SC DOT: One example of how SC constantly underfunds basic functions of government

This post should be seen as the background to this little drama over the governor’s vetoes, to provide some perspective. What seems to have been missing on most, but not all, of Nikki Haley’s vetoes has been a clear explanation of what she would spend the money on instead.

Her ideology prevents her from setting out powerful arguments for alternative spending plans, because she, like the governor before her, lives in a fantasy land in which the government of South Carolina simply spends too much in the aggregate. That South Carolina bears no resemblance to the one in this universe.

The truth is that South Carolina appropriates far too little for some of the most fundamental functions for which we rightly look to the public sector. And the deficit between what we spend on those functions and what we should in order to have the quality of service other states take for granted is sometimes quite vast, involving sums that dwarf the amounts involved in these vetoes that you hear so much fuss about.

What is needed is a fundamental reassessment of what state government does and what it needs to do, to be followed by the drafting of a completely new system of taxation to pay for those things. Our elected officials never come close to undertaking these admittedly Herculean tasks. But they should. The way we fund state government needs a complete overhaul, and spending time arguing about, say, the “Darlington Watershed Project” doesn’t get us there.

This is something I’ve long understood, and often tried to communicate. I was reminded of it again at the Columbia Rotary Club meeting on Monday.

Our speaker was SC Secretary of Transportation Robert C. St. Onge Jr. He’s a former Army major general, having retired in 2003 — until Nikki Haley asked him to take on DOT in January 2011. Some of his friends congratulated him at the time. Those were the naive ones. The savvy would have offered condolences.

Normally, public speakers like to inspire with phrases such as “From Good to Great.” Sec. St. Onge’s talk was far more down-to-Earth, far more realistic. He entitled it “Getting to Good.” And once he laid out what it would take for SC to get to “good enough” — to get all of the roads we have NOW up to snuff, much less building any roads we don’t have but may need for our economy to grow — it was obvious that we aren’t likely to get there any time soon.

The secretary started out with some background on how we have the fourth-largest state-maintained highway system in the country, after Texas, North Carolina and Virginia. He didn’t have time to explain why that is, but I will: It’s because until 1975, county government did not exist in South Carolina. Local needs were seen to by the county legislative delegation, one of the more stunning examples of how our Legislature has appropriated to itself functions that are not properly those of a state legislature. When we got Home Rule, supposedly, in 1975 and county councils were formed, many functions that had been done on the state level stayed there. So it is that roads that would have been maintained by county road departments in other states are handled by the state here. It’s not that we have more roads, you see — it’s that more of them are the state’s responsibility.

He also noted how woefully underfunded our system is. Georgia, for instance, has less road surface to maintain, but twice the funding to get the job done — and three times as many employees per mile. He alluded to why that is, and I’ll explain: We have the most penny-pinching state government I’ve ever seen, with lawmakers who (contrary to the fantasies you hear from the likes of Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley) would rather be tortured than raise adequate money to fund a decent state government. OK, so the retired general didn’t explain it that way. He just mentioned the fact that we haven’t raised the inadequate gasoline tax that funds his department since 1987 (the year I arrived back in SC to work at The State). Add to that the fact that the tax is levied per gallon rather than per dollar spent, and you have a recipe for a crumbling road system.

Here’s the secretary’s full PowerPoint presentation if you want to look at it. If you don’t, at least look these representative slides, which sketch out the basic challenges…

Above compares us to neighboring states. Note that only North Carolina has our bizarre problem owning responsibility for most of the roads.

This is a breakdown of the categories of roads SC maintains at the state level. Note that almost half are secondary roads for which the state gets no federal funds. This is where the state is squeezed the hardest.

Above is what it would take to get just the interstates in SC up to “good” condition, and keep them there.

This is what it would cost to fix up and maintain all those secondary roads, which make up most of the state’s responsibility.

This is the most important slide. This is what South Carolina needs to spend, and has no plans to spend, to get the roads it has NOW up to good condition, and maintain them in that condition.

Gov. Haley could arguably justify ALL of her vetoes by saying, “We need to put it all into our crumbling roads.” Then, after she had eviscerated all of those agencies as being less important than our basic infrastructure, she would have to turn around and call for a significant increase in the state gasoline tax, to come up with the rest of what is needed.

But our elected state leaders never go there. They either don’t understand this state’s basic needs, or aren’t honest enough to level with us about them. They’d rather truckle to populist, unfocused, unthinking resentment of taxes, and government in general, than be responsible stewards of our state’s basic resources.

That’s the money picture. Beyond that, here are some small things that in the aggregate add up to a big problem. If our governor won’t take on fully funding our state roads system, maybe she could work with the Legislature to get rid of some of the worst white elephants that DOT is saddled with:

This is a parking lot in Fairfield County that DOT is required to maintain. Sec. St. Onge would like to get rid of it, but can’t.

Ignore the dirt road, and look at the cemetery that DOT is required to maintain in Saluda County. Sec. St. Onge would like to get rid of that, too, but he can’t.

Here’s a road leading to a church in Florence County, which DOT is also required to maintain. The church is the only thing that the road leads to. Sec. St. Onge would like to give it to the church, and the church’s pastor would like to have it. But guess what? They can’t make it happen.

So… I’ve given you examples here from but ONE agency illustrating how we tolerate the intolerable, and refuse to fund the necessary, in our state government. THIS is the sort of thing we should be discussing, instead of having unnecessary culture wars over the Arts Commission.

A couple of last thoughts: Before any of you who think like Nikki Haley’s base start trying to dismiss all this by quibbling about what “good” means, or going on a rant about how these government bureaucrats just always exaggerate the need for funds in order to pad their fiefdoms, consider the following:

  1. This is Nikki Haley’s chosen guy to run DOT, not some “career bureaucrat” she inherited.
  2. This is a retired general officer — a guy with a very comfortable, generous retirement package — who did not have to take this job, and does not need it to improve his lot or to define himself. He’s about as objective and practical a source you can find for leveling with you about such things as this.

45 thoughts on “SC DOT: One example of how SC constantly underfunds basic functions of government

  1. Steven Davis II

    Then there’s his biggest expense, salaries. The DOT works like this, if Employee A gets a raise, then everyone else who has the same state title gets an equal raise. Go look at the state salary databases and sort them by DOT then by salary… jobs will show up in blocks of like employees.

    The state legislature won’t even let loose of the school buses… and you expect them to let loose of roads? Ha!!!

  2. Mark Stewart

    I kind of like that the state controls the majority of the secondary roads. Of course, with control should come responsibility.

    Anyway, those charts look like data analysis for social workers (sorry if anyone’s offended) – they look bright and compelling. But that’s about all.

    If someone is going to make a serious attempt to capture the attention of a fairly astute audience, they ought to back up their point with informative and unbiased analytical insights that are relevant at the scale being discussed. That is how to build consensus for action within a community. These irrelevancies look like the kind of thing lobbyists spoon feed to legislators.

    One area where road issues should remain a county-based responsibility is with capacity funding. The state has proven itself to be a horrible selector of enhancement priorities – and the counties now just want to pass the buck to the state. So make the local politicians and (growing) populations pay for the capacity improvements that they really want to institute. And then let the state maintain the roads thereafter. The largest single item of need is capacity; whack away at that one first. I don’t care about 8′ wide single layer driveways to churches et al. That’s classic governmental duck and fake – from both elected officials and bureaucrats.

  3. Juan Caruso

    Brad, your lambaste of SCDOT is not so much the biased attack on non-lawyer Haley it appears, but simple misapplication of facts you cite (via Sen. Sheheen, no doubt).

    Why, for instance would Florida devote 63 employees per hundred miles of state roads? Duh, could it have anything to do with average roadway elevations (very low), sinkhole occurrence (above average), and tropical storm damage (readers already know that answer)?

    Also, Florida per capita income (2011) was $271 higher than the US average. South Carolina’s per capita income was $6,930 LESS than the U.S. average.

    Does it not make better sense, even to left-leaning journalists, to prioritize the growth and influx of businesses to increase per capita income? Are you overlooking the outstanding job your governor is doing in that realm despite the very title “The engine for economic development in South Carolina”?

    You noted, “…that only North Carolina has our bizarre problem owning responsibility for most of the roads.” No wonder, Brad, NC’s per capita income is $4,352 less than the national average.

    Like a typical left-winger (I hear your frequent and fervent protests already) you ignore the pertinent and clamor irrationally that “South Carolina appropriates far too little for some of the most fundamental functions for which we rightly look to the public sector.” and

    To your credit, you are holding official feet to the fire and do make one good point: “…almost half are secondary roads for which the state gets no federal funds. Why? You overlook the fact that our small state is underrepresented in D.C. (although the influx of refuges from higher tax union states has added to our delegation last census). Actually, “This is where the state is squeezed the hardest.”

    The cemetery that DOT is required to maintain in Saluda County is an abomination dating to an era of Democrat supremacy in the state, under a lawyer-governor. While less than a drop in the SCDOT’s bucket, it reflects the state’s sad history of crony politics that is still with us.

  4. Karen McLeod

    Only when a bridge disintegrates, killing anyone who happens to be on it at the moment, will our government pay attention to the problem. It’s likely that they’ll squander time and money playing the ‘blame game’ rather than taking constructive steps to correct the problem.

  5. Tavis Micklash

    I totally agree with the priorities argument. Honestly that is what many people are truly arguing for when they rail against government spending.

    The vetoes are a distraction. As I’ve said in earlier posts its merely a ruse to appeal to the ideological base.

    Nikki Haley isn’t the TRUE problem here. She didn’t write this budget. It was the legisature.

    This is a problem that can’t be solved by any governor. Its gotta come from the house and senate chambers.

    So as much as these vetoes are a distraction its not as much due to governor’s school or arts commission as the governor and legislature.

    Then again there is plenty of blame to go around. The captain sets the mood of the ship.

  6. Bryan Caskey

    As an initial matter, I agree that maintaining roads is a core function of government.

    I drive all over the state for my job, including smaller counties and the less traveled secondary roads. Personally, I’ve never encountered a road where I thought “Wow, someone needs to get this road fixed.” Obviously, that’s anecdotal, and not empirical, but I think many people share this experience.

    I thought the most interesting part of your post/the DOT’s presentation were the places that DOT wants to release, but for some reason, cannot. For instance, what’s the holdup on the Church taking over for the DOT? Who’s stopping that transaction from taking place, and why?

  7. bud

    I have a conflict of interest here so I’m not going to comment a whole lot other than to say Brad’s main point is correct, the DOT does need an infusion of cash to better maintain its very large highway system. Other than that this issue is exceptionally complex.

  8. Kathryn Fenner

    Canadian households are, on average, worth $40K more than American ones. Perhaps adequate government funding and regulation isn’t such a bad idea.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    and I am a lefty, and I know many lefties, and Brad is no lefty. He is a communitarian, and in that regard has lot in common with lefties, but his stance on social issues is quite the opposite, for one.

  10. Brad

    … and on national and collective security. That’s where I have some of my most intense arguments with the left.

    For instance, Tony Blair’s argument for our involvement in Iraq was to a great extent a communitarian one. I agreed with it completely, of course.

  11. Steven Davis II

    “Canadian households are, on average, worth $40K more than American ones. ”

    Because they don’t have nearly the number of leeches we do in this country.

    “Brad’s main point is correct, the DOT does need an infusion of cash to better maintain its very large highway system. ”

    Did someone plant another money tree? All this talk about spending more money, but nobody has said a word on where this money is coming from. Just another typical cart before the horse discussion on this blog.

  12. bud

    Brad, your lambaste of SCDOT is not so much the biased attack on non-lawyer Haley it appears, but simple misapplication of facts you cite (via Sen. Sheheen, no doubt).

    Seriously Juan, I didn’t read a single word of what you wrote after this gratuitous slap at lawyers. Your point, whatever it may be, is poisoned by this ongoing meme.

  13. bud

    SD II, do you really want to ride across a bridge that’s not properly maintained? Do you want to spend hundreds of dollars on alignments whenever you hit a pothole? Do you want to ride on roads that are not safe? There are many funding options to address these needs but to simply launch into this stock rhetorical blather about money is foolish. If the roads are not maintained and there are no public transportation options then it will cost you one way or another to drive on the existing roads. That’s just a truism.

  14. Brad

    Actually, Bud, there’s a simpler answer to Steven’s question about “where this money is coming from.”

    The answer is:

    The gasoline tax.

    I thought I made that plain. I mean, you can come up with some other plan if you like, but we already have a mechanism in place. That’s where most state road money comes from.

  15. Brad

    And Bud, I know you don’t like the fact, but “collective security” has been a central concern of U.S. policy ever since 1945, regardless of which party has held the White House.

    If we lost our focus on that, it would be a gross abdication of responsibility to the rest of the world on the part of the world’s strongest (by far) military power, largest economy and largest and oldest liberal democracy.

    As I say, I know you don’t like it, but fortunately everyone who has held the office of commander in chief in my lifetime fundamentally understands it.

  16. Brad

    Mark — as to your comment about these charts been simplistic… They seems pretty standard to me, in terms of PowerPoint slides meant to accompany a speech. Their basic purpose is to reinforce a spoken point. It’s easier for an audience to take in a number if you show it at the same time you say it.

    If you’re sitting down with an expert who really wants to dig into the numbers, they’re inadequate. But they seem to me to serve the modest purpose for which they were intended…

  17. Steven Davis II

    @bud – If you travel across country you experience things that you asked about every single day.

    @Brad – If this is self funded, why is bud asking about more money for the program?

    It’s just idiotic that people think of projects and if they snap their fingers correctly the money just magically appears.

  18. Brad

    Bryan asks a good question when he writes, “Who’s stopping that transaction from taking place, and why?”

    It’s the sort of question I would have asked, if this had been an interview rather than a speech.

    My assumption, when he said it, was that the answer is the usual answer: He can’t do anything about it because that responsibility is statutory. The Legislature would have to change some of the basic rules that govern what he is responsible for. But I could be wrong…

  19. Kathy

    This type of post is the reason I started reading what you wrote for The State. Please continue to explain how state government works. Between the liberal spin and the libertarian spin, there is little objective communication about state government. I’m a little more conservative than you and maybe a little more cynical. However, I still have some hope that enough people will understand some of the things SC needs and figure out how to make our government function as it should (at least in some areas).

    I was reminded a few days ago that SC had over 80,000 state employees when Carroll Campbell was governor. Today SC state employees number 58,000. Yet, we still have people screeching about too many state employees even though our population has grown quite a bit.

    Please write more posts like this one.

  20. bud

    The gasoline tax option is fine but it does have a problem. Cars are becoming increasingly more fuel efficient especially hybrids and all-electric models. That would probably work for now but at some future time it may not be viable.

  21. Steven Davis II

    @bud – And the number of over the road trucks has doubled in the past 10 years. So just because someone buys a Prius or Volt doesn’t mean bridges won’t get repaired or roads resurfaced.

    If a perfect world, bridges would get replaced every 20 years and road resurfaced every 5. Unless someone budgets a trillion dollars to the DOT every year that’s not going to happen and we’re stuck with bridges that barely pass inspection and roads with patchwork and potholes. Doing the work isn’t the problem, paying for it is.

  22. bud

    I dunno. Oil consumption has remained stagnant or even declined a bit since the beginning of the Bush recession and shows little sign of recovery. With the devastating drought wiping out the corn crop ethanol prices are likely to soar. All this talk of huge oil production from the Bakken fields in ND is very optimistic. With auto makers responding with smaller, more fuel efficent cars the end of the gasoline tax gravy train is in sight. And so is the prospect of the DOT using that as a solution to it’s funding woes.

  23. Mark Stewart

    I’ll bite, Brad.

    I did say that the data analysis should relate to the discussion at hand. No point getting all wonkish and detail-oriented when the larger policy issues are what is really at play. That said; data ought to support and clarify the veracity of what is said.

    The Secretary’s charts do not effectively do this.


    – The number of DOT employees per 100 miles of roadway is not only completely meaningless – it is obfuscation.

    – Same with the total number of DOT employees. Stating how many per 1,000,000 population might be more accurate, but still not terribly informative.

    – It’s nice that traffic engineers believe $340 million per year is needed to get the capacity of the Interstates up to “good”; but two problems, these are really federal costs and most people would disagree with the idea of forever widening in search of some utopian freeway cruising experience.

    – For the Interstate’s he quantifies the capacity needs; for the secondary system he quantifies the maintenance needs. These are apples and oranges. Yes, they are big numbers. But I am not enlightened as to what they mean or how they compare.

    – His “Call to Action” lists $1.4 billion per year. Is this for the State portion, given that much of the system is really federally supported, or is this sum the State’s net share? What amount, for reference is currently spent by the State?

    – Spare me the three photos: More wasted manpower has already been spent researching, compiling, distributing and discussing these nuisances than it costs per decade to maintain these surfaces.

    – Finally, if the gas tax is the issue and the potential basis of a more stable solution, why was no data incorporated to demonstrate this and reinforce the words?

    It’s a typical governmental hack job. I hate to be harsh, but this is just the way all levels of government typically stumble. I don’t know, maybe this stuff works great at the State House.

    It would appear that SCDOT needs both some management consulting as well as some public relations input. The DOT has a point. They seem not to be able to articulate it in a way that can shape informed public opinion.

  24. Mark Stewart


    Wow! If I can garner your support, then I might just be able to do it. Politically we seem to differ quite often, although there is a lot to agree on out there when the rational and the fair take precedence over posturing and pandering.

  25. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn – Brad deleted my first response so I’ll respond a second time with just one word.


  26. Steve Gordy

    Close analysis of data as a means of making vital decisions about state policies and programs? The horror, the horror . . .

  27. Brad

    Just to make sure everyone understands… Steve, and Mark… this wasn’t a DOT commission meeting or anything like that — the sort of thing that would be awash in dense spreadsheets. It was a Rotary speech, an occasion for giving the broad view.

    And the reason I even shared it with you was to contrast our governor’s quibbling over a few hundred thousand here, three or four million there, when the big picture is that this one agency is underfunded by nearly a billion and a half.

    Now we could haul out the dense spreadsheets, and we could have a mighty, rip-roaring argument about the meaning of “good” — and I doubt that mine would be precisely the same as that of Gen. St. Onge. But the bottom line is that ANY assessment I’ve seen over the course of years and years indicates that basic road maintenance has been significantly underfunded for some time — whatever number you assign to it. Maybe we’d decide the roads would be fine with a third of that billion-and-a-half. Fine. It wouldn’t change the overall point.

    Just as our prisons have been underfunded. And our highway patrol (which is why I gave Nikki an attagirl for wanting to spend on troopers rather than something else).

    That’s what underlies all these things we argue about, for no better reason than it stirs the blood of the governor’s base. And I point to it only to say that people wringing their hands about “the growth of government” are looking in precisely the wrong direction, missing the fact that we’ve been underspending on basic government functions for years. And no, vetoing string bean museums or whatever isn’t going to fix that deficit.

    If we had a conscientious governor who really wanted to exercise some stewardship, he or she would be jumping on board, along with Chris Christie and others, with Lamar Alexander’s bill to put e-commerce within the sales tax universe.

    States like South Carolina, with its overemphasis on the sales tax, already had a big problem before the economic downturn. And that is that — totally aside from all the exemptions we allow — the pie from which the sales tax is sliced has been shrinking, and will continue to do so until something like Lamar’s bill passes.

  28. Doug Ross

    “Just as our prisons have been underfunded. And our highway patrol (which is why I gave Nikki an attagirl for wanting to spend on troopers rather than something else).”

    And our schools… and our arts programs… and our buses… and our park systems… and our libraries…

    The money has to come from somewhere. There’s enough to fund things like the Hunley and other non-essential items and there is a hospitality tax that provides negligible benefit. This is why you get the backlash against additional spending. When the legislature decides to spend money on certain things and not others, they are saying that those things are more important than the others. That’s why Nikki Haley is right to say “No” as much as she wants to.

    The problem is the legislature. The culprits are the legislators who have been in office for decades. Nothing will change until those people are removed from office. You can shake your fist at Nikki Haley all you want but she is not the problem. Harrell and Leatherman are.

  29. Steven Davis II

    “when the big picture is that this one agency is underfunded by nearly a billion and a half.”

    So how much are you contributing to the cause?

    I suspect arguing and complaining about it is fine until they ask you to take out your checkbook.

  30. Mark Stewart


    I hate quoting myself, but as I first wrote about your post “If someone is going to make a serious attempt to capture the attention of a fairly astute audience, they ought to back up their point with informative and unbiased analytical insights that are relevant at the scale being discussed.”

    Never did I suggest he needed to data deluge the Rotary meeting.

    I agree with the basic premise – our infrastructure in this state is seriously underfunded and this has serious long-term economic consequences for us all – but, as I see too often in these sorts of presentations, the pitch lacked both focus and veracity. This is harder to articulate, but there is something also out of tune to react to the long and serious underfunding problem by throwing up seemingly insurmountable figures that will never, ever, be achieved. One shouldn’t shoot too low either. It’s a tough problem. That’s why relating the underfunding gap (honestly portrayed) to the history of actual expenditures seems so important.

    It was great that the Governor’s misguided veto of local governments seeking out new revenue sources to pay for desired local services was overridden by the legislature. Then I read in The State this morning that Lexington County wants to institute a sales tax to fund needed road work. They ought to raise residential property tax rates to fund this type of infrastructure work. Continuing to further unbalance the three-legged revenue stool is almost counter-productive; even though something is probably better than nothing.

  31. Steven Davis II

    Isn’t it a shame when infrastructures deteriorate, but we’ll fund social programs as if we were flush with money? I’m sure we need a $95,000 Arts Commission Director more than a $95,000 DOT engineer.

  32. Barry

    The slides were fine. Nothing wrong with them – nothing wrong with them considering the point that was being made either.

    I enjoyed downloading and looking at the entire presentation.

    Mark wrote “I kind of like that the state controls the majority of the secondary roads. Of course, with control should come responsibility”

    I don’t like it at all -especially considering “responsibility’ for them isn’t even on the radar in many instances.

  33. Steven Davis II

    Barry – Some here think the state government should have their hands in everything. Why this state runs a school bus program is beyond me. Every other state leaves it up to the school districts. Apparently those in the Statehouse don’t have the confidence in the school districts of being able to purchase and maintain something as complex as a schoolbus.

  34. Brad

    Again, the state runs the school buses (or most of them — there are those districts where they’ve been privatized, which means they are now unionized) for the same reason that the state maintains most of the roads: The Legislative State, in which the Legislature ran everything, including local governments.

    That supposedly changed with Home Rule in the mid 1970s, but it didn’t. There remain all sorts of vestiges of the previous arrangement.

  35. Michael Rodgers

    An arts commission provides much money to the state by helping make the state a better place to live. The real job creators like to live in place with a thriving art community. An NPV study would tell us, as a state, to spend more on the arts.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *