South Carolina

S.C. Senate committee debates roads bill

A Senate committee replaced a bill to get more money for South Carolina roads with its own version Tuesday, but not before a surprising and testy debate that could foreshadow the floor fight to come.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman planned a short meeting to swap out the bills. But instead, the session turned into nearly 90 minutes of debate about income tax cuts and reforming agencies that spend road money, with threats to vote against a highway bill from both Democrats and Republicans.

Finding money for roads is only one of the issues on a crowded Senate calendar where debates on an abortion bill and an environmental bill have priority status with only five weeks left in the session. One of those weeks will be taken up by the budget.

Leatherman acknowledged roads will likely need days of debate. But he said there is still time to pass a bill this session. “Our folks are all saying, ‘Fix our roads,’ ” said Leatherman, R-Florence.

There are big differences between the Senate and House versions. The Senate bill would seek to raise $800 million by increasing the gasoline tax by 12 cents over three years, increasing fees on driver’s licenses and vehicle registration and charging a flat fee of $60 every two years on drivers of hybrid vehicles.

The House bill raises around $400 million by lowering the gas tax, but then raising a sales tax on fuel that could generate more money as gas prices rise. It also changes the structure of the boards that run the Department of Transportation and the State Infrastructure Bank, which approves borrowing for large highway projects. The House version also would cut income taxes by $51 million.

The Senate plan currently has no restructuring or income tax cut. And several Republican senators weren’t happy.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, introduced an amendment that would cut income taxes by 2 percentage points over 10 years. It’s the same plan Gov. Nikki Haley supported in her State of the State address, but it never came up for a vote in the House.

Pointing out the governor won re-election by about 15 percentage points, Davis said to fail to bring up Haley’s proposal before a committee controlled by fellow Republicans “sort of flies in the face of what the voters said in the last general election.”

But Sen. Darrell Jackson pointed out while Haley promised to fix roads and cut taxes, she didn’t give any details until after she was inaugurated for her second term in January.

“Then she revealed her roads plan … which did not even seem to have the support of House members,” said Jackson, D-Hopkins. “She may have won by a considerable margin, but her plan has not proven to be very popular.”

Davis’ amendment was tabled, along with other proposals to reform the DOT board by giving the governor power to appoint the members. Those two ideas will likely be debated again when the road funding bill makes it to the Senate floor along with proposals to transfer some state roads to the counties and pay them for it.

The governor has promised to veto any roads bill that raises gas or similar taxes without reforming DOT or providing significant income tax relief. The House also wants those three things in a bill that likely won’t pass without a compromise in a conference committee.

“What my people are telling me, and I’m sure yours are too, is we need to fix the roads,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill. “We need to pass a bill. And to pass a bill, it is going to need those other features.”

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