S.C. senators are drawing battle lines over increasing the state’s gas tax, the second-lowest in the nation.
By a 14-8 vote Tuesday, the Senate’s budget panel approved increasing the state’s gas tax by 12 cents a gallon and hiking other fees, moves that would raise nearly $800 million a year to repair the state’s crumbling roads.
Fourteen Republicans and Democrats voted for the plan; eight Republicans voted against it.
“Right now, it appears that people have drawn their lines in the sand,” said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who filibustered a tax increase the past two years.
Davis again is prepared to try to kill a gas-tax hike if it does not include changing the structure of the state Department of Transportation or offsetting income-tax cuts. He also said the bill faces hurdles even to make the Senate floor for a vote.
“I would be surprised, and very disappointed, if a Republican-controlled Senate gave it a special order slot (ensuring debate and a vote), which takes a two-thirds vote,” Davis said.
But Democrats oppose changing the Transportation Department’s structure and say the state cannot afford to offer tax cuts.
Already, the state underfunds K-12 education and higher education, for example, and pays some of its employees so poorly that some agencies have chronic staffing issues.
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said South Carolinians are not demanding restructuring or tax relief. “They want their roads fixed.”
Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, said tax cuts would kill the bill. “I promise you, if you put the (income tax cuts) in there, it’s dead.”
But some Republicans want an income tax cut of some kind as protection from criticism that they voted to increase taxes, a sin to many GOP primary voters.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, the Florence Republican who also chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said he is confident the Senate will pass a plan to provide money to fix the state’s roads. “Compromise on the floor of the Senate is always possible.”
Calls to spend more money on S.C. roads and bridges have dominated the past three legislative sessions. The state Department of Transportation estimates it needs $1 billion a year in added money to get the state’s roads and bridges in good condition.
The first year of the two-year session ends in May. If lawmakers do not approve a roads plan this year, they could pick it up again next year. But 2018 is an election year for House members and the governor, and the Republicans who control those offices are loath to pass a tax hike and, then, immediately face voters.
Last week, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Richland Republican who faces GOP primary challengers, said he opposes raising the state’s gas tax.
Earlier this month, the S.C. House passed a 10-cents-a-gallon gas-tax increase. That proposal is projected to raise $532 million a year when fully phased in, according to the Department of Transportation.
That is down from initial estimates that said the proposal would raise $600 million a year, in part because tax money sent to S.C. schools was preserved.
$800 million for S.C. roads?
A panel of state senators Tuesday approved increasing driving fees to raise nearly $800 million for road repairs. In addition to a 12-cents-a-gallon gas-tax increase, to be phased in over six years, drivers would face paying an added:
$25 fee for a 10-year driver’s license
▪ $16 fee every two years to register a vehicle
▪ $60 in fees every two years if they own a hybrid vehicle
▪ $120 in fees every two years if they own an electric vehicle
▪ Up to $300 in added sales taxes if they buy a used car that costs between $6,000 and $12,000. Buyers who purchase vehicles that cost more than $12,000 also would pay an added $300. That tax hike is the result of increasing the cap on the sales tax on vehicle sales to $600 from $300.
▪ A one-time fee of up to $600, phased in, if they buy a vehicle out of state and register it in South Carolina