Folks, let’s pay for our roads ourselves, OK?

SC House

Good for these House members:

A plan to raise S.C. gas taxes by roughly $60 a year was approved Tuesday by a panel of S.C. House members.

The bill will be considered by the full S.C. House budget-writing panel on Thursday.

The proposal is an effort to address the the $1 billion a year the Transportation Department has said it needs to repair and maintain the state’s existing road network….

And good for Speaker Jay Lucas and the other leaders who’ve gotten behind a bill to do the obvious: raise the gas tax to improve our roads.

I haven’t written about this courageous and rational move because I hadn’t fully made up my mind what to say about it. It’s basically a laudable, long-overdue proposal that is nevertheless seriously flawed.

The reasons why it’s laudable and long-overdue are obvious to all but those rendered blind by ideology:

  • This tax is our state’s mechanism for paying for roads.
  • We need road repairs, and don’t have enough money.
  • Our gas tax is one of the lowest in the country.
  • It hasn’t been raised since 1987.

So, you know, duh — raise it. Especially since we no longer have a governor who absurdly (and we’re talking Alice in Wonderland absurdity) threatened to veto a gas tax increase that wasn’t accompanied by a much larger decrease in other taxes, thereby more than erasing any benefit from raising the gas tax.

But here’s the rub: It’s not paired with reform of the state Department of Transportation. And it needs to be. That agency needs to be more accountable before we give it more money.

Unfortunately, after last year’s non-reform of the agency, the most recent in a long line of non-reforms our General Assembly has handed us, there’s little appetite or energy for trying again this year, knowing the same obstacles exist. As Cindi wrote today, “the reality is that if our best advocate, House Speaker Jay Lucas, isn’t pushing reform, we’re not going to get reform.”

So that’s that. (Oh, and if you decry the power Hugh Leatherman regained upon his re-election as president pro tem of the Senate, this is an issue where you have a point — he’s a big obstacle to reform.)

Bottom line, we need to raise the tax, and we need reform. I haven’t yet fully decided what I would do were I a lawmaker. But I do admire the courage of those who finally broke the ridiculous taboo in that committee vote today — while I hope against hope for some reform to get attached to it later in the process.

But while I’m torn on that, I’m not on this: I’m not in favor of “solving” the problem by asking our new governor’s buddy Donald Trump to just give us $5 billion for infrastructure.

To begin with, it’s not a solution. Since $4 billion of that would go to roads, that kicks the problem down the road four years, no more. Which, conveniently, would be after the date that Henry McMaster hopes to be elected to stay as governor.

Given what we’ve seen from this Legislature over the last two decades and more, it is highly unlikely that it will be in the mood to raise the gas tax or any other tax four years from now. The fact that the House leadership is ready to do so now is something of a miracle — possibly resulting from giddiness over the departure of Nikki Haley — and unlikely to be duplicated.

Then there’s the fact that the federal government exists to fund and address national needs and priorities. There is no proposal currently on the table (that I know of) that would provide this level of funding nationally, so why should South Carolina — a state that with its super-low gas tax has refused even to try to pay for its own roads — be singled out for such largess? And no, “Because the president owes our governor big-time” is not an ethical answer. It probably makes sense in the deal-oriented private world Donald Trump has always inhabited, but to say the very least, it’s not good government.

My position on this is much the same as my reasoning against the state lottery way back when — public education is a basic function of the state, and if we want good schools, we should do what responsible grownups do: dig into our pockets and pay for them, not try to trick someone else into paying for them.

Similarly, if we want safe and reliable roads, we shouldn’t rely on some deus ex machina — or worse, cronyism — to deliver us from the responsibility of paying for them.

I see now that Henry is saying raising the gas tax should be the “last resort.” No, governor, trying to pay for our own needs ourselves should be our first resort. At least, it should come well before taking the begging cup to Washington. Besides, we’ve avoided doing this for 30 years now. How long do you go before it’s time for the “last resort?”


20 thoughts on “Folks, let’s pay for our roads ourselves, OK?

  1. Doug Ross

    Without reform, it’s a non-starter. I want to see a prioritized list of projects in simple form. When will they start, when are they planned to end, and how much will they cost? Give us the list, make the tax temporary and then let’s measure how they do on execution. Then we can decide again in four years if they are doing their job. You know – like everyone else has to do in the real world.

    I’m not sure where the millions they are getting now is going. It sure doesn’t appear to be delivering anything approaching quality results. There’s a section of 321 near I20 that has had a lane closed for months and nothing appears to be in the works there. There are simple paving tasks that should be able to be completed in days that are never addressed.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Me, I keep thinking of what DOT could repair with the money they want to spend destroying my neighborhood with an Interstate connector.

      I never filed a followup on that after the big community meeting, mainly because I always feel awkward reporting on news developments that affect me personally. But it affects a LOT of other people as well, so I should probably get back to it.

      Do you realize this is the biggest roads project ever in the history of DOT? The destruction of my neighborhood — if they go that way — is just one piece of a HUGE project that affects miles and miles of 26, 20 and 126. What they’re planning to do just goes on and on.

      Meanwhile, there are on and off-ramps in that area that are literally disintegrating…

      1. bud

        Ok word main, the ramps are NOT LITERALLY disintegrating. They may need significant repairs but disintegrating is really a bit over the top don’t you think? I drive through there every single day and the area does need an extensive overhaul. But it still functions. We need to dial the rhetoric back a bit so we can address this in a rational manner.

        1. Doug Ross

          Don’t you know that you cannot describe South Carolina’s roads without using the adjective “crumbling”?

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          No, I mean literally. There’s a place or two where the little chunks of broken pavement kick up and hit the underside of my car when I accelerate to merge with the Interstate traffic.

          That is what “disintegrate” means. The first definition Google gives me for the word is “break up into small parts, typically as the result of impact or decay.” And that’s what I was trying to describe.

          I deliberately avoided “crumbling,” even though that would have been accurate, too, because we always have to hear Doug complain about it. Also, I actually agree that the word is overused.

          But no, I did not mean the on ramps were going “poof” and disappearing, as though Marvin the Martian had aimed a Disintegration Ray at them. Although “disintegrate” can also mean “undergo or cause to undergo disintegration at a subatomic level”…

          1. bud

            Disintegrate would more correctly define what happened to the battlecrusier Hood when it’s magazine exploded. Or perhaps the Challenger. It overstates the the magnitude of the road deterioration.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              We’ve got other d-words. How about “degrade” and “destroy”?

              You know, like Obama said we were gonna do with ISIS? Except with our roads, it’s more of a passive-aggressive thing rather than a kinetic military action.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  It’s one of those words that sounds way dirtier than it is.

                  I wish Congress would hurry up and defenestrate Trump. And I don’t mean “throw him out of a window.” I mean, “remove or dismiss him from a position of power or authority.”

                  Actually, they could throw him out of a window, too, as long as it’s on the ground floor and he lands on a soft shrubbery (“Ni!”). I don’t want to hurt him. I just want out of office…

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      And Doug, as I said above, this is one Leatherman deserves to be hammered on. He, and a lot of the Democrats who re-elected him (and some of the Republicans as well) fit in the tax-increase-yes, reform-no camp.

      Of course, there’s another camp in the Senate that’s tax-increase-no, reform-yes.

      The number that are with me on reform AND funding are relatively few, I fear…

      1. Doug Ross

        Because, perhaps, reform might prevent tax dollars from being directed to companies in which he or his family members have a financial interest? Naw… couldn’t be that.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Actually, I think the objection is broader than that. Traditionally, a broad range of senators have resisted reform because (and I admit I’m imputing motive here, so Mitch McConnell would want to shut e up right now) they feel like each of them personally has more control over road priorities under the existing system. At least, that would seem to be the cause. I don’t recall offhand when anyone has stood up and SAID that.

          Doug, the world has many people in it who value power and prerogatives for their own sake, not just in terms of how much money it puts in their pockets. Not everyone is Donald Trump…

          But yeah, the business he has been in provides an ADDITIONAL reason for concern…

          1. Lynn Teague

            I think you are right, Brad. The primary motive for reform opponents has been a pretty explicit wish to maintain some level of control. Senators have said as much on the floor, and they are being honest. This is a long-running issue. A group of my ancestors started in 1795 petitioning to have “the road to the courthouse” from the Santee area to Orangeburg in Orangeburg County made a public road. It happened about the time one of them became a state senator.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              “Senators have said as much on the floor, and they are being honest.”

              See, that’s the advantage of being there at the State House. It’s one of those things I think I KNOW, but haven’t been there to hear in person.

              Having been an editor managing people who covered the State House for so many years, there are all sorts of things I “know,” but can’t tell how I know them. When I get ready to write one of those things, I hesitate, and then check my memory via email with an old colleague with a better memory than mine. But I try not to do that too often, lest the well of tolerance dry up. It’s one thing to pepper people with such questions when they’re paid to get you answers; quite another when you’re presuming upon friendship…

    3. bud

      I think the list idea is laudable but could be problematic if voters don’t understand the ranking process. But it’s not a bad idea. The 4 year limit is unworkable. Then what? Thats way too short a time frame to even show tangible progress. It may take 20 years.

      As for yet another restructuring scheme. Pleez. It’s time for action, not more counter productive deck chair rearranging.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Bud, as I’ve said SO many times over the years… The Legislature has yet even to TRY to reform DOT, because they don’t want to.

        A couple of times — or is it three — over the years that you and I have argued about this, lawmakers have indeed rearranged deck chairs and CALLED it “reform.” But each time, Cindi Scoppe and/or I have been very clear that it was a dodge, and nothing was really fixed.

        So you can’t say “reform” has been tried and failed. It hasn’t happened yet…

        1. bud

          If it ain’t broke don’t “fix” it. Having a commission removed from the grubby hands of one of our reactionary governors makes sense to me.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    I’m very serious about being torn about this.

    The House leadership’s willingness to act rationally and raise the gas tax is a miraculous opportunity — one we haven’t seen in 30 years. It’s very hard not to seize the opportunity, because it may never come again.

    But what other leverage do we have to get the Legislature to do something else it (or at least, the Senate) doesn’t want to do, which is reform the agency?

    That makes me want to withhold the money — but do we continue to just let the roads get worse and worse, less and less safe, in other to have leverage in a political debate? That would be tough to explain to the loved ones of someone who just died on a road that we’ve known for years and years need to be fixed….

  3. Charlie

    Giving more money to crooks in the hope that a little bit more might actually drip down into real improvement to the infrastructure is vain and foolish. It doesn’t matter if it comes from DC or SC gas pumps.

    BETTER IDEA: Audit the SCDOT.

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