Its encouraging that state lawmakers acknowledge that South Carolinas roads and bridges are deteriorating and that maintenance is overdue. But shifting money collected from car sales taxes to road repairs is not the solution.
The S.C. House voted 106-6 last month to eventually transfer more than $80 million yearly from the general fund to the Department of Transportation. The plan would be phased in over two years.
While the state will need all the money it can get from a variety of sources to fix our roads, there are better sources. Foremost among them would be an increase in the gasoline tax with proceeds dedicated to road repairs.
The DOT has estimated that fixing the states highway system will require nearly $30 billion over the next two decades. That comes to approximately $1.5 billion a year just to keep pace with repairs and ongoing construction.
The proposed $80 million a year from the vehicle sales tax would be a relative drop in the bucket. And it is not a new source of revenue; this plan merely shuffles money in the general fund from one need to another.
Money from the vehicle tax currently helps pay for law enforcement health care and public education. About $20 million goes to the Education Improvement Act, one of the major funding mechanisms for public education. There is justifiable concern that the education money would not be replaced if it is shifted to pay for road projects.
Furthermore, the vehicle sales tax is one of the most regressive in the state. Because it is capped at $300, the buyer of a new Rolls Royce pays the same tax as the buyer of a beat-up used car.
That also applies to sales of trucks, boats, planes and other vehicles. No one pays more than $300 in sales tax.
This may be the most blatant example of the need for comprehensive tax reform. Unfortunately, it is only one example among many.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have not come close to coming up with the $1.5 billion needed each year to keep pace with road repairs. And the tax-averse Legislature doesnt seem inclined to raise the gas tax.
Thats too bad. While South Carolina has the fourth-largest road system in the nation, it also has the fourth-lowest gas tax which hasnt been raised since 1987.
The gas tax is the closest thing to a user tax for motorists. And out-of-state motorists who fill up their cars in South Carolina would add to those revenues.
While drivers might be reluctant to pay more at the pump, a 10-cent increase in the gas tax would amount to less than $2 more per fill-up for most vehicles. And drivers should consider both the danger and the cost of wear and tear on their vehicles that result from driving on bad roads.
Again, were gratified that lawmakers finally are addressing the problem of needed road and bridge repairs. We just hope they take the sensible route to meeting that challenge.