Grooms wants to pave the path to prosperity with a tax swap

Most lawmakers agree that crumbling roads are a problem in South Carolina, but few ideas on how to pay for the fixes have been raised.

If lawmakers don’t hurry up and fix our roads, they might as well just change our official nickname to the Pothole State.

You know, embrace the dysfunction.

As the General Assembly returns to work this week, most legislators claim repairing roads is at or near the top of the priority list. Yeah, we’ve heard that one before.

The problem is far too many state officials think they can make up a $30 billion shortfall in road repairs by eliminating waste — ah, they’re doing their greatest hits.

The Department of Transportation budget is about $1.3 billion a year, $500 million of which comes from the federal government with specific instructions on how it is spent. Does anyone really believe they are going to find $600 million of waste in the remaining budget?

Well, anyone with any sense?

Sorry, but this time we’re going to have to use real money.

There are plans to raise the needed revenue — some serious, others laughable — but the best one comes from Lowcountry Sen. Larry Grooms. He wants to phase in a moderate gas tax increase and offset the pain by lowering the state income tax.

The problem?

Well, Grooms makes so much sense that some politicians probably won’t get it.

South Carolina’s gas tax rates 49th nationally. Only Alaska’s is lower, and since most of their roads are made of snow, they get repaved automatically each year.

The state hasn’t raised its 16.5-cent gas tax since Reagan was president. It is more than a dime cheaper than Georgia’s and 21 cents less than North Carolina’s.

Grooms wants to raise the gas tax by 2 cents a year for 10 years, eventually a 20-cent bump. But at the same time, he wants to cut the state income tax by .2 percent every year, which will lower the 7 percent rate to 5 percent.

That would offset the pain at the pump and shift a significant portion of our road bills to visitors — out-of-state travelers would pay somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent of that money, depending on whose statistics you use.

This would result in South Carolina having a significantly lower state income tax than either North Carolina (5.8 percent) or Georgia (6 percent).

“This grows the economy,” Grooms says. “When businesses look to relocate, they look at Georgia and North Carolina and see that they have lower income tax rates.”

And a lower income tax is a much better recruiting tool than, say, having the state’s official pastime be “getting a front-end alignment.”

No one has said much about Grooms’ plan yet.

He has found no opposition, and some Lowcountry lawmakers are onboard, but few others have embraced the idea. They say they want to hear more details.

Well, there’s not much to it. This is a tax swap, plain and simple, lowering one tax that is too high to be competitive and raising another that is substantially lower than any other state’s. And it raises money that would be dedicated to fixing roads.

The main problem here is that tax hikes, even if they are offset by other cuts, are a hard sell in the Legislature.

Too many of them are afraid of voters who erroneously believe that every problem can be fixed by cutting waste.

And Gov. Nikki Haley has threatened to veto any gas tax, which has some lawmakers leery. Last summer Haley said she had a plan for fixing roads, but wouldn’t tell us unless she got re-elected. Nothing self-serving about that.

So now folks are waiting to hear the governor’s plan — just as soon as she actually comes up with one.

Fact is, if the Legislature seriously wants to do something, they should listen to Grooms. He believes the governor may go along with a tax swap. If not, it’s no big deal — the Legislature overrides most of her vetoes anyway.

This is not some big government tax-and-spend scheme. Grooms is tea party darling, not exactly known for his frivolous spending ways. He is also chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. The DOT is pretty much his specialty.

And he knows the simple truth here.

“If you’re going to fix the roads, you’ve got to have money,” Grooms says.

He is absolutely right.

It’s time for the Pothole State to make asphalt the official state rock.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com