that bond is back where it should be, we shouldn’t be having any conversation about a gas-tax hike.”

Americans For Prosperity is a Washington, D.C.-based small government advocacy group funded by the conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch. Those in attendance planned to spend the day telling members of the General Assembly to use the state’s transportation funds more efficiently.

Loftis said the state is relying on an outside consultant’s report that projects the state’s road needs 30 years into the future. He said it is backed by special interests who want to build bike paths and other mass transit solutions, not fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

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