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Don’t Re-Kick Can Down Crumbling Roads

Author: By Rick Jiran, 2015 chairman of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce

Source: York County Regional Chamber of Commerce

May 29, 2015

It’s near the end of another legislative session in South Carolina, and again one of our state’s most important economic development issues is on the docket. That issue, of course, is the need to address the state’s serious and continually growing transportation infrastructure problem. 

Inherent in the issue of funding essential improvements to our roads and bridges is the fear that legislators will again postpone action, as illustrated by the political expression of “kicking the can down the road.” The can-kicking phrase, often used in campaign speak (and frequently practiced in politics), refers to the tactic of delaying an important legislative decision until a later, usually unspecified date. This practice is often employed when elected officials are faced with difficult decisions that will likely meet disapproval from certain constituents or special interest groups and/or could cause undesirable consequences related to their elected office or status. 

And while applying the idiom to this issue (i.e. kicking objects on unkempt surfaces) is interesting and somewhat humorous, the need for funding road maintenance is quite serious and the time to act is now.

Pending Senate action

With only a few days remaining in the 2015 state legislative session, the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce – along with many other local chambers in the state, the South Carolina Chamber, S.C. Manufacturers Alliance and other statewide business advocacy groups – strongly urges all legislators not to let another year pass without addressing the state’s growing infrastructure problem. This issue has galvanized the energy and attention of business leaders, small and large, in York County and across the state. 

As a longtime supporter of increasing South Carolina’s gasoline tax for statewide road improvements and for continuing the county’s “Pennies For Progress” one-cent sales tax for local road improvements, this chamber has perennially recognized transportation funding as a priority issue. And on behalf of its member firms and as the voice of this regional business community, the Regional Chamber will continue to advocate for a balanced and nonpartisan system that adequately funds road and bridge maintenance.

The infrastructure issue currently resides in the state Senate; and although it is positioned on that body’s agenda for “special order” (as a legislative priority) for 2015, another item is currently scheduled for debate and action. Since the Senate rules allow only a single such item to be addressed at a time, the Chamber is calling on senators – especially county delegation senators Creighton Coleman, R-Winnsboro; Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster; Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill; and Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney – to expeditiously complete its work on the current agenda item so that infrastructure funding can be immediately addressed. 

S.C. House plan

Under the threat of a veto by Gov. Nikki Haley, the state’s House of Representatives boldly and resoundingly passed in mid-April a $427 million infrastructure funding plan by a vote of 87-20. The House bill and vote was largely supported by the state business community as an acknowledgment that another year must not pass without addressing the state’s growing infrastructure problem. The plan essentially includes an increase in wholesale gasoline sales taxes, an expansion of the vehicle sales tax cap, an option to transfer projects and funding to counties, a reform measure for the transportation commission and a reduction of personal income tax rates.

The crafting and passage of the House proposal was led by Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, chairman of the House Ad-Hoc Transportation Committee. The Chamber commends Lucas, Simrill, those other 85 legislators, and especially our county’s delegation members who voted in the affirmative. 

Reasons to support

Our state is both blessed and cursed with many miles of state-owned roads. Compared to the national average of 19 percent, 63 percent of South Carolina’s public roads are state-owned, and a high percentage of those main thoroughfares are experiencing major congestion. Plus, one-third of primary and interstate highways are in poor or mediocre condition, and continue to worsen.

Of the many reasons to urgently support the need for a comprehensive and sustainable transportation funding plan, the most compelling for this organization is the long-term economic competitiveness of the state. Investing in infrastructure is a core function of government, and the best work force and lowest taxes in the world don’t matter if goods can’t be delivered to market. 

Compared to our state’s annual average spending of $15,000 per mile on roads, Georgia and North Carolina, our neighboring and primary competitors for new companies, jobs and capital investment, respectively spend $35,000 and $150,000 per mile. Although the proposed funding amounts for South Carolina are adequate to address all of the state’s needs, the Chamber believes a minimum of $600 million in additional annual infrastructure funds must be dedicated. Obviously, the Senate’s plan for approximately $800 million in annual new funding is preferable.

The Chamber also believes that new revenue sources must be considered by the state, which has one of the least diverse revenue streams for roads in the nation. Currently, South Carolina is 71 percent dependent on motor fuel sales, with the national average being 35 percent. The House and Senate versions entail some diversification, and both include an increase to the vehicle sales tax cap.

While the reduction of state income tax rates seems out of place in a transportation bill, we understand that such a tax cut is politically necessary to have any real chance for approval of new transportation infrastructure funds. We also believe that, if feasible over the long run, such a tax cut could strengthen the state’s position in recruiting economic development projects. Although the Chamber believes the state’s property tax structure is a higher priority for reform, the state’s income tax rates are higher than our nearby competitors of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Florida.

The safety of employees and all citizens is another important reason to support a road bill. A recent national ranking places South Carolina’s rural roads as the second deadliest in the nation, and yet another report says our state currently has 830 structurally deficient bridges. These statistics are further rationale for why there are simply no other issues pending that are as significant to our economy and quality of life or that will make as positive an impact on our state as this one.

The Chamber implores our state elected officials (first, in the Senate) to act upon this opportunity. We strongly urge each member of York County’s legislative delegation to support additional infrastructure funding with a comprehensive and sustainable funding plan. We also request that members collectively and individually urge their legislative peers to do the same, so that this particular can is not kicked further down the road.

The Chamber realizes that this action involves risk and requires leadership, and we offer this change of the wording to another political expression: Please be “that man (or woman) behind the tree.”

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