When lawmakers return to Columbia on Tuesday for the start of the legislative session, the debate won't be over what needs to be fixed - there's widespread agreement it's education, roads, ethics and protections for battered women and abused children.

Instead, the discussion will be about what South Carolina can afford, where the money will come from and how far politicians are willing to go to reform ethics laws and strengthen domestic violence penalties.

Should there be an increase in the gas tax? Gov. Nikki Haley, while not revealing her own transportation plan, has said that's dead on arrival, and Republican House leaders have said they don't plan to buck her on that.

Should rural school districts get more funding? The state Supreme Court, in its ruling in a 21-year-old lawsuit that was critical of lawmakers and school districts, said the state failed to provide a "minimally adequate education" the state's poorest children.

Haley and top lawmakers have asked the state's high court to reconsider its ruling and several lawmakers are openly challenging the court, saying it overstepped its authority in addressing inequities between affluent and poor school districts.

On ethics reform and domestic violence there's more consensus, in part because neither is in competition for money that's more likely to go to roads, schools or some other big-ticket item. Where the consensus breaks down, however, is over who should have the power to investigate wrongdoing by lawmakers and if the state should ban convicted batterers from owning guns, as federal law does.

Haley's keeping the General Assembly in the dark about her transportation plans and resisting the Supreme Court's ruling on education has made even her own party's leaders hesitant about backing any proposed solutions: they know what the governor doesn't want, but not what she favors.

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said House leaders are waiting on Haley in hopes of a united effort to do something that hasn't been done in years of trying: find a long-term fix for the state's crumbling road system.

"We're waiting on the governor to bring forth her ideas on this plan," Simrill said.

When the state's largest manufacturer and one of its biggest employers says his company would look elsewhere to expand because of the state's woeful roads, everyone listens.

Pete Selleck, chairman and president of Greenville-based Michelin North America, told students at the University of South Carolina the state's roads are a "disgrace."

"They need to be fixed, and that probably means some combination of a gas tax increase and some other funding source are going to have to be found," said Selleck, according to GSA Business.

It was a watershed moment for lawmakers, who have been told a long-term fix for the state's roads will cost $40 billion,

Business interests in the state, including the Charleston Metro Chamber, have lined up behind raising the gas tax, a nonstarter with Haley and other anti-tax conservatives.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, has introduced transportation legislation for 10 years in a row. This year, for the first time his proposal includes increasing the state's 16-cent gas tax, which hasn't increased since 1987.

The proposal comes with an equal decrease in the state's income tax, which he believes would spur other tax revenue and the economy in general.

Grooms said the plan breaks no fundamental conservative principles - the tax burden on South Carolinians would go down overall. Still, he said anti-tax conservatives will fight it.

"Tell me what fundamental conservative principle I'm violating?" Grooms asked. "If we all have an honest debate, we'll come to the conclusion that the Department of Transportation is underfunded. If someone has a better plan than mine, God bless them, put it on the table, let's debate it."

Lawmakers would support new taxes, "if there's assurances that their projects would be funded," Grooms said. "And there are some projects out there that probably should never be funded."

The other side of the debate is likely to be represented by lawmakers like Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who are skeptical that transportation dollars are being spent effectively.

"Those that throw up their hands and say 'You can't do it,' they're just not trying hard enough," he said.

For Elaine Morgan, executive director of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, the county's success with a one-cent sales tax for roads shows residents will pay more for results. Voters renewed the sales tax for roads in November, winning every precinct in the county.

"The people saw that the money went to where they said it was going to," Morgan said.

Tell that to many senators, who are all up for re-election in 2016. Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, said new taxes are a tough sell.

"It's a little hard for those of us who are trying to get re-elected to say 'we're going to take more money out of your pocket,'" Cromer said.

Rural and unequal education

With transportation, it's all about the money, but the state Supreme Court's recent Abbeville education decision has left lawmakers scratching their heads. The decision took lawmakers to task for their failure to provide an adequate education to the state's rural, impoverished schools. Yet, no lawmaker pre-filed any legislation that addressed the concerns stated in the ruling.

Instead of serving as a catalyst for reform, many legislators have used the decision to blast the justices who wrote it.

Grooms is among those who say the court's ruling is a "clear violation of separation of powers."

He said it's not the business of the court to tell the Legislature what to do. Further, the Supreme Court's ruling implied that school districts and the Legislature are responsible for student achievement, Grooms said.

"They write that as if the school districts and the General Assembly are the only inputs that determine what a child learns," he added. "That's utterly ridiculous. The government cannot guarantee outputs."

Grooms also argued that the schools in lower performing districts get a lot more money than those which are performing well. And he worries that districts like Dorchester 2 will receive less money because they are having the best outcome when the Legislature is faced with doling out the money.

"The worst your school district performs, the more money you get," Grooms said. "You basically reward failure with more money. That's what we've been doing."

Yet, Grooms believes some legislators will use the ruling as an argument to change the state's funding formula for schools.

Rep. Bill Bowers, D-Hampton, represents the area in which the Jasper County School District is located - the poster child of the Abbeville lawsuit because of its poor conditions at the time of the lawsuit.

While the district's elementary school, Ridgeland Elementary, now looks like it has everything it needs, before it moved into its news building, sewage would back up into the school and staffers were assigned to "snake patrols" to ensure a reptile didn't get into a classroom. Fed up administrators joined other rural schools and sued the state more than two decades ago.

Bowers called the ruling a game-changer, adding that equity in schools would likely require some change in the funding formula.

"This is South Carolina," Bowers said. "We can't argue among counties, when we're talking about fairness and opportunity in South Carolina."

Vashti Washington, superintendent of education for Jasper County schools, said the Legislature should discuss the issues that set apart rural schools from those in urban settings, such as young parents and generational poverty.

Washington and other rural district leaders want legislators to stop pretending that rural schools are the same as urban ones.

"None of us should be proud that it has taken us 21-plus years to come to this point, and we're still right back where we were 21 years ago," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, on Thursday. "It is way past time for this General Assembly and the leadership of this state to deal with this issue."

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.