Senators drove away from Columbia on Thursday with their chances crumbling to pass a bill to repair the state’s crumbling roads.
Republican senators continue to filibuster the road-repair bill. Even if those senators would allow a vote on the bill, the Senate remains divided on whether — or how — to change the structure of the state Transportation Department and another roads agency.
Meanwhile, state representatives on the House’s budget-writing committee — watching the Senate’s inability to act — Wednesday put $250 million for road repairs in their proposed state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Late Wednesday, state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, took over the Senate podium from state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, to continue a filibuster of the road-repair bill. Davis filibustered the bill for four days, including talking for nearly seven hours Tuesday. Last year, he successfully blocked the bill for the last three weeks of the legislative session.
Bright said Thursday there are enough senators opposed to the road-repair bill’s proposed tax hikes — increasing the gas tax and other driving-related fees to pay for road repairs — to continue the filibuster indefinitely.
State Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said Davis argued persuasively that lawmakers need to reform the Transportation Department, now controlled by legislators. Davis and others want the governor to control that agency, saying that would give greater accountability to the public.
But, Massey added, the senators who are filibustering to block a tax hike also are ensuring the roads agency will remain legislatively controlled. “We’ve identified the problems, but the filibuster prevents us from trying to fix those problems.”
Davis has argued for repairing roads with money already in the state budget, rather than raising the gas tax to pay for road repairs.
Opponents say the limited uncommitted money in the budget will not cover the multi-billion-dollar cost of fixing S.C. roads. They also argue that some new money must be used to pay for other state needs.
Meanwhile, divisions remain about how to reform the Transportation Department and controversial State Infrastructure Bank, which opponents, including Davis, say chooses road projects based on legislative influence, not need. Republicans, who control the House and Senate, have pushed for the governor having more control of the roads agencies.
But Democrats and some GOP legislators, who want to maintain legislative control of the Transportation Department and Infrastructure Bank, might not want to see reform passed, Massey said.
“A lot of Democrats want to preserve” the status quo because it preserves their ability to influence the agencies, said Massey.
However, Democratic state Sen. Joel Lourie of Richland County noted Republicans — not Democrats — are filibustering the road-repair bill.
Senators could vote to end the Davis-Bright filibuster. But that would limit amendments and debate, Lourie said, adding the road-repair proposal is too important to limit debate.
Another sticking point is how much to cut taxes, demanded by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley as part of any road-repair bill that includes a gas-tax increase.
“We have accepted the fact that in order to get a roads bill, we will have to give some on the tax cuts,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland.
The income tax cuts and property tax cuts, included in the Senate proposal, would not benefit constituents of Democrats, who represent lower income areas, Jackson added. Those tax cuts also would take money from Democratic priorities, including education.
Still, Jackson said he did not see any movement toward compromise by Republicans.
“We have not taken one vote,” Jackson said. “All we’ve done is listen to two people talk for about two weeks.”
House panel approves $130 million for tax relief
The S.C. House’s budget-writing panel approved setting aside $130 million for tax relief in the $7.5 billion general fund budget it approved this week.
That money will be used to pay for any tax cuts passed this year. Tax cuts are a central part of the road-repair proposal that senators are filibustering.