Opinion

State roads plan still doesn’t add up

Imagine you have one bank account you use for paying the rent and the power bill and buying groceries and other routine expenses, and you have another account for repairs to your house. As money got tighter in recent years, you cut back the amount you put in the repairs account and started letting your upkeep go, and you also cut back your living expenses. Then the roof got so bad that you had to do something.

Your solution: Reduce the money you put into the living-expenses account every month by 10 percent, and put that in the repairs account.

That certainly will help you pay for the roof repairs and other maintenance, but it could mean you can’t pay the power bill, or your kids have to skip a few meals every month.

The Senate Republican Caucus’s plan to tackle our long-ignored road problems is more convoluted than that – it raises the gas tax and the sales tax cap on vehicles and other taxes by a little less than $700 million a year while also cutting the state income tax by a little more than $700 million a year.

But in effect, it is taking money from one account – the account that’s supposed to go to the public schools and universities, to SLED and the Highway Patrol and the courts and the prisons, to child-protective services and mental health programs – and putting it into the account to pay for the overdue road improvements.

That is, Senate Republicans propose to fix our roads by not doing something that we’re currently doing – and leaving it to future legislatures to figure out what that something else is that won’t get done.

I understand why House Speaker Jay Lucas rushed out a news release last week praising Senate Republicans for their plan. It’s the same reason he kept saying nice things about Gov. Nikki Haley’s absurd plan to raise taxes for roads by $400 million while slashing income taxes by $1.4 billion: If you’ve made repairing our crumbling roads and bridges your signature issue, then you’re going to encourage anything that revives a conversation that had been left for dead.

And if the Senate Republican plan is merely an attempt to create a bookend to counter the House’s plan and begin a negotiating process (because, let’s face it, the governor’s my-way-or-no-highway proposal is so over-the-top that it can’t even be considered in a negotiation), then it should indeed be applauded.

But while it’s good that the Republicans who had refused a week earlier even to put a roads bill in a position to eventually be debated have now decided they want to engage the issue, let’s not fool ourselves about what they have proposed: It’s a shell game.

As one House leader asked me rhetorically a while back: Why would you go to all the trouble of passing a gas tax to pay for roads if you could just take the money out of the general fund and be done with it?

Why, indeed?

Perhaps because lawmakers know that wouldn’t fly. Oh, it’ll get off the ground. They’ve already diverted $50 million a year in sales tax revenue to fund roads, and everyone seems to be on board with diverting an additional $69 million a year.

But $700 million on top of that is steep enough that no one can credibly pretend it won’t affect the state’s ability to provide the services it is currently providing. No one can pretend it won’t affect the state’s ability to do the things it needs to be doing but isn’t — like making sure that children in even the poorest school districts have a shot at a decent education.

Now, to be clear, there are very good reasons to cut some taxes while increasing others — if you cut the right taxes and increase the right taxes. Of course, raising the gas tax and raising the sales tax cap on vehicles a little bit while lowering the income tax wouldn’t be a reasonable pairing, because it would further shift the tax burden onto the poor and working class, who already pay a much larger portion of their income in state taxes than do wealthier people. But the concept of swapping one tax for another makes sense. That’s what actual tax reform is all about, and it’s something our state desperately needs. It’s been on my top three to-do list for more years than I can recall.

But figuring out the best mix of taxes to meet our needs is an entirely different issue than repairing our roads and bridges.

There is no policy reason that a tax cut should be part of a package to improve our roads. The governor demanded that a tax cut be part of a roads plan — actually, what she did was offer to include a roads plan as part of a tax-cut package — because her interest is in cutting taxes, not in fixing our roads. The House passed a plan to cut taxes by $49 million while raising them by $428 million so tax-averse House members could say they cut taxes. And Senate Republicans … well I suppose their motivation is similar, but trumped.

The problem with the governor’s plan and the Senate Republicans’ plan — and, actually, the House plan, though much less so — is not just that that they take money out of the general fund (like moving the money from the household account to the repairs account), but they do it in the future, without telling us what we’re going to have to give up. And that’s no way to govern.

Maybe we can afford to steal all of that money from current programs, but if lawmakers want to raid the general fund or cut taxes, then they need to tell us what current services they will stop providing. And they need to give us a real answer.

A real answer is not, “We’ll pay for those tax cuts with ‘revenue growth,’” because unless revenue growth exceeds growth in population and inflation, you have to use that growing revenue just to maintain the current level of services. And a real answer is not “We’ll save money through ‘efficiency,’” because efficiency is a meaningless word until you show us where that’s lacking, and how specifically you are going to create it.

It’s been my experience that when people won’t explain how they’re going to pay for something, it’s because they don’t know how. And that’s not a plan. That’s a cop-out.

Cindi Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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