Dumping the problem of fixing South Carolina’s state roads on the counties is an evasion of responsibility.
Unfortunately, that’s about all a newly appointed special S.C. House committee, headed by Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, could come up with as an answer to pay for repairs and upkeep of thousands of miles of deteriorating state roads. The centerpiece of the plan was a proposal to give roughly half of the state-owned roads to counties, and let them figure out how to fix them.
The negative response of county leaders across the state was predictable. While the House panel said it would give counties a bigger share of gasoline tax revenues to do the road work, counties have been burned in the past by such agreements when the state failed to follow through with promised funding.
Simrill is right that many of the roads that need work shouldn’t have been state roads in the first place. He notes that the state acquired a large number of short, low-traffic roads before 1975, when senators controlled their county’s budgets, and paving constituents’ roads helped senators gain favor with voters.
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Now the state has a highway system of 41,400 miles, the nation’s fourth largest, and no way to maintain it.
Nonetheless, counties can’t be expected to assume the burden for mistakes made 40 years ago, especially since the state has severely restricted counties’ authority to raise local property taxes for road repairs. And even if state lawmakers pledged to provide counties with more money to pay for road repairs, where would the money come from?
The options presented by the House panel seem both puny and unfair to lower-income taxpayers. For one thing, Simrill completely dismisses the idea of raising the state’s gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1987 and, at 16 cents per gallon, is among the lowest in the nation.
Simrill says that proceeds from the gasoline tax will diminish as the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks increases. But that’s a dodge; the real reason is lawmakers’ aversion to raising taxes of any kind.
The panel does offer a tradeoff of sorts. It could eliminate the gas tax altogether and replace it with a penny sales tax dedicated to road work. According to financial advisers, that would raise an additional $643 million a year.
But the sales tax is the most regressive tax levied, taking a much larger percentage of the disposable income of poor and middle-class families than of the wealthy. And the state already relies too heavily on the sales tax, having eliminated most of the residential property taxes levied for public education and replaced them with a penny sales tax.
Yes, gasoline tax revenues will be affected by greater vehicle efficiency, but so what? They represent a true user tax, paid by those who add wear and tear to state roads, and they will continue to provide significant revenues for decades to come.
Another option would be to eliminate the cap on the sales tax for motor vehicles. Currently, the maximum tax for sale or lease of cars, trucks, boats and motorcycles is $300, whether it’s a rusty jalopy or a Mercedes. If the cap were removed and buyers were charged a set percentage of the cost, revenues would increase substantially.
And Simrill, himself, has mentioned the possibility of issuing bonds to pay for road work.
Even if all ideas came to pass, roads would not be fixed overnight. Maintenance is so far behind that catching up could take decades.
But the state has to start somewhere. And simply shuffling taxes – or trying to shift the burden to the counties – doesn’t amount to a real plan.