Lawmakers sticking with plan to fix S.C. roads despite Haley veto threat

Traffic moves along a section of Interstate 26 that is being widened southwest of Columbia. Lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley remain far apart on how to raise money to improve the state’s roads and bridges, with the governor threatening to veto a plan passed by the House.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers will use the roads plan passed by the House as a blueprint for raising more money to fix the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges, according to Sen. Hugh Leatherman.

The pronouncement last week by the Senate president pro tempore comes amid dwindling hopes for a compromise with Gov. Nikki Haley, who has issued ultimatums since January that she will veto any plan raising the tax on gasoline that is not offset by a significant reduction in the state income tax.

Haley has used social media to excoriate lawmakers who have ignored her demands, and has been touring the state to call out lawmakers in their home districts.

On Monday, it was Charleston-area lawmakers’ turn to get a taste of Haley’s wrath during an East Cooper Republican Club luncheon the governor attended in Mount Pleasant.

Haley was unsparing in her criticism of fellow Republicans and Democrats for voting for the House roads bill, naming Republican state Reps. Chip Limehouse, Peter McCoy and Mike Sottile, and Democrats David Mack and Wendell Gilliard.

Haley has proposed raising the state’s 16.75-cent per gallon tax by 10 cents over three years while cutting the income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent over 10 years. While the plan would raise hundreds of millions a year for transportation, lawmakers have balked at losing more than $1 billion a year by the time the full income tax cut is phased in.

“If we don’t give it back to the people, the Legislature will grow into it,” Haley said. They will spend it.”

Leatherman, R-Florence, was unfazed by the threat of a veto on Thursday as was Limehouse on Monday.

“I can’t worry about what she’s going to do,” Limehouse said. “I think she had a great plan, but it just didn’t have any votes and no support. And the way she’s going around trashing legislators, I don’t believe she’s going to get more support.”

The House roads plan also would raise hundreds of millions a year for road repairs by taxing gas at the wholesale level even while reducing the tax on gas at the pump. It also would cut income taxes by about $48 million a year.

Lawmakers’ apparent willingness to bring on a veto that would then have to be overridden worries some legislators, including Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, and Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Cayce.

“I just think we have to continue to try to work with her and come up with a bill that can pass,” Quinn said. “A lot of us feel like she’s got a point that if we’re going to raise taxes, we’ve got to find a way to give South Carolinians a bit of their money back.”

Haley has shown a willingness to give ground, Quinn said, noting she initially threatened to veto any gas-tax hike, but now is willing to consider it if it’s accompanied by an income tax cut.

Grooms believes legislators have to work with Haley or face the prospect of adjourning for the year without doing anything to improve the state’s roads.

If that happens, he said, there’ll be plenty of blame to go around.

“There’s more political value in assigning blame, but it doesn’t move our state forward,” Grooms said. “People don’t care about who is to blame. They care about the roads falling apart.”

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, who voted against the roads bill, said the problem is that both chambers and Haley are talking through the media and not with each other. And passing a veto-proof bill will depend on what the final version looks like.

“There’s so much that can happen between the final passage of bills,” Merrill said.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.