Roads bill in S.C. Senate still lacks traction

Like rush-hour traffic on Interstate 26, the S.C. Senate is slowly dealing with a House-approved roads bill.

COLUMBIA — Tempers flared Thursday as senators pointed fingers at each other over the lack of progress on the roads bill, an issue dubbed a “top priority” by many in the chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler told lawmakers his patience is wearing thin over the lack of movement on the House-approved roads bill.

“We need to move this roadblock — we’re at a standstill,” Peeler said. “It’s been here for a year. We’ve talked about it, we’ve studied it; it’s past time to have the debate. Everything is blocked by this bill.”

Details over tax relief, funding and reform components have come out in piecemeal committee discussions so far, but not on the Senate floor — where the bill is on a priority track that’s preventing movement on other legislation.

“We heard more discussion about infrastructure than we have the whole year,” Peeler said after he and other senators aired their frustrations for two hours.

Even after the public squabbling Thursday, the bill’s trajectory hasn’t changed and it likely won’t be debated until Feb. 16. Peeler called for a suspension of a planned week-long Senate furlough, which is expected to coincide with the heart of the debate.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee will meet Tuesday with officials from the state Department of Transportation and State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. Reforming the structure of those organizations, especially the DOT Commission, is a priority for Republicans and necessary to prevent a threatened veto from Gov. Nikki Haley.

Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said the informational meeting will provide senators with current data to draw upon during the floor debate. Of the $1.3 billion in additional funds available this year, for example, Leatherman estimates just $480 million will be available after addressing constitutional and annual needs.

“I’m not willing to put a Band-Aid on this,” Leatherman said about using only the additional funds for roads. “I want a resolution to this issue that says there will be this amount of recurring money.”

The Finance Committee sent an amended and approved $700 million roads bill to the floor last year with a 12-cent gas tax increase in it. But the move led to Beaufort Republican Sen. Tom Davis’ three-week filibuster calling for enacting stronger DOT reforms before sending the agency more money.

Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, one of eight senators in a roads “brainstorming” group, said goodwill and time is being wasted by the prolonged feuding, giving credence to criticism from House lawmakers over Senate delays.

“I actually think what’s been happening at the committee-level for the past two weeks has actually had a negative impact,” Massey said, adding there are probably some tired senators less willing to deal now than they were two or three weeks ago.

Senate Democratic Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, said compromise is what is needed, not fighting. “What the people of South Carolina want is us to deal with potholes and unsafe bridges,” he said.