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Speaker: Senate inaction costing S. Carolina more than $1B

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — House Speaker Jay Lucas said Tuesday the Senate’s inability to pass a long-term road-funding plan has already put South Carolinians “on the hook” for an additional $1 billion, and the tab continues to climb.

Surrounded by most of the chambers’ members, Lucas and other House leaders called on the Senate to act.

“Each year the cost of doing nothing continues to rise,” said Lucas, R-Hartsville. “Our system is continuing to decline. It won’t be long before we’re going to lose the system. We have to act, and we have to act now.”

The added cost is due to the rate of decay across the system’s 41,400 miles of roadway.

Department of Transportation Director Christy Hall has said the lack of a solution adds roughly $350 million annually to costs, as roads need to be completely reconstructed, rather than repaired.

The House has twice in the last three years passed what Lucas called a sustainable plan requiring everyone who drives on the roads to help pay for their maintenance. Last month, the chamber approved its latest plan that includes raising the gas tax by 10 cents over five years.

But the bill — amended by a Senate committee to increase the tax by 12 cents — again faces a filibuster in the Senate, with just 11 days remaining on the legislative calendar.

Business groups are urging legislators to find a reliable revenue stream that addresses what Hall says will take $28 billion over the next 25 years to fix. A banner flown over the Heritage golf tournament on Hilton Head Island on Saturday — which many legislators attend — summed up the frustration: “Fix the damn roads,” it read. It was paid for by the Alliance to Fix Our Roads.

Senate Democrats made clear they’re not the holdup.

“We couldn’t agree more,” Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said at an impromptu news conference in response to the House’s. “We’re ready to vote.”

They blamed Senate Republicans and Gov. Henry McMaster, who vowed earlier this month to veto any gas tax increase, as his predecessor, Nikki Haley, did for years.

McMaster repeated his opposition Tuesday.

“Raising taxes is not the answer. Raising taxes pushes some people under water — some on fixed income, young people trying to come up, small businesses barely hanging on,” he said. “They spend a lot of money on gas. We don’t need to be increasing taxes on those people.”

The nation’s 16-cents-per-gallon gas tax — the nation’s second lowest — hasn’t changed since 1987.

According to AAA, the average cost of a gallon of regular gas in South Carolina on Tuesday varied from $2.09 per gallon in the Greenville area to $2.18 in the Charleston area, compared to a national average of $2.41 per gallon.

The Senate’s chief blocker, Republican Tom Davis of Beaufort, insists no additional money should go to the DOT until legislators eliminate the DOT commission, which they pick, and the governor’s office has full oversight. McMaster agreed on Tuesday that “we need to have reform.”

Some Senate Republicans want to swap a gas tax increase with an income tax cut. Sheheen said Senate Democrats oppose that effort.

“It’s not about yet again restructuring some state government agency. It’s not about cutting income taxes in a state that already has low taxes. It’s a question of whether we’re going to fix our roads are not,” he said. “No is not a solution.”

According to the DOT, just 17 percent of the state’s roadways are in good condition.

“The rest are basically crap,” Sheheen said.

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