As the 2015 legislative session wound down, the drumbeat in Columbia for a massive gas-tax increase was deafening, with the major lobbying groups crying in chorus: “Higher taxes to fix our roads!”
The House obliged, passing a bill to raise taxes by $360 million annually, and the Senate Finance Committee jacked up the tax increase to $708 million annually.
I opposed that 75 percent gas-tax increase. First, I reject the premise that insufficient funds are being appropriated. Total annual spending for our transportation infrastructure in 2009 (my first year in the state Senate) was $1.051 billion; in this year’s budget, it is $1.627 billion, an increase of 54.8 percent.
In addition to that increase in spending – again, by using existing tax dollars – the Senate directed that another $200 million be sent immediately to each county’s transportation committee to make road repairs.
In other words, we prioritized this year and spent taxpayers’ money more wisely.
And we can do the same in future budgets since the average amount of recurring annual growth in General Fund revenues over the next 10 years is projected to be $355 million. If just one-fourth of this annual growth is dedicated to roads and bridges, then after four years we will have increased transportation spending to the level targeted by Gov. Nikki Haley – without raising taxes.
Yes, our roads and bridges are in bad condition, but that’s because spending decisions are made by a politically motivated and legislatively controlled state agency. Instead of debating ways to take more money from taxpayers, the legislature should focus on structural reforms to the Department of Transportation, the agency that makes the expenditure decisions.
Capital outlays by SCDOT for new transportation projects are more than triple the amount spent on repairs and routine maintenance. That’s a direct consequence of legislators electing SCDOT commissioners, then insisting that money be spent on new projects, rather than repairs.
The necessary structural fix here is to have the governor appoint all of the SCDOT commissioners in order to establish a clear line of accountability for expenditure decisions. Better still, abolish the commission and have expenditure decisions made by a cabinet-level Secretary of Transportation, appointed by and directly accountable to the governor. Also, any serious plan to address our state’s transportation situation must include devolving control over some roads to local governments. There are approximately 65,800 miles of roads in South Carolina, and 63 percent of them are controlled by the state. Other state transportation departments (on average) control only 19 percent of roads.
The fix here is for the state to transfer a significant portion of those road miles to local governments, along with an appropriate share of existing gas-tax revenue.
Local governments would have better knowledge than a centralized entity of local road conditions, and their proximity and accountability to the citizens who use the roads in their borders would ensure a more productive expenditure of dollars.
The easy answer to fixing the condition of our state’s roads and bridges is to raise taxes; it takes far more thought, effort and political backbone to spend existing money more wisely. But the people of South Carolina shouldn’t expect anything less from their elected officials.
Sen. Tom Davis(R) represents District 46 in the S.C. Legislature. tom@senatortom davis.com