For most South Carolinians, finding the money to improve the state’s crumbling roads was at or near the top of their priority list for the Legislature. This week, it appears lawmakers finally got the message.
The S.C. House voted 99 to 20 Tuesday to approve a compromise roads plan worked out last week by a panel of state representatives and senators. The plan already had been approved in the Senate the day before by a margin of 32-12.
The bill now goes to Gov. Henry McMaster, who has threatened to veto it on the spot. But the lopsided vote in both houses of the Legislature ensures that lawmakers can override the veto.
This is a momentous achievement for lawmakers in both chambers who appeared unlikely at many junctures to come to terms on a plan to pay for road repairs. Although the House voted early in the session on its own plan to increase in the state’s gas tax and raise other fees, the Senate balked at a higher gas tax without offsetting tax cuts somewhere else.
In the end, though, common sense and, no doubt, intense political pressure, resulted in the compromise bill that is expected to raise roughly $630 million a year to repair roads and bridges when fully phased in. The bill also will raise the 5 percent cap on the car sales tax from $300 to $500, and will create a one-time $250 fee when a new S.C. resident registers a vehicle in the state.
To ease the burden of phasing in a 12-cent increase in the gas tax, the bill also creates tax rebates for drivers, tuition tax credits and other tax cuts. And, in a nod to lawmakers calling for reform of the S.C. Department of Transportation, the bill gives the governor, who would appoint all members of the commission that oversees the agency, the authority to remove any commissioner for any reason.
We would like to say this was an example of good government and a smooth-running Legislature. And, in the end, it did illustrate what is possible when lawmakers in both houses are willing to work across party lines to achieve a necessary goal.
But state roads have been in deplorable condition for years, and state lawmakers have been incapable until now of developing a plan to raise more than a fraction of what is necessary to repair roads and pay for ongoing maintenance. In many cases, lawmakers were unwilling to consider raising the gas tax simply because it is a tax increase and they are fundamentally opposed to raising taxes, ever.
That said, House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, has been a key voice of reason in this debate. He helped steer the successful passage of a road bill in the House last year only to see the effort falter in the Senate.
He sponsored the House road bill again this year and served on the panel of House and Senate members who came up with the compromise bill that passed this week.
We also are gratified that lawmakers chose to raise most of the money for road repairs by raising the state’s gas tax, the second-lowest in the nation and one that hasn’t been raised in 19 years. As proponents have said all along, the gas tax is a user fee that is paid not only by South Carolina residents but also by out-of-state drivers who use our roads, and raising the tax is the fairest and most sensible way to address this vital need.
A roads bill was not the only priority for lawmakers this session, but it was a big one. We’re glad the Legislature finally took action.