COLUMBIA — South Carolina taxpayers who took the trouble of calculating their gas fill-ups and vehicle maintenance costs in exchange for a tax break were in the minority.

The group collectively received $2 million through their 2018 income tax returns — far less than the $40 million available in the credit's first year, according to the state's tax agency.

On average, the 80,600 filers so far who saved a year's worth of receipts and filled out the new form each got back $24.

That breaks down to less than $16 for each of the 125,300 drivers covered by those returns, Department of Revenue spokeswoman Bonnie Swingle said Friday. 

The rebate was key to winning support in the state Senate for the 2017 law that raised the state's gas tax for the first time in 30 years.

The increase was designated to pay for highway and bridge work and came even as many supporters of the road-funding measure decried the credit as a political gimmick. 

The law's provision allows South Carolinians to get back the extra pennies they pay at the pump because of the rising fuel tax, which set to increase by 2 cents a gallon annually through 2022, for a combined 12 cents extra.

If the tally is less — which is unlikely — the credit can apply to maintenance such as oil changes or new tires. Both costs must be calculated on the form.

Each household can claim credits for two vehicles. The cap rises annually along with the tax. Next year, drivers can claim up to $65 million in reimbursements. 

Sen. Larry Grooms, who came up with the idea, said he figured fewer people than eligible would go through the trouble but the number is even less than he thought.

"There was an outcry that gas taxes were too high, that people wouldn't be able to afford it," said Grooms, R-Bonneau. "I came up with the gasoline tax credit so those most opposed to the tax would have a mechanism to get every dollar back."

He said the average credit of just over $1 monthly per driver shows "the gas tax really doesn't break the bank, and it's not as egregious as some people once believed."

The latest two-cent hike took effect July 1, bringing the state tax to 22.75 cents per gallon. On Friday, South Carolina had the country's fifth-lowest average price at the pump, behind Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas, according to AAA.

More credits may still be claimed. Those who filed for tax extensions have until mid-October. 

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They include Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, who said he saved his gas and maintenance receipts out of curiosity.

"I want to see just how much of a return there is on the hassle," said Massey, R-Edgefield, who continues to oppose the various credits tacked on to the bill to gain support as a missed opportunity for "real tax reform."

The $2 million tally so far shows the gas rebate is "too complicated and too much of a hassle for people to fool with," as he figured, he said.

Another credit approved through the law provided up to $40 million in college tuition credits this year. As of Friday, those tallied $6.8 million for nearly 4,900 tax filers, according to the Revenue agency. 

Gas tax money not doled out to taxpayers through the credits goes back to the S.C. Department of Transportation. 

Since the law took effect in 2017, the extra pennies have provided more than $170 million for road construction. When fully phased in, the law is projected to raise roughly $600 million annually, according to the DOT.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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