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Legislature: Rise in gas tax for road projects faces a bumpy ride

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

South Carolina drivers should expect an increase in the state’s gasoline tax this year, two members of the Georgetown County Legislative Delegation told the Waccamaw Neck Republican Club this week.

District 108 Rep. Lee Hewitt said state House members have proposed a tiered increase of 2 cents per gallon a year for five years along with possible increases in the sales tax on automobiles and drivers license fees. “It’s a combination of a lot of different things,” he said. “How is that list going to be prioritized? How is that money going to be spent? The devil is in the details. It’s great to say we’re going to raise the gas tax. If you continue spending it the way you are, we are not going to get the bang for the buck we need to get.”

State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, representing District 34, said he has seen bills proposing gasoline tax increases of 10 and 12 cents per gallon. “The Senate,” Goldfinch said, “seems to be less concerned with political appearances. That oftentimes gets them in trouble.”

Goldfinch said a one-time gas tax hike not tied to Department of Transportation reform or accompanied by a tax cut probably won’t pass. “In my opinion,” he said, “we do have to have a gas tax [increase] but we have to be careful about how we implement it. We do not want to be throwing good money after bad.”

He said Georgetown and, especially, Horry County will not get a fair share of gas tax revenues under the proposals. “Horry County, specifically, is a donor county,” he said. “It’s never going to get money allocated to their needs. That’s why the county has passed a sales tax.”

Goldfinch said Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster has indicated he would not veto a gas tax increase if Gov. Nikki Haley is confirmed as United Nation’s ambassador and resigns, and he becomes governor. “Henry has already told us he’s for it,” Goldfinch said, “with reform a necessary component down the line.”

Goldfinch said the state can’t continue to use the general fund to fix roads. The legislature last year approved a $4 billion spending plan over a decade to improve roads and bridges. “People will eventually figure out we are robbing our general fund to pay for roads when we have a non-federal highway trust fund that’s specifically designed for roads. People will rebel when they figure out we are taking money out of teachers’ pockets and firemen’s pockets to pay for roads when we’ve got a gas tax that tourists pay a third of.”

Road funding will be one of three priorities for Goldfinch. He said education and the state pension fund’s $40 billion deficit are his other two. “Everything else is noise,” he said.

Legislators are worried about the growing pension deficit. Hewitt said it was about $14 billion when he filed for office and has nearly tripled in a year. “People are freaking out about it,” Goldfinch said. “It’s going to hurt.”

Goldfinch said state Treasurer Curtis Loftis is catching heat for his handling of the pension for the past seven years. “I know we are $40 billion in debt,” Goldfinch said. “If you were judging him and his performance based on industry standards you might fire him.”

Goldfinch said proposals to address the pension deficit include limiting the state to a defined contribution, changing the age of retirement and the statutory rate of return. He said the state pension based its budget on an unrealistic return of 7.5 percent. Changes in the law would affect new state employees, not those currently in the system, Goldfinch said.

Hewitt said Georgetown County is fortunate to have good schools, but other counties do not provide the state mandated “minimally adequate” education. Striking a balance between expanding school choice and increasing the funds for poor counties will be one of the most important discussions in the State House this session, he said.

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