Legislators: Fix South Carolina transportation department before thinking tax

jrodriguez@thesunnews.comJanuary 9, 2014 

— Several state Representatives and Senators said they will not support a gas tax increase or additional fees for roads statewide until the S.C. Department of Transportation is restructured to allow for a more equitable distribution of funding throughout the state, especially coastal counties like Horry.

Horry County has long been the poster child of pumping money in the state’s overall economy due to its attractiveness to tourists. Legislators at Thursday’s Legislative Workshop for the Media said it is situations like the one Horry County has been in that needs to be corrected before they would even consider adding more money to the state’s transportation kitty.

“As for the equitable aspect of it, that’s one of the primary problems that we have,” said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley. “Most of the folks are in Myrtle Beach. That’s the biggest donor county that is out there is Horry County with a great deal of the coast being the rest of the donor counties. When we turn around and say, ‘Alright, we’re collecting this money’ and... when you pay it and it all goes out and you can’t get money to come back, that’s going to be a problem. That’s going to be a hold up and I think Horry County is the perfect example of that. They’ve been fighting for years to get that Interstate [73] done and they just can’t get it done. But we run into that trouble anytime there’s new money out there, no matter what.”

South Carolina has the fourth largest highway system in the country and has maintained a 16-cent per gallon gas tax since 1987. For years, legislators have been trying to find a way to find more funding for roads. The state’s Department of Transportation has encouraged local counties to come up with the majority of funds to fix roads in their own respective communities, which is what Horry County has done through its two Road Improvement Development Effort, or RIDE, programs.

Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, proposed a bill in December that would increase the 16-cent gas tax – or as the bill calls it a “user fee” – that would be increased by two cents each year until it reaches 36 cents.

“We are not going to raise anybody one penny in taxes,” Cleary said Thursday. “There are no taxes in anything we are proposing, but there are fees. The difference between a fee and a tax... is that a fee is revenue generated for a specific purpose. If that purpose goes 100 percent to [S.C. Department of Transportation] to fix their roads, then it is a fee. It is not a tax.”

Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said he doesn’t care whether it’s called a fee or a tax, rural areas need to have its fair shake at road funding.

“If we get to this point where people start talking about raising fees and raising taxes, certainly I understand their logic and I hear it, but is that going to be another way to raise money to other areas of the state while citizens in [rural counties] pay for it?” Smith said. “I will not vote for a gas tax as long as this is the way we have the DOT structured and this is the way they’re doing business.”

Cleary said the word “fee” is used because some legislators have signed a pledge not to raise taxes, but he said the need for a consistent flow of revenue is needed to address the state’s estimated $1.6 billion needed for roads in the next 20 years.

“If you fund it where it needs to be funded, then a lot of these issues go away,” Cleary said. “If DOT has a critical lack of funding, then the legislators are going to try to work for their areas to get the most funding they can for it. We’re not going to fix the system totally, but if you push enough money into the system, you have less problems with it.”

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_jrodriguez.

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