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Roads bill change could improve chance of passage

Author: Tim Smith

Source: Greenville Online

February 4, 2015

COLUMBIA – Counties in the state wouldn't be forced to take over local roads in the state's inventory under the latest revision of a House infrastructure bill, according to its chief sponsor.

Rep. Gary Simrill, a Rock Hill Republican and chairman of a House infrastructure panel who made ceding the local roads a key part of the panel's roads plan, told The Greenville News today that allowing counties to opt-out of the plan would let them see how the plan could work.

"If we make it optional rather than something being forced, it gives the opportunity as the bill progresses, to show how this plan could work," he said.

Other lawmakers said the change would remove one source of opposition to the bill and increase its chances at passage.

Simrill's decision comes as both he and Gov. Nikki Haley are asking House members to sign on as sponsors of their respective roads plans.

Haley has proposed that the state's gas tax be raised by 10 cents over three years, provided lawmakers first agree to scrap the current highway commission and reduce the state's income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent over 10 years.

Simrill's panel has proposed a cut in the 16.75-cents-per-gallon gas tax by 6 cents and a new 6 percent excise tax be created on gas at the wholesale level, a combination that would mean 4 cents per gallon more if gas were selling for $2 per gallon, Simrill has said.

The proposal also would increase the sales tax cap on vehicles from $300 to $500.

Haley has called use of an excise tax "dangerous" and has publicly urged House lawmakers to back her plan. Neither plan has been officially filed in the House.

Officials estimate there are as many as 18,000 miles of local roads in the state inventory, a prime reason the state has the fourth-largest state road system in the nation.

Democrats and Republicans both said Tuesday they thought giving counties an opt-out would help the House plan's chances at passage.

"That's a huge step for me," said Rep. Russell Ott, a Calhoun County Democrat. "Giving the counties the option to not take over their roads if they choose not to is a big deal."

Rep. Rita Allison, a Spartanburg County Republican, also applauded the move.

"I had reservations on the mandate to counties, simply because not all of our counties are equal," she said. "We have some counties out there that are struggling and to mandate them taking the roads was very much a concern of mine."

She said the change would likely provide more of a "buy-in" by House members to the plan.

Rep. Phyllis Henderson, a Greenville Republican and a member of Simrill's panel, said the committee felt it was important that the plan succeed quickly in the House.

"There are a lot of differences of opinion on that particular issue," she said. "So I think it was the right decision. If you have a problem and it's going to bog the whole thing down, then let's take that and deal with it separately."

Counties would be asked to take back local roads in state inventory over three years under the House plan. Each county would get $1 million and the amount of fuel tax that is sent to local governments would increase eventually from 2.66 cents per gallon to 6.5 cents under the plan.

Simrill said under the amended version, any county wishing to opt-out of the plan would also forgo any of the increased revenue. He said if a county changed its mind after the first year, the state could work with the county to accept the roads and much of the added funding.

Simrill had argued that streamlining the state system was necessary before lawmakers could tackle the funding issue, saying that many of the local roads now maintained by the state weren't scheduled for any improvement by the state anyway.

Some lawmakers had predicted that requiring counties to take over the roads would sink the bill because of opposition from some counties who have complained they aren't equipped nor funded to handle more roads.

Even the idea of more money didn't lure some counties because of distrust spawned by the Legislature's suspension years ago of the state formula for aid to local governments.

Simrill also said he wants to add a provision in the bill to place a five-year moratorium on any new roads construction so that the state's focus can be maintaining and repairing the roads already in existence.

He said he remains optimistic that the plan will pass and said he thinks Haley's tax relief also can pass but thinks it should be separated from the roads-funding component and not be all one bill.

"I think if you join those, you end up losing both," he said. "And infrastructure reform is of the utmost importance."

The House plan also would change the governance of the state Department of Transportation, allowing the governor to appoint the highway commissioners instead of lawmakers and would expand the board of the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank to 13 members. The plan also would lower the project threshold for the bank to allow smaller and more rural communities to apply for financing.

Rick Todd, the president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association, said if counties are allowed to opt out of accepting local roads for maintenance, most will do so.

"If you make it optional, I doubt very few, if any, would opt to go that route because it's all about the money and I don't think they see a clear way to lock down or guarantee the money," he said.

Todd said some roads in the state's inventory should be under local control.

"Some of those subdivision routes and other types of roads like that should never have been in the state system in the first place," he said.

"How do we get out of that, I don't know. This doesn't clear the way for passage but it makes it a little more palatable."

 

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