Senator’s plan would provide money to repair S.C. roads

tcsmith@greenvillenews.comDecember 24, 2013 

Six months after state lawmakers approved money to leverage more than $600 million for road and bridge repairs, a senator said he will introduce amendments to a pending bill that could amount to $900 million more for the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

State Sen. Ray Cleary, a Georgetown County Republican who championed road funding earlier this year, has prepared 17 amendments to a House bill on the Senate calendar that include raising fees and fee-like taxes such as the state’s sales tax on cars, increases in driver’s license fees and vehicle registration and indexing the state’s gas tax for inflation.

It doesn’t include any bonding proposal, which he said “doesn’t solve the problem,” and doesn’t contain, he believes, any tax increase, which might allow Gov. Nikki Haley to sign the bill or at least not oppose it.

Bill Ross, executive director of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, supports any attempt to put more money into the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges. But he said he isn’t so sure that an ambitious plan like Cleary’s will pass as proposed.

“I know he’s probably putting more in that kitchen sink than is realistically going to pass, particularly in an election year for the House,” Ross said. “It will be interesting how all that happens.”

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, a Greenville Republican, said he hasn’t seen Cleary’s amendments but believes the House will consider whatever the Senate sends over.

“If the Senate passes a plan that makes sense and funds infrastructure in South Carolina in a reasonable way,” Bannister said, “then the House, I would anticipate, would consider it and potentially deal with those ideas next year.”

State Sen. Nikki Setzler, leader of Senate Democrats, said he believes Cleary’s amendments will get a hearing in the Senate.

“The infrastructure needs of this state are tremendous, and the public supports addressing the infrastructure needs of this state,” he said. “We just take the amendments one by one and see what they do, who they impact and how much it makes available to spend and that sort of thing.”

A state Department of Transportation task force last year estimated that the state would need to spend $29 billion over 20 years to bring the infrastructure up to acceptable standards.

Cleary attempted to get a proposal passed earlier this year that would have spent more than $1 billion on the state’s roads and bridges, much of it through the sale of bonds.

Lawmakers didn’t take up the bill and instead crafted a plan that appropriated $50 million to be used by the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank to leverage $500 million for interstate projects.

The bill also used $50 million from surplus money and most of the state’s sales tax on vehicles to pay for bridge work and improvements to secondary roads ineligible for federal aid.

Haley said several weeks ago that she is willing to look at additional road funding for next year but doesn’t think the time is right yet for an increase in the state’s gas tax, one of the lowest in the country, last raised in 1987.

Cleary said he thinks 2014 is the “perfect year” to debate more road funding.

For one thing, he said, the vehicle for funding is a House bill, meaning that if the Senate passes it, it will go back to the House for an up or down vote.

“At the end of the day, I think most of the legislators are going to realize that sooner or later they have to fix the problem,” Cleary said. “It’s not going away. It will get worse.”

In fact, Cleary wants to record the names of the lawmakers who oppose the bill if it doesn’t pass, in the event “a family goes over a bridge and dies, they have to be answered to.”

The amendments, he said, will give the Department of Transportation money to fix the state’s bridges, do routine maintenance and pave. Capacity, he said, is another issue for another year.

The amendments, Cleary said, would:

• Raise the driver’s license fee of $25 for 10 years to $35.

• Increase the registration license plate decal cost to $18 per year from $12. Cleary said the cost at one time was $16.

• Index the gas tax for inflation, a move that would amount to an increase of three or four cents per gallon in five years.

• Raise the sales tax per vehicle, currently at $300. In the 1980s, Cleary said, the Legislature addressed complaints from automobile dealers and lowered the tax after it was pointed out that North Carolina and Georgia had sales taxes of $300 per vehicle. Both states have since changed their sales taxes, he said.

The amendments would raise between $900 million and $980 million, he said. It isn’t the $1.8 billion the state needs each year, he said, “but at least we’re making an effort.”

Cleary expects an amendment to increase the gas tax, but he didn’t include it among his amendments because of Haley’s opposition.

Any of the amendments could draw opposition, Ross, of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, said. Democrats complained earlier this year about the idea of fee increases, he said, and some preferred voting on a gas tax increase.

“All of our fees are really low,” he said. “It’s something that should go to highways.”

Individually, the amendments won’t generate enough revenue to solve the problem, Ross said. He’s also concerned with what would happen in the House.

“But if you combine a lot of these things and they were able to get an increase in the sales tax, that would be helpful,” he said. “I suspect that we’re going to have a major battle in the Senate getting (the bill) even up for debate. It’s all about timing.”

Bannister doesn’t believe the fact that it is an election year will prevent the House from taking such a bill up for a vote.

“We generally don’t put things off if we can come up with a good plan that everybody agrees to,” he said. “Certainly elections play a part in how things work. And having the Senate not up for election may give them the motivation to do something now.

“But if it’s a reasonable solution to the infrastructure funding problem we have, I think the House would consider it this session.”

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