By Robert Kittle
Some Republicans in the South Carolina House, who are usually against any kind of tax increase, are now proposing raising the gas tax as the fairest and most responsible way to pay for the state's road and bridge needs.
Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, a retired Clemson economist, introduced a bill Wednesday that would raise the gasoline user fee by 10 cents a gallon. However, for the first two years, South Carolina residents would get a state income tax rebate of the additional gas tax they would pay, so only tourists, visitors and truckers would be actually paying the higher gas tax.
"Taking money out of the general budget to fund our road maintenance problems puts all of the burden on people who live in South Carolina and we're letting the people who drive through our state, mainly tourists and truckers, have a free pass," he says.
His plan would bring in an additional $335 million a year for roads, but the rebate to state residents would take $211 million of that each of the first two years, leaving about $124 million more a year for roads. From the third year on, the state would get the entire $335 million a year for roads.
Greenville Republican Tommy Stringer has also introduced a bill to raise the gas tax, this time by 5 cents a gallon, but there would be no rebates and the gas tax would be tied to inflation, so it would adjust automatically to keep up with price increases.
He says most of the drivers he's heard from support the increase. "It's been amazing because, obviously, as a Republican, I have never voted for a tax increase, even the cigarette tax increase. But this is an issue that's staring us in the face now that we need to do something about," he says.
The state Department of Transportation says the state needs $29 billion over the next 20 years just to bring state roads and bridges up to a level considered "good". That's nearly $1.5 billion a year. The House has already approved a bill that would take some of the money that comes from the sales tax on vehicles and put it toward roads and bridges, but that would bring in only about $80 million a year.
The House bills face a tough battle getting through the Republican-controlled House and Senate, and Gov. Nikki Haley has said she would veto any gas tax increase.
When asked about Skelton's bill Wednesday, since it would not cost state drivers any more the first two years, she said, "It doesn't matter. I'm not going to raise the gas tax anyway. We have the money. We just have to prioritize the money. I've already showed how we can give $100 million. The House has already shown they can move sales tax on vehicles over to transportation. It's a matter of us saying yes we want to do it instead of getting tax-happy every time there's an opportunity."
The $100 million she referred to is one-time money the state would put toward roads, coming from the tax revenue the state is taking in being more than expected.
But Rep. Stringer is optimistic about the chances of one of the gas tax bills. "I think that people understand that every time they hit a pothole, it's proof that the government is not fulfilling their core function, and I think people understand that we need to be doing that. So I imagine that, as this gains momentum, you're going to see a lot more of a positive reaction," he says.