A small hope remains for state roads plan

South Carolina’s Legislature surely must rank among the most dysfunctional in the nation. Lawmakers will go home today after accomplishing only a fraction of the high-priority goals they set for themselves in January.

However, a slight chance remains that they might still address what many South Carolinians perceive as the top priority: roads.

Lawmakers leave Columbia today after failing to address such vital issues as ethics reform, a bond bill for higher education and a plan to provide decent education for all children in South Carolina as mandated by the state Supreme Court. The Legislature even failed to tend to one of its most fundamental duties, producing a state budget for the fiscal year beginning next month.

But with a last-minute legislative maneuver in the House, lawmakers will have one more chance to produce a jobs bill this year. On Wednesday, on a vote of 84-9, the House added the House-passed roads plan to a resolution that brings lawmakers back to Columbia in July to handle several final tasks, such as trying to pass a budget agreement and dealing with Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget vetoes.

The amendment was introduced by Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, with Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, and Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, standing with him to show bipartisan support. Simrill said the purpose of the amendment was to “hopefully force the Senate’s hand to deal with infrastructure.”

Simrill headed a House road panel that began meeting before the session began. He was one of the chief architects of the House plan, which, with support of Democrats, passed by a veto-proof majority.

That plan would add roughly $427 million a year in state spending for road and bridge repairs. The plan features a 10-cent increase in the state gas tax and an increase in the cap on the sales tax for vehicle sales from $300 to $500.

The plan also includes a slight income tax cut, averaging $48 a year. That might have been added largely to satisfy Haley, who promised to veto any bill that didn’t balance an increase in the gas tax with a larger tax cut somewhere else.

Haley finally unveiled her own roads plan during her State of the State address after refusing to address the issue at all during the governor’s race. She surprised lawmakers by agreeing to accept a 10-cent gas tax increase over three years. But in return, she demanded that lawmakers cut the state’s top income tax bracket to 5 percent over 10 years and reform the state Department of Transportation, giving the governor control of the agency.

While her proposed increase in the gas tax would have produced about $3 billion in new revenues, the income tax cut would have depleted revenues by $5.6 billion. Low-income residents who pay no income taxes would receive no benefit from Haley’s plan but would have to pay the higher gas taxes.

Haley’s plan went nowhere, but the pressure to pair any increase in the gas tax with a massive income tax cut had a significant effect on the debate in the Senate.

One plan, which emerged from the Senate Finance Committee, proposed a 12-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax but no offsetting tax relief or reform of the DOT. But while that plan had bipartisan support, most Republican senators favored a plan resembling Haley’s with tax relief and DOT reforms, which produced a stalemate.

Ultimately, the differences didn’t matter. For three weeks, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who opposed any tax increases, mounted a filibuster demanding that instead of raising taxes, senators agree to spend more of the state’s existing revenues on roads.

That essentially blocked any bill from coming up for debate on the Senate floor.

House members no doubt are motivated by a sincere desire to do something about roads. But Simrill’s amendment also serves to affix blame where it belongs, in the Senate.

We hope the amendment will resurrect the debate on the roads plan. Unfortunately, that could be a long shot, as the Senate remains fractured on the tax issue.

But perhaps shame and a sense of responsibility to the residents of this state that was lacking during the regular session will motivate senators to try again. Whatever happens, Simrill and fellow House members who supported this last-chance effort deserve credit for their perseversnce.

In summary

State lawmakers will have another chance to pass a roads plan when they return to Columbia next month to deal with leftover business.