Haley’s road plan hits early bumps Democrats offer harsh criticism

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley

COLUMBIA — Democrats slammed Gov. Nikki Haley’s State of the State address Wednesday night, calling the governor’s transportation plan long on promises and short on solutions.

While Haley covered plenty of ground in the speech — from bashing unions to imploring legislators to pass ethics reform — her plan on transportation drew the most attention. Legislators have said they have waited weeks for the governor to honor her campaign pledge and reveal how she would fund billions in needed road and bridge improvements.

Haley’s plan calls for increasing the state’s gas tax by 10 cents over three years as long as lawmakers reduce the state’s income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent and restructure the Department of Transportation.

Republicans said it gives the Legislature a much-needed framework to rally around. Democrats said that it won’t solve any problems because the state would still be left with a deficit and no new money for roads.

“She’s going to veto anything other than what (she) planned,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. “The problem is we need new money. It is literally ‘hashtag no plan Nikki.’”

The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for its estimates on new funding the plan would create. The state DOT has estimated South Carolina needs $1.5 billion each year to fix its crumbling road network.

One prominent conservative group also said Haley’s transportation plan isn’t what activists are looking for, in light of Haley’s pledge not to raise the gas tax.

“She said no gas-tax hike,” said Dave Schwartz, South Carolina director of Americans For Prosperity. “Folks are pretty upset. They really feel misled. I think there’s going to be a lot of opposition.”

Republicans in the chamber were more hopeful. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, has been floating a plan similar to what Haley adopted for weeks.

Grooms helped lead the charge in 2007 to reform the state’s DOT to take politics out of transportation decision-making. The only piece that didn’t pass, he said, was to use objective criteria for projects that go through the State Infrastructure Bank, a board that has been accused of funding projects for political reasons.

“For the most part, we got the horse trading out,” Grooms said. He said the governor likely saw that his plan and others “pretty much tested the waters with conservatives.”

Most importantly, Republicans said that the transportation package was one that could appeal to anti-tax conservatives. “If there is a package that results in an overall reduction in the tax burden, you’re talking about a tax cut,” said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. He said the plan would need to be embraced by constituents. “Any real chance comes from the outside and people demanding it.”

Gibbs Knotts, a politics professor at the College of Charleston, agreed. He said the governor’s three-part plan was “intriguing” and she could influence the debate by using the bully pulpit to sell it.

To do so, she’ll have to deliver on details.

“This raises questions about whether there will be enough additional revenue to help with substantial infrastructure needs,” he said in an email.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.