Speaker Lucas is right to trash the Senate GOP roads plan

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I understand from various sources that the Senate today is debating, and plans to vote on, the “roads plan” that I excoriated last week. Here’s hoping it’s not going well.

As Cindi wrote the other day, the GOP proposal has its good parts, including real reform in governance of DOT. But it also contains an absolute dealbreaker, ladies:

If the legislation skipped over Section 4, Gov. Nikki Haley would be correct to say it’s “exactly what we need.” We would have the reform we need, and the Legislature could devote some one-time money to roads again this year and adopt a long-term funding plan next year that befits the reformed Transportation Department.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t skip Section 4, which commits not just this General Assembly but every General Assembly in perpetuity to siphoning $400 million out of our state’s general budget fund and giving it to the Transportation Department.

The result is a bill that promises to break trust with the voters and strangle out other state obligations and, at bottom, isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

For as long as we have been paving roads, we have collected a gas tax and driver fees to build and maintain those roads, on the theory that people inside and outside of South Carolina who use our roads the most should pay the most for them.

We have collected sales and income taxes to pay for our schools and courts and state police and child protection and economic development and environmental protection and most other state services.

The Senate plan changes that, dramatically. It diverts $400 million in sales and income taxes — more than 5 percent of the state budget — to pay for roads. That means we have $400 million less — not just next year but every year going forward — to pay teacher salaries, including extra pay to reward and attract the best teachers for the neediest students, to pay cities and counties for holding elections and performing other duties the state requires them to perform, to hire caseworkers to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents, to employ the judges who lock up the bad guys and the prison guards who keep the bad guys from escaping and the scientists who test our water to make sure it’s safe to drink, and everything else.

The roads diversion breaks trust with voters, in much the same way lawmakers do when they raid trust funds….

Make no mistake: A proper roads bill includes both proper reform and a gas tax increase. And it most assuredly does not include an open-ended raid on the funding for everything else the state of South Carolina does.

If Harvey Peeler manages to ram through this awful mess today, it will be up to the House to kill it. And Speaker Jay Lucas said it best last week:

1126136229“For 323 days, the Senate has had every opportunity to show leadership and propose a real, long-term solution for road repair in South Carolina. The current Senate amendment simply kicks the can further down the road and frankly, into a pothole. The General Assembly has been using general fund dollars to slap a band-aid on roads for years with very little to show for it. I urge the Senate to give this issue the attention that it requires and rally around a proposal with a long-term solution that keeps our families safe and our economy thriving.”

 

 

 

22 thoughts on “Speaker Lucas is right to trash the Senate GOP roads plan

  1. Lynn Teague

    It is true that a gas tax must be preceded by serious DOTand STIB reform, otherwise the money will just turn into “spoils.” (I suspect Senator Leatherman hasn’t thanked his hometown paper for confirming the obvious so blatantly.) Unfortunately a significant contingent of gas tax supporters don’t want real reform, they like politicized decision-making with legislators (them) at its center, so no coalition formed around both reform and a gas tax. (The proposal at one point to “reform” by letting Senate majority and minority leaders appoint commissioners actually made that worse.)

    This sad thing is the outcome. The governor’s plan, a gas tax accompanied by a raid on the general fund in the form of an income tax cut, is not any better. This is why we can’t have nice things, like both decent roads and dam safety inspections. Better to just have DOT and STIB reform and skip pretending to fix roads funding this year.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But not this bill, Lynn. This bill commits future legislatures to the raid on the general fund. Nice, shiny reform is being dangled before our eyes while the revenues we need for other critical services is being stolen from us…

      Reply
      1. Lynn Teague

        I agree that the money is being stolen from important needs, I don’t think I suggested otherwise. Whether it is stolen through direct use of general funds for roads or through an income tax cut reducing general revenue funds to offset a gas tax, this is bad. Of course, the current General Assembly actually can’t commit future legislatures to anything, as they have proven repeatedly when they have not fully funded local governments and the schools according to the formulas agreed upon in earlier statutes. Still, this is not the model we need.

        My point is simply that I would rather see ONLY the reforms survive (that would be worth having) than have a bill with either method of raiding the general fund, directly or indirectly through a tax cut.

        Reply
  2. Karen Pearson

    According to the news they are planning on widening Shop Road to 5 lanes. Would they please fix the potholes in the roads they have first?!

    Reply
  3. Bryan Caskey

    For as long as we have been paving roads, we have collected a gas tax and driver fees to build and maintain those roads, on the theory that people inside and outside of South Carolina who use our roads the most should pay the most for them.” – Cindi’s column

    A few thoughts.

    First, I’m not altogether opposed to roads being part of our general budget. Roads are one of the core functions of government, so it makes sense to me that the basic budget of the state would include money dedicated to roads. Does that create a situation where there will be less money available for other things? Sure, but that’s life. SC may not have to be run “like a business” but it certainly has to be run on a budget. We don’t have an endless supply of money to do all things. That would be nice, but that’s why a legislature has to make choices about what it funds, and how much taxes to levy to do those things.

    I think we would all agree that roads are near the very, very top of the core functions of government in a way that maybe the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism isn’t. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have that department. I’m just saying roads are more important. They’re kind of fundamental to everything. Accordingly, I have a hard time agreeing that these revenues are being “stolen”.

    If, because general funds are used for roads, there isn’t enough money to fund something else that we, the people of South Carolina want, like say…the Department of Parks for instance, and we don’t have enough money, then fine. Make the case to me that we should raise taxes to pay for that. But I don’t think it’s really logical to say “Let’s not use general funds to pay for this core function that we all agree is necessary, while we use the general funds for something less central“, and then turn around and complain that “Hey! There isn’t enough money for this core function!

    Also, to get back to Cindi’s quote, roads benefit everyone here in SC. Even if you don’t drive, roads benefit you. Roads facilitate commerce, communication, and generally allow us to function together. I don’t necessarily agree that we should pay for roads through a gas tax because, again, it’s a core function that we all should pay for. I’m not saying we should get rid of the gas tax, though. I’m just saying that it’s not unreasonable to fund one of the most core functions of government through general funds.

    But maybe I’m just a crazy person.

    Reply
    1. Mark Stewart

      But unlike other core functions of government (schools, DHEC, DSS, Courts, cops etc.) roads have an easy and directly related way to collect revenue – through a sensible gas tax.

      So doing so would seem to be a no brainer.

      Of all the competing push-pulls, reforming the process of determining our road needs is the most important. That in and of itself would be a miracle – substantive reform. Having the right framework does come before opening the money spigot.

      I just fail to see why the Senate cannot man-up and do both. They weren’t elected to fumble one issue per year. That’s not legislating.

      Reply
    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      You’re not a crazy person. But others are.

      Here’s the thing: We’ve got this great, dedicated tax for paying for this particular core function of government. It’s great because — while you’re absolutely right that even people who don’t drive (a very small portion of the population benefit), and I appreciate you making that communitarian point — it conveniently taxes the people who directly USE this essential infrastructure the most in a manner proportional to their use. This is a neat thing that works well until we have a larger proportion of electric cars.

      Even better, it’s a way of taxing all those people from out of state who ALSO benefit from this essential service.

      Paying for this service, this infrastructure through the gas tax is something that people have long understood as fair and equitable. It even SHOULD keep happy the people who (wrongly, for a number of reasons including one you just pointed out) believe that they shouldn’t have to pay for any service they don’t personally use.

      But there’s a problem. We’re taxing at a 1987 rate, and you can’t afford to build or maintain roads in 2016 with 1987 dollars. There’s another problem: Cars are more efficient, so people buy fewer gallons of gas to do even more driving on these roads.

      As I said, you’re not crazy. But others are. We have this perfectly neat mechanism for paying for roads. It’s obvious that the way to address not having enough money for this essential function of government is to raise that tax. And you couldn’t find a better time to do it than when oil is at record lows — under normal political circumstances. But the circumstances aren’t normal, because of the Grover Norquist insanity that dictates that no tax may be raised, ever, under any circumstances.

      The other side of the Norquist disease is a positive desire to “shrink the size of government.” This is a mindless imperative that pays no attention to whether taxes are burdensome or whether essential services are paid for. It’s cutting just to cut.

      That’s why taking the money from the revenues intended for the rest of government — without a moment’s thought to needs in those areas — is so appealing to these people. They kill two birds with one stone — they avoid a perfectly sensible gas tax increase, and the make sure we don’t get any money to hire those DSS caseworkers needed to keep kids from dying in bad circumstances, or to get DHEC back to sufficient funding to guard our health and keep our air and soil and water clean, or to provide decent schools in districts that absolutely do not have the tax base to pay for them (which the court has told the state it has to do). Which, by the way, are all more essential functions of government than PRT.

      There’s every reason to raise the gas tax, and NO pragmatic, sensible reason not to — not if you DO reform DOT at the same time.

      I will always be adamantly opposed to those who refuse to do the sensible, pragmatic thing because of their adherence to an evil, destructive ideology, such as Norquist’s. Anyone who wants to shrink government to a size that it can be drowned in a bathtub is pathologically antisocial, and should not be making important decisions about our state’s priorities.

      Reply
      1. Bryan Caskey

        But there’s a problem. We’re taxing at a 1987 rate, and you can’t afford to build or maintain roads in 2016 with 1987 dollars. There’s another problem: Cars are more efficient, so people buy fewer gallons of gas to do even more driving on these roads.

        This is a persuasive argument. It’s logical. I assume (maybe someone else can drop some actual knowledge on me) that there are more miles of roads in SC in 2016 than there were in 1987. It makes sense to tailor the tax to suit the needs if the needs increase.

        Glad I’m not crazy.

        Reply
      2. Doug Ross

        Once you start talking about kids dying because of this bill, I lose interest. If kids die, it will be because the legislators choose to fund nonessential programs over DHEC. If a single penny goes to a Confederate Flag museum, a state park, an arts program, etc. instead of to DHEC, that’s not a problem with the gas bill.

        Please stop the typical hyperbole that tax supporters fall back on. It’s about priorities, not “stealing” money.

        Reply
        1. Doug Ross

          And unless the bill addresses control over the funds, oversight, and accountability, it shouldn’t pass. Giving more money to a group with no track record of good stewardship is lunacy.

          Reply
          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Doug, no question — reform is an essential part of a serious bill.

            But so is raising the gas tax.

            Leave out either one, and it’s not a serious proposal.

            Reply
        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          But I’ll have to disagree with you when you say “it’s about priorities.” This bill absolutely is NOT about priorities.

          It’s not about making decisions about which of the other functions of government are a higher priority than others. It’s about cutting the tap (of additional funds due to growth) off to ALL functions other than roads.

          It makes no decisions about which of these general fund services is more or less important. It just makes sure that this $400 million doesn’t go to ANY of them, EVER.

          I absolutely cannot respect someone who says something as random as “let’s cut the size of government” and refuses to pick which things will fail to get funding. This radical anti-government agenda of just cutting off revenues without making decisions and setting priorities is something I will never, ever respect. It’s nihilistic and destructive.

          Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And here’s how the House leadership reacted this morning to the Senate’s action:

      House Leadership Responds to Senate Passage of Roads Bill

      Believes the Senate Plan is Not a Sustainable Solution

      (Columbia, SC) – House Speaker Jay Lucas (District 65-Darlington) and several other Members issued the following statements after the Senate gave third reading to an amended version of H. 3579.
      “The Senate’s deceptive plan to fix our crumbling roads system is irresponsible and prioritizes politics over a sound solution,” Speaker Jay Lucas stated. “Not only does their plan mislead the people of South Carolina into thinking that a large pot of general fund money will be available every year for roads, it also practices reckless budgeting that jeopardizes the prosperity of our economy. While I acknowledge the Senate’s governance reform efforts, kicking the can further down the road and into a giant pothole defies the test of real leadership.”
      Ways and Means Chairman Brian White (District 6-Anderson) has successfully crafted responsible budgets over the last few years that appropriate available general fund revenue to road improvement.
      “The Senate’s plan is not a fix for our chronic roads problem, it’s a plea for the House to budget them out of their inability to pass a comprehensive roads bill. The House has budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars for roads in the last several years and will continue to do so while we wait on the Senate to get serious about a long-term fix for our roads,” added Chairman Brian White.
      Representative Gary Simrill (District 46-York), the original sponsor of the House-passed roads plan and a member of the Ways and Means Committee, has been involved in the roads debate since the House began working on its proposal in September 2014.
      “As additional money was made available, the House eagerly fought to set aside resources to improve the condition of our crumbling infrastructure rather than grow the size of government. Over $1 billion in general fund money has been appropriated for road repair over the last three years. These short-term solutions proved to be a step in the right direction, but much like the Senate plan, do not provide for South Carolina’s long-term infrastructure needs,” Representative Gary Simrill said.

      Reply
  4. Karen Pearson

    For once, I kinda sorta side with Doug. I see no point in diverting money we already have, or raising extra money “for roads” when we have so little control on who decides what to do with that money that it basically turns into a slush fund for any politician who has a pet project. The person(s) controlling this money need to be directly under the control of the governor, and should be mandated to take care of priority needs first. To me, the first priority should be to fix existing roads and develop a means of monitoring them to ensure that they stay fixed.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Absolutely, Karen. We need the reform, AND the funding.

      You know, I could almost reluctantly accept this bill if it just provided the reform and the Senate GOP said, “We can’t provide the ongoing funding source this year. We’ll use this one-time money just for this year, and come back and work on the funding next year.”

      That would be lame, but not nearly as objectionable as what they’re doing. What they’re doing is making this raid on the General Fund permanent, saying this IS the solution to ongoing road funding needs.

      And that’s the problem.

      Reply
      1. Lynn Teague

        We do agree, Brad. Passing reform without any funding (or with one-time general fund money) would be lame, but acceptable. The Senate’s current funding plan is not acceptable, either by itself or accompanied by reform.

        Unfortunately when Senate debates play out in secret some things are not as obvious to the public as they should be. In this case, it should be more generally recognized that the opposition of many gas tax supporters to meaningful reform has been a major obstacle to a sound bill. They want the money, but they want to maintain legislative control of what happens to it. Other senators are right not to allow them to have that.

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          We’ve got Tom Davis and others wanting reform without funding. Hugh Leatherman and some Democrats want funding without reform. The rest of us are caught in the middle. That sound about right?

          Reply
  5. clark surratt

    Brad, You should fully endorse the reform only for this year, if that is all we can get. As Lynn said above, this year’s legislature cannot bind next year’s to anything. The law and the funding can be changed each year. While posters are hitting on senators (and they deserve it), the elephant in room is Haley, who could change this whole picture if she didn’t have this cement lack of leadership on taxes, making any legislative action nullified by her veto.

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  6. bud

    The numbers are in and 2015 was a record year for vehicle miles of travel in South Carolina, up about 3.5% from 2014. The previous record was in 2007 so traffic volume has been essentially flat for about 8 years. This hardly suggests a huge surge in gas tax revenues. On the contrary with vehicle mpg up since 2007 revenues are likely down from a decade ago. Given the rising cost of everything this means there is less real (inflation adjusted) money available for road projects be they pork or be they worthwhile. Not sure why everyone is so hyped up about “reforming” the DOT since the last time we did that it was a complete fiasco but be that as it may let’s go ahead and perform the time honored ritual of reform and get on with properly funding road maintenance. And not through this ridiculous general revenue scheme. The gas tax is the most sensible way to go.

    Reply

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