By Robert Kittle
South Carolina lawmakers went back to work Tuesday at noon, starting the second year of their two-year session. That means bills from last year are still alive, but anything that doesn't pass this year is dead and would have to be re-introduced and start over next year.
It's possible they could do something that's extremely rare: pass a tax increase. "I think there's going to be quite an extensive conversation about a gasoline tax," says Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens, who chairs the House Education and Public Works Committee that deals with roads.
"I'm hearing from my constituents throughout Pickens County and as well as throughout the state, I'm hearing from the South Carolina Trucking Association, there are those out there who say, 'It's time for a gas tax increase.' Will the body be supportive of that? Well, that's yet to be seen," he says.
South Carolina's gas tax of about 16 cents a gallon hasn't been raised since 1987 and since it's not indexed to inflation it hasn't kept up. The SCDOT says it needs more than $1 billion a year in additional money to just to bring roads and bridges up to a condition considered "good".
Gov. Nikki Haley says she will veto a gas tax increase, though. When she announced her budget plan for next year on Monday, it included using any "new" money each year for roads. If the next ten years follow the recent average of more than $106 million a year in "new" money, that would be more than $1 billion for roads.
But Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, says, "We generated about a billion dollars this last year, and that makes, let's see, 1/26th of what we need. So of course it's not enough."
He's proposing raising the gas tax by two cents a gallon per year for ten years, bringing the tax up to 36 cents a gallon. He points out that would still be lower than North Carolina's, which is currently 37.6 cents a gallon but varies based on wholesale price.
"I would hope that the governor would change her position and say, 'It's more important for us to do the right thing and not the re-election thing,' and actually get something through that this DOT can use to build the road system that our citizens deserve," Sen. Cleary says.
Another major issue lawmakers will be debating is the governor's education plan, which she announced last week. It includes more than $160 million in new spending on high-poverty school districts, reading improvement, and new technology for students.
Rep. Owens, whose committee will also deal with that plan, says he thinks it's got a good chance and sounds like it would improve state schools. "I think it will get a lot of attention this year," he says. But, "Being the end of a two-year cycle, and with the budget issues, I think it'll have to be on a pretty fast track to get through the session."