Road plan veers off in another direction

COLUMBIA — A House transportation panel which spent nearly six months studying fixes for the state’s crumbling roads and bridges passed recommendations Tuesday that differed from proposals put forth last week by Gov. Nikki Haley.

The House Transportation Infrastructure and Management Ad Hoc Committee’s proposals are expected to be filed as a bill on Wednesday by Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill.

“We had to put forth a recommendation for the ad hoc committee to have done its job,” Simrill said. “Any legislation, regardless of what it is, the legislative process itself allows for tweaking, allows for amendments.”

The committee’s proposal combines reducing the state’s 16.75-cent-per-gallon gas tax with an increase in the sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level. It will have a ceiling to protect South Carolinians from fluctuating gas prices and would phase in turning over ownership and maintenance of state-owned roads to counties, Simrill said.

Haley’s plan would raise the tax on gasoline by 10 cents over three years while reducing the state income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent over 10 years.

It also calls for the restructuring the Department of Transportation. Haley has threatened to veto any increase in the gas tax without the other two parts of her plan.

Haley’s spokeswoman, Chaney Adams said Tuesday that the governor “respects the good work of the committee, but thinks a straight-out tax increase is not the best way to go.”

“She remains confident that a meeting of the minds will take place to both address our roads needs and help our economic competitiveness,” Adams said.

But Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, a member of the panel, said that voting in favor of the committee’s proposal instead of adopting Haley’s plan is an indication that “we’re not moving forward, at least as an ad hoc committee, with the proposal put forth by Gov. Haley.”

“I feel like if this group up here supported Haley’s plan, they would’ve made a motion to adopt, as an ad hoc committee, Gov. Haley’s plan,” Ott said. “We didn’t do that. We just went a different direction.”

The panel’s action makes it likely that there will be multiple proposals from the House, Senate and the governor for raising the estimated $400 million a year needed to keep roads and bridges from deteriorating further.

On Tuesday, Haley’s website was rebranded as part of a new social media and digital campaign pushing her proposal. The website also has links to encourage South Carolinians to reach out to their lawmakers to voice their stand on Haley’s plan, which she announced during her State of the State address last week. She called it a “win-win-win” for South Carolina.

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“This site is part of a widespread digital push to educate South Carolinians about the governor’s plan to cut taxes and invest in our roads, a plan that’s gotten the support of folks from across the political spectrum — from Sen. Jim DeMint to the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce — because they know it will make South Carolina more competitive and more prosperous,” said Tim Pearson, Haley adviser.

The site’s Truth and Facts section says Haley’s plan would cut taxes by $1.4 billion. The Senate Finance Committee has estimated it can be as much as $1.8 billion by the 10th year, once it’s fully implemented. Because the cuts in revenue would come from the general fund, the plan has been met with mixed reaction, while economists said the income tax cut could get consumers spending more.

Simrill stressed that the House would still work with Haley and the Senate, adding that a separate bill likely will be filed to address Haley’s income tax reform proposal. But the committee has been working for months to reach the roads proposal voted on Tuesday.

“We have the same goal of infrastructure repair in South Carolina,” Simrill said. “It’s that massive of an issue that we have to all work together. She added the goal to that of income tax reduction. That goal is laudable.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.