House budget panel looks at $220M more for roads
Source: Greenville Online
June 2, 2015
COLUMBIA – House lawmakers approved a bill that would spend $220 million more in surplus money for roads, with $150 million of that going to county transportation committees to fund work on state secondary roads.
If approved by the full House and Senate, the proposal might be the only new road funding to come out of the Legislature this year, aside from almost $70 million already in the budget. Various road-funding plans are bottled up in the Senate with three days left until adjournment.
Rep. Brian White, an Anderson Republican who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, proposed a preliminary spending plan Monday for the state's surplus cash totaling more than $300 million, including a recommendation to spend $70 million for an Interstate 26 interchange as part of an incentives package promised to Volvo.
He said another $16.4 million would be spent to pay down debt, allowing the state to borrow $50 million for the $123 million incentives plan promised Volvo, which last month announced it would build a $500 million new factory outside Charleston.
Earlier in the day, Gov. Nikki Haley said Volvo wants the incentives to come from economic development bonds instead of legislative appropriations because the company wants to avoid the same amount of debate or criticism involved in approving incentives for Boeing through the legislative process.
Some House members could not resist noting that Haley, who helped kill a $500 million House bond proposal earlier this year, was willing to use bonds for the Volvo deal. Haley also has said she did not need lawmakers help to fund the incentives.
"That's not bad for a group that is unnecessary to the process," Rep. Michael Pitts, a Laurens Republican, said of the panel's proposal to help fund the incentives.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat, said the panel is trying to do what is in the best interests of the state and that promises made are kept.
"You have to be careful when you issue all kinds of declarative statements one way or the other," she told the panel. "Because you sometimes have to come back around to the very people you trashed to get them to pull your candy out of the sand."
The surplus money was officially recognized Friday. The Senate had previously voted that whatever the surplus amount, everything after the first $27 million for employee bonuses and winter storm damage should be spent on local road maintenance through county transportation committees.
Ted Pitts, the president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said Monday that lawmakers should spend a majority of the surplus on roads.
"The business community started the legislative session hopeful that the General Assembly would achieve a sustainable, comprehensive funding plan for infrastructure," he said. "Though not comprehensive or sustainable, this investment would be another step towards bringing our infrastructure to a suitable condition versus doing nothing."
White proposed sending $150 million in one-time money to county transportation committees though they would be required to spend the money on state secondary roads. The money would be distributed through existing C-fund formulas.
He also proposed spending $23.5 million on bonuses for state employees at $800 a person.
Cobb-Hunter argued the panel should instead grant employees a 2 percent raise.
State Rep. Jim Merrill, a Charleston Republican, said he was frustrated at the treatment of higher education this year in the budget. Much of the bond bill and a Capital Reserve Fund plan stalled in the Senate, was to go for higher education renovation and maintenance projects.
He noted that no money is set aside in the surplus spending plan for colleges and universities.
"It's not right to have all this money and not give any to higher education," he said, vowing to fight on the House floor next year for increased funding.
White's preliminary plan also includes spending $2.6 million for the long-delayed child support enforcement computer system.
Haley has said she wants lawmakers to spend the surplus on roads, tax cuts or paying down debt.
The House Ways and Means Committee's recommendation must still go to the full House and then to the Senate.
The Senate has been unable or unwilling to shut down a filibuster that has prevented the chamber from getting to a roads-funding bill. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year on Thursday.
The state Department of Transportation last year projected the state needs an additional $1.4 billion a year for 29 years to bring the state's transportation system up to adequate condition.
Haley has pegged the number closer to $400 million. Senate road-funding plans propose raising an additional $700-$800 million a year.
Haley had no specific recommendations Monday on how lawmakers should address the state's road-funding problem in the time remaining.
"All I ask for the end of the session is to get something done," she said. "My concern is that as we get to the end, sometimes there is a knee-jerk reaction. So we still want them to be smart and watch out for the taxpayers and do what would make South Carolina proud."