COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday that she will provide a roadmap in January for funding highway and bridge work in South Carolina without raising taxes and without relying on the "money tree."
Haley said her recommendation to the Legislature — which depends on her winning a second term — will designate a revenue stream straight to road work. She offered no details, other than to say it doesn't involve the money tree. That's what Haley calls the additional money that appears when spring revenue estimates end up being greater than what was predicted the previous fall.
In January, she recommended legislators designate that growth to roadwork, potentially generating $100 million yearly. In the state budget that took effect Tuesday, however, none of the surplus money went to roadwork.
Haley's critics poked fun at the idea of an imaginary money tree solving the state's problems. They also noted her recommendation came nowhere close to meeting infrastructure needs.
The Department of Transportation says it needs an additional $1.5 billion yearly over 20 years just to bring roads to good conditions.
"The roads do need some improvement, there's no question about that," said Bruce Shealy, president of Shealy Truck Center, where the National Federation of Independent Business held a news conference Tuesday to endorse Haley. "Nobody wants to pay taxes obviously, but obviously a solution needs to come about. All you need to do is drive on the roads to see that."
Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, said if Haley has a plan, the public deserves to know what it is before the November election.
In South Carolina, roadwork is overwhelmingly funded through federal matches and the state's 16-cents-per-gallon fuel tax, which hasn't changed since 1987.
Last year, the Senate Finance Committee advanced a plan that would fund road and bridge construction through a combination of redirecting money collected from the sales tax on vehicles, borrowing money, and raising fees. That included raising the state's gas tax by an expected 4 cents over 10 years.
But the proposal never had a chance. While Haley calls improving roads a priority and economic development necessity, she has repeatedly promised to veto any bill that increases the gas tax. The proposal died without a floor debate as the legislative session ended last month.
"She owes the public a decision on how she's going to pay for roads before the election," said Cleary, who led the panel that developed the defeated plan. "If she doesn't have a plan, maybe we should look at other candidates."
On Tuesday, Haley again touted a law passed last year that could generate up to $1 billion over a decade for roadwork, through a combination of state and federal money plus borrowing. But Cleary said once those bonds are issued, that money is gone, and the DOT's documented needs require more than that yearly. Haley said she recognizes the need for recurring dollars.
"Everyone is quick to want to raise taxes, but keep in mind when you raise the cost of transportation, you're hurting businesses that want to come to this state and you're hurting businesses that are in this state," Haley said. "It is our job to come up with a plan for transportation and roads that is consistent and constant, and we'll give that to the Legislature in January so that they do have a way to go forward" without raising taxes.
Cleary contends revenue growth can't possibly cover the infrastructure needs, especially considering the state's other obligations. As roads fall into greater disrepair, they become more expensive to fix. Raising the gas tax, he said, means tourists and travelers passing through help pay for the roads they use.
"We have to start telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear to fix the roads," Cleary said.