State Rep.: Grand Strand casinos could fuel road repairs

House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia

COLUMBIA - A South Carolina state representative is proposing legalizing casinos in Myrtle Beach to help pay for the state's road repairs.

House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, announced Wednesday that he plans to introduce legislation during the coming session to allow well-regulated, upscale casinos in the Myrtle Beach area and use the tax money generated by them to fix South Carolina's crumbling roads and bridges.

"Governor (Nikki) Haley doesn't have a plan to fix our roads," Rutherford said in a statement. "She's against everything and for nothing. That kind of stubbornness won't fill our potholes, widen I-26, or create I-73. It's time to get serious about how we're going to pay for these repairs and Governor Haley's mystical 'money tree' is not a serious plan."

Rutherford also said fixing the state's roads will create thousands of good jobs, and he challenged those who don't like his idea to suggest an alternative plan.

"For those who oppose this idea, I challenge you to come up with another way to fund our road repairs without raising taxes," Rutherford said. "It's time for fresh ideas and Governor Haley continues to offer up nothing but rhetoric and policies that are as broken as our roads."

On Tuesday, Haley said her office is focusing on finding a revenue stream that will go straight to roads, but she provided no details on the plan. She said she will introduce her plan as the next legislative session begins.

Haley spokesman Doug Mayer criticized the idea of building casinos to fix roads.

"Legalizing gambling doesn't solve any problems - it creates them and Governor Haley believes South Carolina simply deserves better ideas than that," Mayer said Wednesday. "The governor, like the majority of South Carolinians, doesn't support casino gambling and will never take any action that allows it to happen here."

Before the next legislative session, however, Haley faces gubernatorial challengers Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, and independent candidate Tom Ervin, who held his own press conference on Wednesday, in response to Haley's proposed plan.

"Governor Haley's 'secret plan' to fund improvements for our roads and bridges is nothing more than a 'secret tax increase' and another blatant example of her lack of transparency and accountability," Ervin said in a written release. "For Haley to say she will 'show the General Assembly how to do it' confirms just how irresponsible Haley's approach is to our serious infrastructure needs."

Sheheen's campaign manager Andrew Whalen also took a jab a Haley's "magical, mystical money tree" as her first idea to repair the state's roads.

"Now, she has a super-secret roads plan that she won't share with the people of South Carolina until after the election," Whalen said. "South Carolinians need real leadership and they need real plans. Nikki Haley has offered neither of those things, while Vincent Sheheen laid out a comprehensive plan to repair South Carolina's roads and bridges in his book over a year ago."

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Earlier this year, then-Department of Transportation Chief Robert St. Onge said the agency faced a $29 billion shortfall for repairs, and estimated the agency needed $48.3 billion to repair roads during the next 20 years.

At the time, St. Onge said he didn't know what else the agency could do without more money being allocated. But Haley has continually warned against raising taxes and promised to veto a gas tax bill should any surface during the legislative session that just ended.

South Carolina's gas tax is among the lowest in the nation, at 16 cents a gallon. In 2013 the Palmetto State came in as No. 1 in the nation for the lowest gas prices for the second year in a row, according to a report by AAA. More than 60 percent of South Carolina's roads are maintained by the state, according to the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads.

During the June 10 primary, 80 percent of Democratic voters supported the idea of modernizing the state's gaming laws to fund road repairs instead of raising taxes. Rutherford acknowledged voters are taxed enough and said his proposal provides an alternative to increasing the gas tax, which has little chance of passing.

"The people support this," Rutherford said. "Businesses support this. Many Republicans in the legislature are open to casinos. Anyone who loves individual freedom, personal liberty, and lower taxes should get behind this issue 110 percent.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.