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SC Senate refuses to give priority status to road-funding bill; GOP senators ask for more time

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The South Carolina Senate refused Thursday to give priority status to a bill funding road and bridge construction.

The 26-19 vote failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority to give special debate status to an issue that both lawmakers and business leaders have called their top priority this year. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and Manufacturers Alliance are among those calling on legislators to address South Carolina's roads now.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler urged senators to give him more time to work toward a compromise with Republican senators who won't support the proposal as written. The bill raises an additional $800 million yearly for roads through increasing gas taxes and sales taxes on vehicles, as well as fees on drivers' licenses and alternative-fuel vehicles.

"We've got to take time on this and do it right," said Peeler, R-Gaffney.

Senators of both parties pointed out they're running out of time, and the Senate must get to the debate to make any changes. The session ends June 4, and the Senate is expected to spend at least all of next week debating its state budget plan. An anti-abortion bill already threatens to bog that chamber down for the remaining weeks.

"All we're asking now is to put it in position so when you come up with your supernatural compromise that will make everyone happy, we'll at least be in a position to move," said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia.

Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman said such a plan will never materialize.

"If this group can come up with something all senators will agree with, the end of times is here," said Leatherman, R-Florence. "That's magic I've never seen before. ... Let's move forward with this most crucial thing."

Democrats accused Republicans of killing the bill, since all "no" votes were Republicans. Leatherman was among eight Republicans voting "yes" to priority status.

"I'm ashamed of what we did today," said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. "We're sending a message to the people of South Carolina we're not serious about fixing the roads problem. This is an indictment on the entire process."

Even if the Senate passes a plan, much work remains. The House passed its road-funding plan two weeks ago 87-20 — enough for a veto-proof majority — but it's vastly different than the Senate's current proposal, raising an additional $400 million yearly.

But Peeler insists the Legislature can still pass an infrastructure package before going home for the year — just not as is.

Whatever the Senate comes up with must somehow address Haley's reform and income-tax stipulations, Peeler said. He doesn't want to debate the bill until there's a plan that can either garner Haley's support or enough Senate support to override her veto.

Those votes don't yet exist, but "we've moved some hard 'Nos' into soft 'Maybes,'" he said, declining to name anyone. "It's just a tender situation."

Haley has insisted she will veto any road-funding bill that doesn't also give her office full control of the Department of Transportation and substantially cut personal income taxes. Currently, the DOT is in her Cabinet, but its director also reports to a legislatively appointed commission.

Legislators of both parties have balked at her plan to cut income taxes by $1.8 billion yearly when fully implemented.

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