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Legislature: Raising funds for road repairs remains in doubt

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A plan to raise the state gasoline tax to fund road and bridge repairs is due for debate in the state Senate this week, but local lawmakers worry that even if the measure passes, the majority won’t be large enough to overcome a likely veto by Gov. Henry McMaster. “I think we’re going to have a very interesting three weeks,” state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch said.

He and state Rep. Lee Hewitt, both Murrells Inlet Republicans, favor the proposal passed by the House earlier this month. It would raise the gas tax from 16.75 cents to 26.75 cents over five years, the first increase in the tax since 1987. When fully implemented, it would generate $400 million a year for an Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund. Along with other fee increases, the measure is expected to provide $600 million a year toward what the state Department of Transportation estimates is $11 billion worth of road repairs.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the House bill with an amendment to raise the gas tax by 12 cents over six years.

The bill would also change the way members of the DOT Commission are appointed, giving that authority to the governor with the advice and consent of the legislature. Commission members are currently appointed by the legislative delegations in the seven congressional districts with one at-large member appointed by the governor. They are then screened by a review committee.

Both Goldfinch and Hewitt have concerns about the gas tax proposal, but say those are offset by the need to fix the state’s roads. Their constituents seem to agree. After Hewitt told the Waccamaw Neck Republican Club last month that he was looking for input, “the majority of emails I got were in favor of increasing the gas tax,” he said. “People realize something must be done.”

Goldfinch polled voters during last year’s election campaign, with 49 percent supporting a gas tax increase. The number increased to 67 percent when respondents were told the money would only be spent on repairs. “All I hear now are the voices of the minority,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a real challenge now, unfortunately.”

Hewitt was initially concerned that there are no priority infrastructure projects in his district. But he said Georgetown County will benefit because the bill increases the amount of money that will be available for local maintenance projects through the County Transportation Committee. “At the end of the five years, that’s over a million dollars that comes to Georgetown County on top of the CTC funds,” he said.

In addition, the House estimates 40 percent of the new revenue the bill provides will come from out of state. And Hewitt said the cost to consumers from poor roads “probably exceeds what the gas tax would be for an individual,” estimated at $60 a year.

The lack of action on roads “is holding up significant economic development and progress in South Carolina and I’m sick of it,” Goldfinch said. He dismisses claims that there is enough money in the general fund or in reforming DOT to fund the road work. “Reform is being used as a pretext,” he said. “No amount of reform is going to fully fund DOT.”

The measure would have a better chance of drawing a veto-proof majority if it was tied to tax reform, Goldfinch said.

Hewitt agreed, saying of McMaster, “I don’t see how he’s going to be able to support this and run for election.”

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