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April 27, 2017 8:50 AM, EDT

South Carolina Senate Passes First Gas-Tax Increase in 30 Years

Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

The S.C. Senate passed a 12-cents-a-gallon hike in its gas tax the night of April 26 by a vote of 34-10, a veto-proof majority.

The Senate was scheduled to give the proposal a perfunctory final vote April 27, sending the proposal back to the S.C. House.

“Addressing our roads and bridges has been our top priority all year,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, (R-Edgefield.) “The bill is far from perfect but I’m pleased the Senate acted to provide long-term funding, provided reforms to the Department of Transportation to ensure more accountability and provided rebates to protect South Carolina’s taxpayers.”

The Senate passed the plan after sitting down state Sen. Tom Davis, (R-Beaufort), who had filibustered a gas-tax increase the last two years. Davis, who opposes increasing the gas tax has advocated for the Transportation Department to be a cabinet agency.

The compromise includes tax cuts and rebates and changes the structure of the Department of Transportation commission.

“It’s a viable plan for addressing our state’s long-term infrastructure needs,” said Sen. Thomas McElveen, (D-Sumter).

The hike — if it becomes law — would be the first increase in the state’s gas tax in 30 years.

The Senate adopted a compromise amendment shortly after 9 p.m. that offsets the gas-tax increase with tax cuts and rebates and changes the structure of the Department of Transportation commission. The Senate adopted that compromise in a veto-proof vote of 36-8.

Then Sen. Tom Davis, (R-Beaufort), took the podium and began speaking on the proposal. Davis filibustered the gas-tax increase the past two years, advocating for the Transportation Department to be a Cabinet agency.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, (R-Florence), had said earlier April 26 he planned for the Senate to pass the gas-tax proposal that day.

The House already has approved a 10-cents-a-gallon hike in the gas tax. South Carolina’s gas tax is currently 16.75 cents a gallon, the second lowest in the nation.

However, Gov. Henry McMaster (R-Richland) has said he will veto the gas-tax hike, saying lawmakers instead should borrow up to $1 billion for road repairs. It would take two-thirds of the S.C. House and Senate to override the governor’s veto.

The Senate’s plan would raise some driving fees and enact others, eventually raising $800 million a year to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

The S.C. Department of Transportation has estimated it needs an added $1 billion a year to repair the state’s roads to good condition.

The proposal, when passed, will go back to the House, which passed a plan to raise roughly $500 million a year by a 97-18 vote.

The House doubled down on its version of the road-repair bill April 26 by amending the state budget to include its proposal.

The Senate plan has tax credits and rebates that senators added earlier in the week. Those tax breaks include credits for paying the higher gas tax, college tuition and business property taxes.

The tax breaks were added to pacify some Senate Republicans who insisted any gas-tax hike be accompanied by tax cuts. Senators said April 26 they do not expect those tax breaks to survive in the House.

The Senate’s tax credits could cost the state $655 million, according to initial estimates. Those cuts would be paid for with a combination of gas-tax money, state budget money and state savings.

However, the gas-tax rebates would require drivers to save gas receipts. As a result, few South Carolinians would try to collect the credit, senators predicted April 26.

“The fact of the matter is we know it’s a hoax,” Sen. Darrell Jackson, (D-Richland), said of the tax rebates and cuts in the Senate plan.

In addition, changes to the Department of Transportation were approved by the Senate, another demand by some Senate Republicans.

Senators added changes to the structure of the Department of Transportation Commission late April 26.

The plan would give the governor the ability to more easily remove commissioners, so they would serve at-will of the governor, said Sen. Larry Grooms, (R-Berkeley).

The proposal would also add a ninth at-large member to the Transportation Department commission.