SC House panel to explore turning roads over to local governments, funding through sales tax



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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Lawmakers' efforts to fund road and bridge work in South Carolina must include decreasing the system's size, the chairman of the House committee crafting that chamber's proposal said Tuesday.

South Carolina's highway system of 41,400 miles is the nation's fourth largest. Half are secondary roads not eligible for federal funding.

Rep. Gary Simrill, the panel's chairman, said some of those roads need to be turned over to local governments.

"Before we get to funding, we need to deal with this first," said Simrill, R-Rock Hill. "If we just add more money to an inefficient system, we're doing taxpayers an injustice."

He suggests providing counties a larger share of gas tax money to pay for road maintenance.

But counties are opposed to any road transfers, an idea that's circulated unsuccessfully for years.

History shows the Legislature doesn't follow through with promised funding, and counties lack the money to take on more miles to maintain, said Robert Croom, an attorney with the South Carolina Association of Counties. The state budget has not fully funded aid to local governments, as called for by a formula in state law, since 2008.

Asked if local officials have no trust in state government, Croom responded, "I can speak to almost no formula that's held up over time."

Local governments already are responsible for additional miles of roadway added by development, as the DOT by policy won't accept any more. But the ability for counties to raise local property taxes to pay for is limited by state law, he said.

Simrill insists lawmakers can reach consensus with local officials to take control of roads that, if they remain with the state, "in a hundred years aren't going to get repaved." Once the state Department of Transportation determines which secondary roads are of state importance, lawmakers can set a goal for the number of miles to divest, Simrill said.

He notes South Carolina acquired the vast number of short, limited-traffic roads before 1975, when senators controlled their county's funding, and being responsible for paving constituents' roads helped them get re-elected.

"I live on one. It's a dead-end road that serves 50 people," said Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton. "I understand it's a state road, but I don't think it should be."

The state DOT has said it needs an additional $1.5 billion yearly just to bring roads to "good" condition within 20 years. But Gov. Nikki Haley has pledged to veto any increase in the state gas tax, unchanged at 16 cents per gallon since 1987. An additional penny would raise about $34 million, according to the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.

Simrill said lawmakers need to get creative because there's not enough support for a gas tax increase to override a veto.

He also called it a source of diminishing returns.

Due to vehicles' increased fuel efficiency, the state is expected to collect less from the tax over time, as construction costs rise. According to state financial advisers, collections will drop by roughly $60 million over the next 25 years.

Simrill said funding options include asking voters in the 2016 general election if they support adding a penny to the state sales tax to pay for roadwork. That would raise an additional $643 million, according to the financial advisers.

Simrill says another option could be eliminating the state gas tax and instead applying the state sales tax to gas.

He asked the revenue office to look into an "inverted" sales tax on gas to protect consumers, in which the tax would decrease when gas prices increase and rise when the prices dip.

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