Hoping to pave the way to fix S.C. roads Dems put hopes on special session efforts

House Democrats say the public will know who to blame, if their efforts to revive the roads-funding bill fail.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s Democrats don’t want the Palmetto State to become known as the Pothole State.

House Democratic leaders say they’re frustrated the session ended without a fix for the state’s crumbling roads, and they’re planning on a last-ditch effort in the coming week’s special session to prevent South Carolina from getting a new, less complimentary nickname.

Before the Legislature reconvenes for the three-day session beginning Tuesday, Democrats plan to call on the Republican leadership to rally their troops behind several proposed roads funding efforts.

“It’s our last hope,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford. “It’s our last-ditch effort to make sure that those in leadership — since the Republican leadership has failed us — know that we’re serious about it. And not just Democrats, but everybody.”

The Columbia Democrat added that since the legislative session officially ended June 4, almost everybody — including a bailiff in court — has approached him wanting to know what lawmakers are going to do to fix the state’s roads.

On Tuesday, Democrats plan to use several procedural moves to take a last shot at roads funding, including calling on lawmakers in both chambers to amend the Sine Die resolution that called them back for this week’s special session and add the roads funding debate to issues they must tackle, such as the budget.

The second involves filing a new roads funding bill using the same language that the House passed in April, in hopes that it can be placed on the floor immediately, voted on again and sent to the Senate.

That plan allocated at least $400 million for roads, primarily through tax on gasoline at the wholesale level. It also gave Gov. Nikki Haley more control over the Department of Transportation, reduced the state income tax and had an option, coupled with an incentive, for counties to take over maintenance of more local roads.

Finally, they’ll also move to amend a bill that addresses how the state should spend the $415 million it collected above revenue projections. The amendment would have the roads funding bill’s exact same language, but with an added expiration date of a year. That way the state will at least have the $400 million the roads bill was expected to generate this fiscal year until the lawmakers return to address a permanent solution during the 2016 legislative session.

“We can do this,” said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia. “Democrats recognize that it’s a priority for our state and believe it to be. It is the responsibility of this General Assembly to address this important need, and we shouldn’t let one individual stand in the way of the progress of this state.”

Smith’s claim that one person blocked roads funding referred to the filibuster mounted by Beaufort Republican Sen. Tom Davis in the final weeks of the session. Davis prevented debate and a vote in the Senate on the House roads plan because of this opposition to using money in the state’s rainy day fund for higher eduction building projects instead of roads.

But the roads bill also lost steam in the Senate for other reasons. Among them was the campaign Americans For Prosperity mounted, changing the stance of several senators who initially supported a compromise on roads funding. Rutherford acknowledged the bill hit several roadblocks, but stressed that lawmakers should not run away from bad publicity.

How Republican lawmakers will respond to the Democrats’ move on Tuesday is hard to tell because it’s difficult to judge their appetite when they’re not in session, Rutherford said. But he said he’s tired of being embarrassed when he runs into residents concerned over the Legislature’s lack of action.

“We know how to fix the problem,” Rutherford said. “It’s simply a matter of rolling up our sleeves and getting it done.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.