Senate floats using surplus funds for one-time shot for roads

Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, has proposed an amendment that would use the state’s additional revenue for roads.

COLUMBIA — Another day went by in the Statehouse without the Senate approving the state’s $7 billion budget.

It’s been two days since the Senate gave preliminary approval to the state’s budget on Monday. But little got done Wednesday as legislators debated amendments being tacked on to the budget.

The debate for road funding took center stage again on Wednesday, and a theme began to emerge, one that calls for using the state’s budget surplus to fix the state’s crumbling roads instead of passing a roads funding bill.

The surplus is expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but the exact amount is unknown at this point because the Board of Economic Advisors has yet to issue its estimate.

The Senate’s roads bill, which raises the gas tax and other vehicle fees, would raise an estimated $800 million a year, while the House bill, which cuts the gas tax and income tax, but raises the tax on fuel on the wholesale level would raise an estimated $500 million a year. The state transportation department has said it needs more than $1 billion a year to improve roads, not just keep them from deteriorating further.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, warned, however, that allocating surplus funds toward roads doesn’t solve the state’s infrastructure problem because it doesn’t create a steady cash flow for the Department of Transportation.

“What we don’t want to do is mislead the public that we’ve solved the crisis,” said Lourie, adding that the amendment would act as a bandage on a hemorrhage.

The idea is based on an amendment by Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, who is pushing for it to be adopted through the budget. The problem is that a different amendment — one by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, which would take $25.5 million of the state’s surplus and give it to state employees as a one-time bonus of $900 — stands in his way.

If Sheheen’s amendment gets approved before Bright’s, the state’s extra cash goes to the employee bonus, and whatever is left over would then be allocated toward roads.

Bright began to filibuster Sheheen’s amendment on Tuesday and continued Wednesday, but senators sidestepped the filibuster by temporarily skipping the section of the budget that includes the amendment Bright opposed.

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He said he expects to continue his filibuster on Thursday because delaying a vote would bring attention to the matter.

“I think the longer it takes the more people pay attention,” Bright said.

Before the Senate reconvenes at 10 a.m., Republican senators plan to announce at “a comprehensive plan on DOT reform, fixing South Carolina roads and cutting income taxes” during a 9:30 a.m. press conference.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.