SC Senate passes $500 million road-repair deal

abeam@thestate.comMay 23, 2013 

— A deal to spend up to $500 million to repair S.C. roads and bridges was approved Thursday by the state Senate.

The deal was made when the Senate voted to spend $50 million a year to repair state roads and bridges. The money would go to the State Infrastructure Bank, which would use it to borrow up to $500 million.

But that controversial bank could not use the money for any projects it approves prior to July 1 – a concession to the growing number of lawmakers unhappy with the infrastructure bank’s decisions, which, some say, too often favor the Lowcountry. Instead, the state Department of Transportation would give the bank a list of suggested road and bridge projects to choose from.

“What’s significant about this amendment is that it’s recurring revenue,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley. “Which means we could send this money to the (Department of Transportation) and then they could leverage it through the Infrastructure Bank and have a very significant impact on the roads and bridges in our state.”

The vote – a voice vote that appeared to be unanimous – also could secure the votes needed to pass the Senate’s version of the $22.7 billion budget for the state’s fiscal year that begins July 1.

The amendment was a compromise among the Senate’s three factions: minority-party Democrats, moderate Republicans and ultra-conservative Republicans.

“It certainly moved along the budget,” Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said of the road deal. “It is a step in the right direction.”

State transportation officials estimate South Carolina will have $48.3 billion in road repair needs over the next 20 years, but only will have $19 billion to pay for those repairs – leaving a $29 billion deficit.

How to make a dent in that deficit has been a big driver in legislative budget negotiations this year.

In her executive budget, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley proposed spending up to $100 million in one-time money to start repairing 1,000 of the state’s 8,388 “structurally deficient” bridges. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill that would take 80 percent of the sales tax on cars and spend it on road and bridge repair.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group of five senators proposed borrowing up to $1.3 billion for road and bridge construction. But that bill also proposed gradually increasing the state’s gas tax – the motor vehicle user fee – to 20 cents a gallon by 2020, now 16 cents.

But Haley and other Republican leaders vowed to kill the bill if it contained a tax increase.

“The big battle this year in this budget was infrastructure funding,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney. “This is a great first step in a long journey of fixing our infrastructure needs in South Carolina.”

It is unclear if the Senate’s proposal will become part of the state’s budget.

House leaders, including Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, have said they would prefer not to borrow money to repair the state’s roads.

But Setzler and other Democrats have said any road fix should include borrowing money to take advantage of the record-low interest rates.

Setzler said Thursday he was not giving up on the $1.3 billion road proposal, adding that if it does not pass by June 6 – when lawmakers adjourn for the year – lawmakers can continue to work on it in January during the second year of the two-year legislative session.

“Because of time and where we are on the calendar, it could be difficult (to pass the bill this year),” Setzler said. “But we have absolutely no intention of backing off ... that legislation and a total fix or a total addressing of the needs in this state.”

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