One presidential primary is now over, dampening the succession of robocalls, ominous videos and lurid mailers. One would hope this would lead to a more thoughtful, productive political climate. Unfortunately, similar tactics are being deployed against state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort.
Over the past two weeks Davis has filibustered legislation to increase the state gas tax, arguing that the transportation spending process must be fixed before dedicating new money to the road budget.
What we have right now is a shadow DOT. We’ve got a separate entity, a separate board, separate funding sources, implementing a separate strategic plan. And that doesn’t make any sense.
Sen. Tom Davis
Pro-gas-tax legislators and commentators are protesting that Davis should sit down, let state legislators raise the gas tax, and not worry about the fiscal abuses, political manipulation and waste that have plagued the state’s transportation-funding process for three decades. Like the flood of political flyers that has inundated South Carolina mailboxes for the past month, they have failed to present a logical, factual response to Davis’ points about the need for reform.
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Few road bill proponents have actually listened to any of Davis’ filibuster. Larry Martin, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee is one who has heard most of it. This is what Martin said last week. “It’s not your typical filibuster. He’s really got something important to say. I want him to say it as long a he is inclined to say it because we seem to be learning something new every day that he’s up there.” This, it would seem, is a fundamental role of democratic debate.
Fortunately, key business leaders also concur on the importance of structural reforms to the transportation spending system. S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Ted Pitts, a former legislator, persuasively argues that South Carolina’s economic future depends on a public investment strategy that objectively prioritizes transportation projects. He testified, “Act 114 (signed into law in 2007) has brought some transparency and accountability to the DOT in the process, but what the business community would also say is that the governance model, or the structure of the agency, doesn’t seem to make sense …”
Pitts specifically calls for reforms to the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB). His reasoning is, “The lion’s share of the money that the General Assembly has allocated (the ‘new’ money) has gone to entities that don’t have to follow that prioritization list … So when you look at the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank … the prioritization process that is important for transparency and accountability is not required to be followed by statute.”
STIB officials also acknowledge the need for reforms. In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, STIB Chair Vince Graham said, “My personal view is if we are going to be helping to facilitate hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure funding, there ought to be some strategy involved.”
All of this underscores Davis’ primary concern about the current system. In his words, “What we have right now is a shadow DOT. We’ve got a separate entity, a separate board, separate funding sources, implementing a separate strategic plan. And that doesn’t make any sense.”
This goes directly to the heart of the challenge South Carolina faces — how to restructure the agencies that control billions of transportation dollars and eradicate the provincialism and back-room deals that have created the problems we face today.
Proponents for a gas tax increase present the simplistic, and historically indefensible, case that higher taxes equal better roads. Fortunately, Davis is advocating a more truthful, if more politically difficult, approach to dealing with our state’s transportation challenges.