House leader lays out transportation plan at media day

The South Carolina Statehouse or the South Carolina General Assembly were the legislature consisting of the South Carolina House of Representatives and State Senate meet. The Confederate battle flag flies at a memorial in front of the statehouse. Photographed May 12, 2014. Grace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA - South Carolina lawmakers should consider a one-cent sales tax dedicated to fixing the state's crumbling road network, S.C. House Rep. Gary Simrill told reporters at a media event Thursday.

Simrill, R-Rock Hill, has led a S.C. House committee appointed by House Speaker Jay Lucas to assess the state's under-funded transportation system and propose solutions. The sales tax proposal, he said, should be placed on the ballot in 2016 so the voters can decide.

The House, Simrill said at a legislative preview day for media hosted by the S.C. Press Association, is less inclined than many members of the Senate to propose a gas tax increase because Gov. Nikki Haley has said she would veto it. The state's 16-cent gas tax has not seen an increase since 1987. The Legislature is back in session next week.

Simrill said the committee plans to propose other solutions as the state's leaders - from Gov. Nikki Haley on down - have said the state's crumbling, unsafe road network needs a solution.

Simrill said the transportation fixes are not all about finding more money. Critics say that conservative Republicans are only willing to look at structural, bureaucratic changes because they do not want to raise fees or taxes for roads.

"If you start talking about funding right off the bat, that's all people want to focus on," Simrill said. Simrill's proposal would reduce the state's gas tax by between 6 and 8 cents but take away the sales tax exemption on wholesale gasoline, he said. Simrill also wants to turn over more state roads to local governments and restructure the Department of Transportation to more effectively allocate scarce dollars.

A one-cent sales tax statewide would provide an additional $640 million in funds. The other changes, according to Simrill, would total close to the more than $1 billion per year that transportation officials have said is needed to better the state's crumbling roads.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said "eyes glazed over" at what she said was Simrill's tortured plan to get around raising the state's gas tax.

"I have been embarrassed for years now," Cobb-Hunter said of trip she takes on I-95 to Florida. "You get to the South Carolina line and it's like 'OK here we go.' It's not only two lanes but the two lanes are bad."

Lucas, in separate remarks to reporters, said he would push for a transportation bill to pass the House this session. "It is, in my opinion, the most important piece of legislation we've dealt with in the South Carolina House in many years," he said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.