Letters to the Editor

The price of DOT reform: $200 million a year

By Cindi Ross Scopp

Reform never comes cheap. The status quo always exacts a payment.

Everybody who is not a beneficiary of the status quo recognizes that the state Transportation Commission needs to be reformed. That we need to replace a system designed to encourage parochial horse-trading with one designed to spend our limited road money repairing, improving and expanding the most dangerous roads that are used by the most people.

That we need to keep the Transportation Department honest and focused by putting someone in charge who is accountable to all the voters instead of a bunch of part-time commissioners who can’t even be replaced by the people who appoint them.

But the legislators who represent communities that get more road work than the numbers justify would lose out in that system. The legislators who are used to calling up their commissioner and getting special favors would lose clout in that system. Who knows? There might even be legislators who are benefiting personally from this system, through contracts to their businesses or business partners or the businesses of their political patrons.

So they demand something in return for reform. Ransom, you might call it.

Last year, it looked like the price for rooting out the parochialism and putting the governor in charge of the agency would be a $49 million annual income tax cut and a $61 million-a-year raid on the state’s general fund. That’s what the House passed, overwhelmingly, along with reform and a gas tax increase.

We didn’t need the tax cut, and we certainly didn’t need to steal even more money from schools and colleges and police and courts and divert it to road building and repair. But $100 million looked pretty cheap compared to Gov. Nikki Haley’s demand that we cut income taxes by $1.8 billion a year.

The Senate refused even to consider the House plan, and when it finally did pass a reform measure this spring, it included a $400 million general-fund raid that was so irresponsibly put together that House leaders rejected it out of hand.

Now the Senate has passed a new road-funding plan that steals $200 million a year from our schools and courts and state police and child protection and economic development and environmental protection and most other state services.

Personally, I’d rather just take the reform this year and deal with the funding next year, once we’ve seen how the reformed agency works and once senators are maybe a little less crazy than they are right now. But that’s not an option. Senators who don’t want to give up their influence over the Transportation Department have made it clear that we’re not going to get any reform unless we agree to their $200 million-a-year raid on the general fund.

So that, apparently, is the new price of reform: twice as much as the House’s initial bid, but still just half the Senate’s first plan and only a ninth as much as the governor demanded.

And maybe it’s a reasonable price to pay. After all, it’s not just money down a rat hole. It’s money that will be spent on our roads. Or at least some of it will; a whole lot of it will pay interest on the bonds the state will float in return for $2 billion up front.

But it’s still ransom, and if we’re going to pay it, we all need to acknowledge that’s what we’re doing.

It’s ransom that’s being paid by our schools, which will receive $517 million less in next year’s state budget than state law requires. That’s money they won’t be able to use to pay more to hire better teachers or to pay enough to hire more teachers.

It’s ransom that’s being paid by cities and counties, which by law are supposed to receive $325 million from the raided general fund. Instead, they’ll get at most $240 million. So they’ll have to either raise taxes or (more likely) provide fewer police and fire and code enforcement and other services.

It’s ransom that’s being paid by colleges and universities, which will receive $75 million less than they were receiving before the recession — less, even, than they were receiving in 1989 — even as enrollment increases.

It’s ransom that’s being paid by the poorest South Carolinians, who are being forced to pay the same $300 sales tax on their $5,000 clunker that the rich pay on their $150,000 yachts and $400,000 Lamborghinis. The Legislature is making changes to the sales tax on vehicles — redirecting the money from the general fund to highways — without fixing the sales tax on vehicles, by eliminating that obscene cap.

Most legislators will object to calling the $200 million a year ransom, because part of it will buy us asphalt. They’ll note that the state is already underfunding schools and colleges and cities and counties, already making the poor pay higher tax rates than the wealthy. And all that is true.

But the fact is that a lot of legislators would hold out for a better road-funding deal next year if not for the possibility of reform this year.

Worth it? Probably. Ransom? Definitely.

Scoppe is editorial page editor of The State. She can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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