A onetime educational group has hired two lobbyists – including a nine-year veteran of the state Department of Transportation – to push for an increase in South Carolina’s 16-cent-a-gallon gas tax, the third-lowest in the country.
The group, the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, says the tax hike is needed to pay for almost $50 billion in road construction and repairs that will be needed over the next 20 years. But the alliance faces considerable opposition, including from Gov. Nikki Haley, who came out against increasing the gas tax as part of her executive budget proposal earlier this month.
The S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads has been around since 1981, when it was founded as South Carolinians for Better Highways. It changed its name in 1991 to the Transportation Policy and Research Council and, again in 2007, to the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads.
The group previously had focused on education, not lobbying lawmakers. But that changed in September, when the alliance’s board hired new executive director Bill Ross, who spent 28 years as the head of the S.C. Petroleum Council and later worked for the S.C. Trucking Association. The group also hired Kristen Lominack, who for the past nine years was the chief lobbyist for the S.C. Department of Transportation.
“We have just really neglected the state’s greatest assets,” Ross said, referring to roads. “When they approached me (about) working with them I agreed to do that.”
The group faces an uphill battle. The executive and legislative branches of S.C. government are controlled by Republicans who oppose tax hikes as an article of political faith.
But Ross says South Carolina’s gas tax is not a tax but a “user fee.” The only people who pay it are people who use the state’s roads, including visitors from other states, he contends.
The alliance also has some allies in the state’s traditionally Republican business community, which is dependent on the state’s infrastructure including roads and bridges to move its goods, and has expressed growing concern about the condition of state roads.
South Carolina needs to finance $48.3 billion in road repair needs through 2033. But estimates are that the state only will have $19 billion to pay for those repairs – a shortfall of $29 billion, according to a report released earlier this month by the state Transportation Infrastructure Task Force.
While not advocating a specific increase in the gas tax, Ross and Lominack have been talking about those numbers as they travel the state, speaking to various groups as they try to build support for increasing the tax. Two weeks ago, Ross spoke to about 50 S.C. mayors at the S.C. Association of Mayors meeting in Columbia.
“I plead with you to get involved in this issue,” Ross told the mayors. “We will do everything we can to put pressure on our governor and our legislators.”
But Gov. Haley, a Lexington Republican who would have to sign any gas tax increase into law, said she will not approve a gas tax hike. She says state lawmakers abuse the gas tax by spending it on other things instead of on roads, its intended purpose.
Haley’s proposed budget for the state’s 2013-14 fiscal year, which starts July 1, includes using $14.3 million of state general fund money to pay for things that the gas tax normally pays for, freeing up that gas tax money to pay for road improvements. Haley also said she expects the state Board of Economic Advisors will add more money to the state’s budget by the time lawmakers approve it. Haley said she wants to spend most of that added extra money – $77 million – on road improvements.
“This is the option to not have to increase gas taxes,” Haley said. “We don’t need to raise it. We just need to ensure it is going to where it was intended in the first place.”
Ross said he appreciates any new money for roads, but, he added, Haley’s proposal is not enough to make a difference. “Her $77 million doesn’t come anywhere near to addressing what the real needs are.”
Ross said his group is pushing for an extra $600 million in road money in next year’s budget and increasing the gas tax is the best way to pay for it. “We think it is the fairest way.”