Rock Hill’s Simrill set to lead SC House Republicans

The S.C. House's most outspoken advocate of a higher gas tax to fix the state's crumbling roads, state Rep. Gary Simrill (R-Rock Hill), will have a higher role in the S.C. House next session -- House majority leader.
The S.C. House's most outspoken advocate of a higher gas tax to fix the state's crumbling roads, state Rep. Gary Simrill (R-Rock Hill), will have a higher role in the S.C. House next session -- House majority leader. tdominick@thestate.com

S.C. Rep. Gary Simrill did not tell his own mother or wife that he is poised to be elected majority leader of the S.C. House Tuesday.

Simrill’s wife overheard him talking on the phone about it. His mother found out from Simrill’s State House deskmate, State Rep. Tommy Pope.

“He keeps doing good stuff, and I’ll keep telling his mom,” said Pope, a fellow York County Republican.

The “good stuff” that Simrill has done includes championing spending to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, and building consensus among fellow representatives.

Simrill, 50, who has been in the House for 25 years, will be elected majority leader Tuesday, when lawmakers return to the State House to adopt House and Senate rules for the upcoming session, which starts in January, and get their committee assignments.

That new role means Simrill will be the spokesman for House Republicans; will set the agenda of the majority party, which holds 80 of 124 seats; and will decide Republican Caucus spending in legislative races.

Winning ‘as a proven loser’

Simrill was in awe of the State House after an eighth-grade field trip to Columbia for a social studies class.

He said he was inspired by the history of the building, and how that history is “intertwined with the present time of doing the people’s business.”

At 13, Simrill said he knew he would one day become a member of the House of Representatives. And, after graduating from college in 1991, Simrill ran his first campaign.

Then-state Sen. John Hayes became a Circuit Court judge and was succeeded by then-state Rep. Wes Hayes, who vacated his House seat.

Simrill faced Democratic attorney Alton Hyatt in a special election held in January 1992, losing by 117 votes.

But Simrill ran again against Hyatt a few months later, entering the general election “as a proven loser,” he said, but winning by more than 500 votes.

Simrill has won re-election ever since, facing challengers in five elections and running unopposed in seven.

Car salesman, gas tax advocate

As a teenager, Simrill delivered newspapers, including The Greenville News, leaving Rock Hill at 4 a.m. in his diesel Volkswagon Rabbit to pick up stacks of newspapers in Gaffney.

He then went to Winthrop University part time while working full time at a moving company. He received a business degree in seven years and graduated without student loan debt.

Now, Simrill owns a car dealership that sells high-end used cars.

“I always joke that I married not only a used car salesman but also a politician,” said Simrill’s wife, Mary Ruth. “The reputation of those two is not something that you brag about.”

But her husband’s integrity shines in both roles, she said.

For example, Simrill sponsored a proposal to increase the state’s gas tax to pay for road repairs and increase its $300 tax cap on vehicle sales.

“He was shooting himself in the foot at the car dealer,” Mary Ruth Simrill said of the proposal. “He was standing for what was right … it wasn’t selfishly motivated. It was what was best for our state.”

Simrill sponsored the road-repair plan after heading a special panel tasked with addressing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

He entered the committee hearings opposed to raising taxes but, after hours of testimony, decided increasing the gas tax had to be part of the road-repair solution.

The challenge then became getting his conservative, anti-tax colleagues on board.

The gas-tax increase passed the House, despite opposition from Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, by 87-20 vote.

“The results there speak for themselves” said S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “It just shows that any issue he has dealt with over the years, he not only understands but he masters.”

The gas tax, ultimately, died in the S.C. Senate but is expected to be revived again this year.

Part of Simrill’s success in building consensus is that he can disagree without being disagreeable, Lucas said.

And he is credible, Pope said. “You don’t feel like when he’s speaking, you’re being sold a bill of goods.”

‘A very nice hairdo’

Humor, wit and inside jokes are a part of Simrill’s personality, including being light-hearted about his curly, thick, jet-black hair.

“Gary’s got such a sharp mind, and a quick-wit and a self-deprecating humor, which is a good thing to have in politics,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter.

Simrill also has “a very nice hairdo,” Smith jokingly added

A local political blogger referred to Simrill as “Poof in the Roof.” Another reporter once tweeted Simrill’s hair “is luxurious.”

After recently leading a House panel, Simrill asked whether there were any questions.

There was silence and, then, Smith raised his hand and asked Simrill: “Is that hair real?”

Simrill retorted: “At least I have hair,” recalled Smith, adding his is “receding.”

GOP Caucus spokesman

After a quarter-century in the House, Simrill will move into a major House role for the first time.

“I never yearned for a leadership position,” Simrill said, adding he enjoys constituent service most.

Now, however, Simrill will be the spokesman for nearly two-thirds of House members.

It’s a role Simrill is cut out for because he gives “invaluable” advice to representatives and can defend his positions, Lucas said.

“We ought to be able to stand up and defend what we do, and Gary gives us a perfect individual to do that.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Gary Simrill

Incoming S.C. House majority leader

Age: 50

Hometown: Rock Hill

Family: Married to Mary Ruth Simrill, three children

Business: Owner of Carolina Motorworks

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Winthrop University

Lawmakers return Tuesday

S.C. lawmakers return to Columbia for an organizational session Tuesday as they prepare for the January start of the legislative session, where they will face several hot issues:

Pension reform

A panel of state representatives has been reviewing how to address the state’s roughly $20 billion in pension debt.

That estimate is the difference between the amount the pension fund has to pay for the retirement benefits of state and local government workers, including teachers, and the amount it has promised to pay in the future to current employees and retirees.

To close that gap, lawmakers are looking at putting more taxpayer money into the pension system or taking more money out of the paychecks of current workers.

Lawmakers also could close the pension plan to new employees, requiring them to take part in a defined contribution plan, like a 401(k). In the short term, that would increase the pension system’s unfunded liability because new workers would not be paying into the system. But, in the long term, it would reduce the state’s pension costs.

Road repairs

South Carolina’s roads continue to crumble.

In part, that is because lawmakers have not increased the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax, the second-lowest in the nation, in nearly 30 years. That money is one of the state’s primary funding sources for repairs.

Last spring, lawmakers approved a bonding plan to pay for some road repairs, promising to return in 2017 and come up with a long-term solution.

School funding

Last spring, lawmakers approved spending $430 million more in general fund dollars on education than nine years ago, before the Great Recession. But the state is spending only slightly more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than before the recession and is educating 6 percent more students.

In recent years, Gov. Nikki Haley Haley has pushed lawmakers to spend more on education – on reading coaches, technology and students in poverty. But last spring, legislators failed to pass Haley’s proposal to spend state money to help poor districts build and renovate schools. Lawmakers could revive that spending plan in 2017 as part of an effort to address the S.C. Supreme Court’s ruling that the state has not done enough for poor schools.

Fewer added new dollars

S.C. lawmakers will have an added $446 million to spend in the budget year that starts July 1, bringing the state’s general fund budget to $7.9 billion, the Board of Economic Advisors has forecast.

That total includes $139 million reserved for one-time costs – including building projects – if the state closes its books with a surplus.

Lawmakers will decide whether the added money should go to shore up the state’s underfunded pension system, address crumbling roads and rural schools, or pay for Hurricane Matthew recovery costs.

Looming investigation

Special prosecutor David Pascoe has not made any new indictments in his State House corruption probe. The probe stems from an investigation into former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to spending campaign money on private uses. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson tried to fire Pascoe and give the investigation to another state solicitor. However, in July, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wilson – who removed himself from the case because of an unspecified conflict of interest – could not fire Pascoe.