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January 26, 2017 9:50 AM, EST

Proponents Believe S.C. Might Finally Address Transportation Funding Crisis

Jimmy Emerson, DVM/Flickr

Transportation bills introduced in both houses of the South Carolina Statehouse aim to address the state’s $1.2 billion infrastructure funding shortfall and succeed where a  House-approved $4 billion transportation funding measure failed to pass in the Senate last year.

“I wish I wasn’t introducing a bill because that would’ve meant we had addressed this issue last year or the year before last,” state Sen. Sean Bennett told Transport Topics. “When the funding component of the bill fell apart last year, it was pretty clear that I was going to get involved in reintroducing a bill this year.” A bill that Bennett introduced would raise the state’s diesel and gasoline taxes over the next three years to 28.75 cents per gallon for each fuel from 16.75 cents per gallon each, which hasn’t changed since 1987 .

On the House side, Rep. Gary Simrill’s bill would increase those taxes to 26.75 cents per gallon by 2022. Simrill’s bill would raise vehicle registration fees to $500 from $300 while Bennett’s bill would increase those fees to $600.

“There’s some real validity to the approach that Rep. Simrill took, spreading it over five years," Bennett said. "There’s some real concerns that pumping a bunch of money into the DOT early on [means it] won’t be able to be spent appropriately. It’s going to be a matter of pushing and pulling levers on either side to get everybody comfortable.”

However, Bennett’s bill includes a major tax reform component worth about $450 million that’s absent from Simrill’s bill.

“There are many members of the Senate who are just not comfortable with a straight-up tax increase,” Bennett said. “I may not necessarily agree with them wholeheartedly, but I certainly understand. You have to create a bill that’s acceptable to enough members to get it passed. This is an opportunity to fix some of those inequities in our broken tax system while improving the funding for our roads. I believe that once the House sees our proposal and has a full debate, it will see that our bill makes a lot of sense.”

Bennett said his bill ultimately would deliver about $700 million annually to South Carolina’s Department of Transportation, which is in “a state of crisis,” Secretary Christy Hall said at a meeting of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads. The South Carolina Trucking Association is part of that alliance, which believes that it’s long past time to address the state’s transportation network.

“Every day that goes by that our elected officials are not taking action, it is costing you money and putting your lives at risk,” the alliance says on its website.

SCTA President Rick Todd expects the House to easily approve Simrill’s bill and believes that the Senate — thanks to a change in that chamber’s rules — will not be waylaid by filibusters that stalled the process during the past two years.

The great unknown is Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, who became governor when Nikki Haley was confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations by the U.S. Senate on Jan. 24.

“We’re just hoping that he’s going to let the Legislature duke it out, figure out what they think the state needs and the taxpayers can handle, and react to that before he puts down a marker and threatens a veto,” Todd told TT, acknowledging the possibility that McMaster might not want to sign a tax increase if  he runs for a full term in 2018.

“Like most South Carolinians, I believe [Gov.] McMaster recognizes that we need to solve the problem," Bennett said. "My experience with him is that he has been open to ideas that solve problems. You can make a point or make a difference. We’re talking about making a difference, and I think he would be supportive of those efforts.”

In any case, Bennett is confident that 2017 is the year that South Carolina finally will provide major funding for transportation.

“Maybe I’m naïve, but I think we get something done this year,” he said. “The big, controversial issues take a few years to get through the General Assembly, and the public is clearly telling us they want a solution and they’re tired of the games.”