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Bucking governor, Legislature must find unity on roads

Source: The Times and Democrat

April 23, 2015

ISSUE: S.C. infrastructure improvement

OUR VIEW: Senate and House compromise must be strong enough to overcome veto

South Carolina business leaders are reluctant to take sides in the debate in Columbia over fixing South Carolina’s roads, which just about everyone placed at or near the top of the legislative agenda in January.

The danger continues to be legislative stalemate.

That is why it makes news when leading business figures step forth to remind the governor and lawmakers there is a cost for failure to act.

The latest is Sonoco chief executive M. Jack Sanders speaking out Wednesday in favor of an increase in the gasoline tax to fund road repairs. He warned that his company, the largest firm based in the state, would have to look elsewhere at any expansion if action is not taken.

Sanders’ warning is the same that consistently has been coming from the state’s business leaders.

CEO John Worley of Orangeburg-based Zeus Industrial Products wrote in January:

“Manufacturing is the cornerstone of South Carolina’s economy, and our sector is growing. With one of our facilities located on Interstate 26 in Gaston, all of our employees know firsthand the need for additional investment in our highway system. Congestion, safety and just-in-time delivery of goods and services all depend on a reliable highway network.

“When companies like Zeus expand or choose a state to locate in, infrastructure is a top priority. South Carolina lawmakers must proactively support economic development by investing in our roads and bridges, especially in our rural areas that are hungry for jobs.

“When it comes to South Carolina infrastructure, nearly a third of primary and interstate highways are in poor or mediocre condition. Secondary, two-lane roads are statistically the most dangerous highways, and South Carolina does not currently have a state-funded construction program to make safety improvements.”

Gov. Nikki Haley responded to the call for infrastructure improvement by putting forth a plan to raise the gasoline tax, the primary source of revenue for roads and bridges, by 10 cents. But she is insisting on a corresponding cut in the state’s income tax from 7 to 5 percent over 10 years.

We called for quick legislative action on Haley’s proposal despite the down side of losing state revenue in other areas while funneling the new gas tax money to infrastructure. The hope was her plan would be a building block for fast-paced legislative action that would not face a gubernatorial veto.

But even with her political stock at a high mark, Haley did not get legislative support for her plan – to the point now that it is considered all but dead in both houses of the Legislature.

That means the House and Senate will have to iron out their differences and do so with enough consensus in both chambers to override a Haley veto.

The House has approved a plan that would generate more than $400 million in extra funds for roads and bridges by increasing the gas tax by 10 cents but shrinking the amount of cut in income taxes to about $48 a year for most taxpayers.

The conservative House rejected calls for greater income tax relief, with Republicans leading the way in saying the state has ignored roads for so long that it can't afford to both improve highways and give taxpayers money back.

The 87-20 margin of House approval is enough to override a Haley veto – but there remains the matter of finding agreement with the Senate, which has its own bill that raises more money through taxes and fees but has no income tax cut.

According to an Associated Press report, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman has indicated the Senate may be closer to the House's thinking than it might appear. He also thinks the governor will eventually come around to supporting the House plan.

If the Senate will get on board with the House plan quickly and do so with a veto-proof majority, South Carolinians would be the winner. But if the two Houses go about a protracted process of forging a compromise and lose support from some members in both houses along the way, Haley could again hold the upper hand with the veto threat and moving ahead this year on road and bridge repairs may not happen.

That would mean a total failure of state government to deliver on a key function: investing in infrastructure.

As Worley wrote: “With the strong link between infrastructure, safety, job creation and economic development, long-term funding must be the top priority this legislative session. South Carolina’s elected officials must work together to develop and implement a comprehensive and recurring funding plan.”

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