COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA)—Gov. Henry McMaster spoke for the first time publicly Wednesday about proposals to raise South Carolina’s gas tax to fix roads. “We must examine all sources, all facts, and make a decision as to the best way to improve the roads, but raising taxes is the absolute last resort, only when we’re in desperate straits,” he told reporters after his first-ever cabinet meeting.
He has sent a letter to President Trump asking for $5 billion in federal money to go toward state roads. He said he’ll travel to Washington soon to meet with the president, or at least “some of his people,” to talk about the request.
A House roads bill includes raising the gas tax by a total of 10 cents a gallon, with the tax going up two cents a gallon a year for five years. The Senate Republican bill would raise it by a total of 12 cents a gallon, going up four cents a year for three years.
But on Wednesday, Senate Democrats announced their own plan. It would raise the gas tax by eight cents a gallon, going up two cents a year for four years.
Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, main sponsor of the House plan, says, “I agree with the governor. You don’t want to pass any tax as a first resort. It’s always as a last resort.”
But he says, having studied the issue for years, “When you look at the ability to pay for roads, a user fee, as in the gas tax, is the best way to pay for roads. Incidentally, about 30 percent of all that funding that is collected at the pump is from people who are outside of South Carolina.”
Sen. RossTurner, R-Greenville, co-sponsor of the Senate Republican roads bill, says, “The great thing is everybody’s coming to the table. If we can end up solving the roads problem without a gas tax, that’s fine with me. Just it seems a little concerning that you’d take something off the table right off the top that brings in potentially 30 percent from out-of-state people.”
Any bill is still months away from passing the legislature. The House bill passed unanimously Tuesday in a House subcommittee and could be voted on by a full committee Thursday. If that committee passes the bill, it then goes to the full House floor. If it passes there, it would then go to the Senate. The Senate’s bill hasn’t even come up in subcommittee yet.
Lawmakers who support the bills say a gas tax increase, along with other fee increases in the bills, are the only way to raise enough money to improve state roads. The state’s gas tax of 16.75 cents a gallon is the second-lowest in the nation, while the state maintains one of the largest networks of state-maintained roads. The gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1987, while the price of labor, asphalt, rights-of-way, and everything else associated with building and maintaining roads has gone up for 30 years. And while there are more cars on the roads, creating more wear and tear, the average gas mileage has gone up, meaning the amount of money the gas tax brings in has remained flat.
But critics say the state shouldn’t give any additional money to the SCDOT without additional reforms at the agency. Lawmakers passed reforms last year, and while some lawmakers say they should wait until those have time to work before they make any more changes, others say other changes are still needed.