END OF THE ROAD: In final push, General Assembly gets roads bill across finish line

END OF THE ROAD: In final push, General Assembly gets roads bill across finish line

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The bill that would raise the state's gas tax by 12 cents over the next six years, reforms parts of the state Department of Transportation, and hikes certain vehicle fees, is now a law after both chambers of the General Assembly voted to override a veto by the governor.

Gov. Henry McMaster initially vetoed the measure on Tuesday night after the House accepted and gave approval to the joint conference committee bill passed by the Senate on Monday.

The governor said he was vetoing the measure because he was not only against raising taxes, but he wanted to see greater reforms to the DOT.

"If we would simply reform how DOT spends your tax dollars to be responsible and accountable, we'd have plenty of money – and this gas tax hike would be totally unnecessary," McMaster said.

"Unfortunately, raising taxes was the only solution seriously considered by the legislature. Small businesses, young people, and seniors will get hit the hardest – many of them are barely making it now. And the system remains dysfunctional."

The Road to the Roads Bill

Lawmakers have debated upon raising the state's low gas tax for several sessions before actual work into a bill began during the 2014 legislative session. The idea that a bill raising the tax became so real that then-Gov. Nikki Haley threatened an immediate veto during her State of the State address.

"We proved last year that we can invest in our roads and bridges with the dollars we already have. Raising the gas tax — forcing our people and our businesses to pay more for the simple act of getting around — is not an option for me," Haley said.

The 2014 legislative session came and went without action, but the discussion of raising the tax continued into the next session. Again, Haley threatened a veto during her 2015 State of the State but had a softer tone toward the issue. Instead, Haley said she'd raise the tax only if legislators cut the state's income tax from 7 to 5 percent and massively reformed the DOT.

Work in the House and Senate began on at least two different bills designed to raise the gas tax and pump more money into the DOT's coffers for road funding.

However, all measures stalled in the Senate due largely to the filibustering tactics used by Sen. Tom Davis, one of the biggest opponents of raising taxes.

The 2015 session ended with no further action on roads.

Legislators returned the next year with renewed hope that an infrastructure bill with a gas tax increase could pass both houses of the legislature. But, once again, legislators ran into a filibuster by Sen. Davis. Once again, another session came and went without an infrastructure bill.

The 2017 legislative session began and roads were the cause-du-jour for legislators. Work began again to on a bill in the House and Senate. The House's version of the bill came with a 10-cent gas tax increase over 5 years among other items. That bill passed the House with a large majority voting in favor.

However, the bill hit several snags in the Senate and almost appeared to be dead for the year again when the House's version failed a procedural vote to begin debate on it.

But senators pushed forward and made several changes to the bill, such as creating a tax rebate for in-state drivers to file on their income taxes and increasing the gas tax to 12 cents over the next 6 years.

Sen. Davis also prepared himself for yet another filibuster but senators had the votes to silence him, setting up a vote that passed the chamber 34-10 after a prolonged, several days debate.

With major changes pushed through the Senate, a conference committee of three senators and three representatives was convened and given the task of ironing out the differences between the bills. It didn't take long for the committee to come up with a final version of the bill that included the tax rebates, the 12-cent gas tax hike, and higher vehicle fees.

A deal in hand, committee members went back to their prospective chambers to but the final bill up for a vote.

The Senate went up first, voting with a veto-proof majority, 32-12 to send the bill over to the House. The House agreed, voting 99-20 -- another veto-proof majority -- to pass the bill.

McMaster vetoed the bill later in the evening, and legislators returned Wednesday to override the veto in both chambers.

Leaders from DOT praised the passage of the bill, saying it will allow them to get to work immediately.

"Combining last year's Act 275 funding with these additional funds provides sustainable resources allowing the agency to immediately begin a Rural Road Safety Program, target interstate widening projects to replace our structurally deficient bridges and start the long process of rebuilding our existing road system," the statement said.

Pro-roads groups also applauded the General Assembly's work to get the bill over the finish line. Bill Ross, CEO of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, said the bill represents true bi-partisan cooperation and compromise.

"We knew that 2017 was the year to take action and find a compromise solution. We commend the legislature for acting in the best interest of our state and providing for our infrastructure future," said Ross. "After 30 years of inaction, we now have a plan to fix our roads."

What's In The Bill?

Beginning in July 2017, the state's gas tax will go up in 2-cent increments over the next 6 years until the 12-cent maximum in 2022. But legislators looked to lessen that pinch with tax rebates for state residents who have to pay the higher tax.

Out-of-state residents who move to the state will have to pay a one-time fee of $250 to register their cars in South Carolina. In-state residents, meanwhile, will see a $16 increase in registration fees.

Hybrid and electric car owners will have to pay fees, too. Electric car owners will owe $120 to the state every two years and hybrid owners will owe $60 every two years.

Sales taxes on vehicle purchases will also be going up to $500.

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