COLUMBIA - A long-awaited bill to increase South Carolina's gas tax and help fund road fixes cleared its first major hurdle Wednesday.
Lawmakers in the House of Representatives overwhelmingly backed legislation that would raise the tax by 10 cents per gallon over the next five years. It currently is almost 17 cents per gallon - one of the nation's lowest.
The bill also would increase the cap on the vehicle sales tax from $300 to $500, and add $60 or $120 in fees for hybrid and electric vehicles every two years.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, shepherded the legislation through the House, as lawmakers alternatively debated decreasing the state's income taxes or changing how the state's Secretary of Transportation is chosen as additional reforms.
In defending the bill, Simrill said the need for additional, immediate highway funding is essential to reducing the number of road accidents and deaths, and to continue attracting businesses to the Palmetto State.
Last month, Transportation Secretary Christy Hall estimated it could take up to $11 billion to fix the state's crumbling road system. The legislation adopted Wednesday would raise about $600 million annually, which supporters welcomed as a positive start.
"We appreciate the House stepping forward," Hall said after the vote. "The needs are tremendous. This is very much needed."
Several Republican lawmakers suggested the bill, sponsored by Simrill and dozens of other representatives, didn't go far enough to separate the state Department of Transportation from the politics of the General Assembly.
Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens, offered up an amendment that would have turned the transportation secretary post into a true Cabinet position, allowing Gov. Henry McMaster and future governors to appoint the state's top transportation official.
The bill instead allows the state's transportation commissioners to choose the secretary, with the consent of state lawmakers.
Several Republican lawmakers also said the legislation might be easier to swallow if the gas tax increases were offset by tax cuts elsewhere. Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, tried to offer an amendment that would have reduced income taxes, but legislative rules blocked lawmakers from voting on the amendment.
Pope ultimately ended up voting for the infrastructure bill. Afterward, he said the urgency to fix the state’s roads was too great not to vote for the legislation.
Collins was less forgiving and voted no. "As a conservative body, how can we put forward a bill that is a tax-only bill?” Collins said.
The effort passed by a vote of 97-18.
The measure now goes to the state Senate, where it could face more stringent opposition.
Meanwhile, state business officials cheered the House's move.
"The House understands the impact the deplorable condition of our roads has on our citizens, economic development efforts and ultimately jobs," said Ted Pitts, CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.
During the debate, Simrill said the cost of fixing the state's roads would only increase if the Legislature fails to act, and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, agreed.
"Refusing to compromise will not solve our roads problem, but simply places politics above responsible public policy," Lucas said in a statement after the vote. "A delayed resolution continues to threaten the safety of South Carolina drivers and increases costs for repair and resurfacing of decaying roads and bridges."
Rep. Robert Williams, D-Darlington, voted for the bill, but beforehand, he suggested lawmakers should limit the vehicle sales tax to wealthier individuals who buy more expensive cars.
"Those who can afford cars of $40,000 or $50,000 should feel the pinch," he said.