McMaster threatens to veto bills raising gas tax, borrowing
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Gov. Henry McMaster promised on Tuesday to veto bills that would increase the state’s gas tax and borrow money for a backlog of repairs.
McMaster encouraged legislators to amend the bond bill, which would borrow nearly $500 million for overdue maintenance at colleges and other state-owned buildings, so that it borrows only for highway construction — “possibly up to $1 billion.”
That amount would “accommodate the critical shortfall we now face and help launch us on the road to recovery,” McMaster wrote in his letter to House Speaker Jay Lucas, provided to The Associated Press.
His recommendation would replicate what the Legislature’s already done.
“Borrowing more money to fix South Carolina’s roads and bridges will not serve as a permanent solution to our infrastructure crisis,” said Lucas, R-Hartsville. The governor’s proposal “continues the pattern of placing the costs of road repair solely on the South Carolina taxpayer and not on out-of-state motorists who use and deteriorate our crumbling roads.”
A bill passed in 2013 provided $1 billion over 10 years for road construction. Another law passed last year allows for $4 billion in spending over 13 years, financed through $2 billion in borrowing and redirecting existing fees and vehicle sales taxes. Legislators said repeatedly those laws represented a jump start to improvements.
Transportation Director Christy Hall said an additional $28 billion is needed over the next 25 years to bring the state’s existing highway system — the nation’s fourth-largest, with 41,400 miles of roadway — up to good condition.
Business leaders are urging legislators to find a reliable, consistent stream of money that contractors can rely on to ramp up operations. State Chamber of Commerce CEO Ted Pitts has said another one-time borrowing bill won’t cut it.
McMaster issued the letter ahead of the House’s bond bill debate. The Legislature hasn’t approved a bond bill for statewide maintenance since 2001. About half of the $500 million would go to colleges.
Repairing state facilities is “very important, but not urgent,” he wrote. “Our state has many important needs ... but none are as urgent as the commerce and safety directly linked to our roads.”
The letter represents McMaster’s clearest stance on legislative priorities since becoming governor in January. He had previously said raising any tax should be an absolute last resort but stopped short of saying he’d veto road-funding proposals raising the state’s 16-cents-per-gallon gas tax. On the borrowing bill, he told reporters in February he was waiting to see what developed.
McMaster’s taking stances similar to his predecessor, Nikki Haley, who pledged for years to veto any bill increasing the gas tax. She also helped kill a $500 million bond bill for renovations in 2015 with posts on social media, email blasts and a news conference at which she blasted Republican legislators personally. But she signed the bills borrowing for highway construction.
Legislators had hoped Haley’s departure would enable a bill providing long-term revenue for roads to finally pass. But just one month remains in the session, and the Senate is expected to take next week off. McMaster’s letter makes the bill’s chances this year even more dubious.
The House passed a bill last month that would eventually generate an additional $530 million yearly for roadwork by increasing fees, including a 10-cent hike in the state’s gas tax. The 97-18 vote represented a veto-proof majority. The Senate Finance Committee amended the bill to raise roughly $800 million annually, with changes that include a 12-cent gas tax increase.
But opponents are again blocking debate on the Senate floor. An effort last week to give the bill special debate status failed.
Pitts, the chamber’s CEO, said Tuesday the bill’s fate rests with the Senate, not the governor.
“We ultimately have a state Senate that needs to do its job and take up a roads bill and find a long-term sustainable solution for the people of South Carolina,” he said.
GOP Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, the chief blocker, reiterated his stance that no additional money should go to the DOT until legislators eliminate the DOT commission, which they pick, and give the governor’s office full oversight.