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House and Senate each send their own road plans to full chambers; but roadblocks loom


COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The House and Senate are now each sending their own different plans to get more money for South Carolina roads to their full chambers. But even with plenty of action this week, there are road blocks ahead.

The plan passed Thursday by the House Ways and Means Committee would lower the state gas tax by 6 cents and raise the sales tax on fuel by 6 percent. It moves around and shifts some other money to raise an additional $400 million a year for roads.

The House bill also reforms the Department of Transportation by having the governor appoint all the members and includes an income tax cut of about $48 a year for most taxpayers.

The plan passed Wednesday by the Senate Finance Committee raises even more money, although legislative staffers are still trying to figure out how much. It raises the gas tax by 12 cents over three years, ties additional increases to inflation and increases the fees on driver's licenses and vehicle registration.

Neither bill addresses the more than $1 billion a year the state DOT said it needs to get South Carolina roads to good shape by 2040. Pressure is mounting from the business community not just to do something, but to do something substantial.

Not only are there significant differences in both bills that the House and Senate will have to overcome, but the threat of a veto by Gov. Nikki Haley is looming, too. She thinks the Senate plan raises taxes too much and the House's income tax cut is too small.

Haley is still sticking for the most part with her plan she gave during January's State of the State — raise the gas tax by up to 10 cents, reform DOT and substantially cut the state's income tax. Her plan when fully implemented would remove $1.8 billion from the state budget, while the House's tax cut plan would cost about $50 million.

The governor sent her veto threat in a letter to both chambers as their committees began discussing their bills. That meant leaders have to keep in mind the possibility of getting two-thirds support for a bill that involves a tax increase in a very conservative state.

"That's up to her. We're going to do our job and pass a meaningful road bill," House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said. "I think the will of the body is to pass it. We will fix roads."

The House bill passed Thursday also gives counties an option to take back maintenance of some state roads and provides money to pay for them. It includes a moratorium on building any new roads from 2016 to 2020, exempting roads already being designed, interstate projects that get a federal match, new toll roads and roads in a metropolitan area's transportation plan.

White said the bill is still a work in progress and he expects amendments on the floor to change it more. He said he is willing to at least listen to all options, including raising more money.

White thinks the House will take up the roads bill on the floor by the time they return from spring break in mid-April and finish it before the month is over.

The debate in the Senate is more complicated. An objection was put on the Senate bill, and senators couldn't muster the two-thirds vote to remove it Thursday.

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