COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers ended their regular session this week without a road funding bill, despite both the governor and Legislature making it a priority and business groups pushing hard to do something to fix the potholes and expand lanes.
There were three critical points where the push for more road money broke down:
During the 2014 legislative session, Gov. Nikki Haley made it clear she would veto any gas tax increase. During her election campaign, she said she would reveal her roads plan if she was sent back to the governor’s office.
That left Rep. Gary Simrill’s special House committee, which spent months coming up with a road funding bill, in the position of creating new ways to raise $400 million for roads without a gas tax increase.
Then in her State of the State address in January, Haley stunned everyone by calling for a gas tax increase. Simrill said he met with her four times in the months leading up to the speech and she gave no indication she was willing to accept a gas tax increase. “That would have been a game changer,” said Simrill, R-Rock Hill.
But Haley’s speech also added a twist that complicated matters: She said she would not approve any gas tax increase without an income tax cut. Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler said as the session started that his 46-member body had 46 different road plans — and what to do about income taxes complicated matters.
“We ought to be dealing with roads — the condition of roads. Adding other things, too, it just makes it impossible to get a roads bill,” said Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, who joined other members of his party in saying the tax cut would only help the wealthy. “Income tax relief has zero to do with roads.”
Haley said she is disappointed the Legislature didn’t pass a roads bill, but said she is not changing her proposal for a gas tax hike to raise $400 million a year paired with cutting state income taxes by $1.8 billion over a decade. “I feel more strongly about that plan today than when I announced it at the State of the State,” Haley said.
Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman planned a simple meeting of the Finance Committee he leads after the House passed a road funding bill by a surprising 87-20 margin in April. His goal was to get the bill to the Senate floor without any amendments because he wanted debate to take place in front of all senators.
Leatherman, R-Florence, promised to let senators debate as much as they wanted on the Senate floor. But the bill never even made it for a true debate.
Some senators bristled at not being allowed to talk about the bill in the committee, saying it might have helped bridge differences that only seemed to get wider as the session went on.
“In the Senate, sometimes it takes time in the process to go from 5 miles apart, to 3 miles apart, to 1 mile and a deal,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. “We are still miles apart.”
Sen. Tom Davis was one of 20 Senate Republicans standing behind Peeler on May 7 as the majority leader announced a new roads proposal that would raise about $800 million a year for roads while cutting income taxes by just over $700 million.
Davis thought long and hard about the plan over the next weekend and decided he couldn’t support it. Two weeks later, the Beaufort Republican killed any chance for a roads bill when he took the Senate floor on an amendment to the capital reserve fund and never gave it up.
Davis thinks South Carolina can find enough money through economic growth and different priorities in spending without paying more in taxes.
“We’ve refocused attention away from doing the easy thing, which is raising gas taxes, to the responsible thing of better use of existing revenues,” Davis said.
There will likely be some additional money sent to roads. Both the House and Senate seem to like the idea of giving $150 million in additional revenue directly to counties to spend on their own highways and bridges.
Meanwhile, House members were left shaking their heads after passing a bill that had a veto-proof majority with seven weeks left in the session.
“We’ve got way too much happening to have one state senator able to hold up anything,” said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Mount Pleasant.
“Until they change the rules, we’re going to continue to be hamstrung over and over.”