Sen. Davis ends four-week filibuster; Sen. Bright takes over

Gavin Jackson/File Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, continued his 2015 roads bill filibuster on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, pictured. Davis ended his filibuster, which began last year, on Feb. 24. He handed the microphone over to Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, to continue discussing reforms to the S.C. Department of Transportation.

COLUMBIA — Beaufort Republican Tom Davis on Wednesday night ended his four-week filibuster, which began last year, just before handing the microphone over to Upstate Republican Sen. Lee Bright.

Bright said the roads bill filibuster Davis began last May will continue with other senators expected to keep the pressure on from the podium. This approach by conservative Republicans is to stress the need for reform to the state Department of Transportation before any new money is sent to the cash-strapped agency.

“I think there’s a very good possibility this bill is not going to pass the Senate,” Bright said. “There’s so many of us who want to see restructuring. We don’t want to see a gas tax increase at all.”

Bright said if some of the hundreds of current amendments pass, there may not be enough votes to sustain a later filibuster and “we could end up having a large gas tax increase.” He said the microphone handoff was not indicative of any deal in the works.

“The concern is we could get in a position where we couldn’t stop the bill, and I’m really concerned about what this bill has in it,” Bright said about the current lack of reform. “The amendments could be ruled tedious and superlative, and if you lose that ruling, you’ve lost your ability to have that discussion.”

Davis launched his filibuster last May after the $400 million House-approved roads bill was amended by the Senate Finance Committee. When it hit the floor following limited committee debate, it featured $700 million in dedicated road money thanks to a 12-cent gas tax increase and other vehicle-related fee increases.

Gov. Nikki Haley has said she would veto any bill that didn’t have reform to the Department of Transportation, a 10-cent gas tax increase, and a reduction of the income tax rate by two percentage points. Only variations of the governor’s plan have been put forth.

The most recent proposal, the Cleary/Lourie amendment, would generate more than $650 million in new annual roads revenue from the 12-cent gas tax increase and fee increases. It would also provide nearly $400 million in tax relief and allow the governor to select DOT commissioners from 10 Councils of Government across the state.

That would be enough money to eliminate structurally deficient bridges on interstate and primary roads and bring 50 percent of primary roads and 95 percent of interstate roads to “good” condition over a decade’s time. Forty percent of secondary roads would also reach “good” status, and some $50 million would go toward widening projects.

But Davis wants to move appointment power for the DOT’s governing commission from legislators to the governor in an effort to increase accountability and limit regional political influence over road funding. Currently, legislators select commissioners from their seven congressional districts with one at-large commissioner selected by the governor.

Davis also wants to dedicate some of the additional $1.3 billion available this year toward roads instead of raising the 16.75-cent gas tax.

“What we’re talking about is power over the expenditure of billions of dollars,” Davis said Wednesday. “Nobody — no man, no woman — will ever give up power voluntarily. It’s only given up through pressure; it’s only given up through the insistence of the people that those with the power are supposed to serve.”

Several senators, including Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, have said passing a roads bill is the Senate’s top priority. The bill remains on a priority track, which prevents debate on other bills, as the Senate nears the end of its sixth week of the 2016 session.

“It looks like a tag-team filibuster,” Peeler said. “Some people say this is a debate. At least we’re talking about it.”