Henry McMaster (copy)

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster is now officially threatening to veto pending gas tax legislation and a bond bill that helps finance higher education projects and other capital improvements throughout the state. 

After remaining relatively silent on the subject of state highway funding — other than to say that a new gas tax should be a last resort — the governor made his position clear in a letter to the House leadership on Tuesday. 

During a media event Tuesday at the governor's mansion to promote the upcoming NASCAR race at Darlington Raceway, McMaster said he has been upfront with lawmakers about his aversion to increasing the gas tax.

"I was hoping that everyone had gotten the message, but I think everyone has now," he said.

The Palmetto State has one of the lowest gas taxes in the country, as lawmakers haven't increased the tax rate since 1987. The House has voted to increase that tax by 10 cents over five years. The Senate is sitting on a different version of the bill that would boost it by 12 cents over six years.

Instead of raising money for roads through several driver-related fees and boosting the state's gas tax, McMaster is encouraging lawmakers to allocate $1 billion for roads through the bond bill — which means state roadways would effectively be funded on borrowed money. 

Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall has said the state needs an additional $500 million a year just to improve road repaving. 

If the governor's proposal is followed, it would mean all other improvement projects in the state would have to be set aside to make room for the bonds he wants to dedicate to highway and bridge repairs. 

The current House version of the bond bill only includes $498 million in spending, meaning the governor is asking them to double that amount and allocate none of it for South Carolina's colleges and other state-owned buildings.

"Understanding that our need for road repair has gone from important to critical to urgent, I believe that this should be our top priority for spending," McMaster wrote. "Our state has many important needs in health, education, criminal justice and facilities repair and maintenance, but none are as urgent as the commerce and safety directly linked to our roads." 

The governor's message to House members, who voted 97-18 earlier this year in favor of increasing the tax at the pump, was immediately ridiculed by members of both parties. 

"Today, the governor confirms he's a borrow-and-spend, Obamaesque career politician that doesn't understand the S.C. Constitution," Micah Caskey, R-West Columbia, wrote on Twitter. 

McMaster's adamant opposition to a gas tax bill now mirrors former Gov. Nikki Haley's previous stance on the issue. 

While McMaster's proposal would push millions of dollars to highways in South Carolina, it is a one-time spending effort, unlike a gas tax that would give the Department of Transportation a consistent funding stream into the future.

House leaders also criticized McMaster's plan because, unlike a gas tax, it doesn't allow drivers travelling through the state to help pay for highway costs. 

“Governor McMaster’s proposal continues the pattern of placing the costs of road repair solely on the South Carolina taxpayer and not on out-of-state motorists who use and deteriorate our crumbling roads," said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. "Borrowing more money to fix South Carolina’s roads and bridges will not serve as a permanent solution to our infrastructure crisis."

Like a group of more conservative lawmakers, McMaster also called for reform to the Department of Transportation to make the agency more accountable to his office, instead of leadership in the House and Senate. 

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, who sponsored the roads bill, said he met with McMaster for breakfast Tuesday to discuss his stance on a gas tax and told the governor that borrowing money to pay for roads is the wrong way to go.

"If you just amend the bond bill, for higher ed and other capital needs and you apply it to roads, the question then becomes what about the reform component?" said Simrill, R-Rock Hill. "Is it just adding funding to roads without reform?"

McMaster's threat to veto the gas tax will likely only complicate the ongoing debate in the Senate, where the legislation has been delayed by Republicans.

It's unclear what it might mean for the bond bill, which universities and state agencies are looking to in order to pay for building projects. That's something that Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the highest-ranking Democrat on House budget committee, said is unfair to higher education.

"They have been waiting for years and years and years," she said. "Every institution in this state will tell you that they have millions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs, so for the governor to suggest that we redirect revenue to roads was very disappointing to me."

Cobb-Hunter stopped short of saying McMaster was playing politics by threatening to veto, but pointed to the 2018 election.

"I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he will be up for election next year, but we've had enough politics when it comes to roads," she said. 

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.