COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A senator put in charge by his colleagues to find a way to raise more money for South Carolina roads said Tuesday he has a plan that will put up to an additional $800 million for the state's highways and bridges.
Sen. Ray Cleary's plan raises the state's gas tax 10 cents and allows it to continue to increase with inflation. It also raises the sales tax cap on automobile purchases from $300 to $1,400, eliminates dozens of sales tax exemptions and increases the fees for car registrations and drivers' licenses.
All of his ideas would cost the average driver in South Carolina about an extra $65 per year, said Cleary, a Republican.
"It's a lot less than that to get a front-end alignment," said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia.
Cleary said his bill, which will be filed this week, will net somewhere between $700 million and $800 million a year — about twice the $400 million that plans by the House and Gov. Nikki Haley would raise. Leaders at the Department of Transportation have said $400 million is enough money to keep the state's roads in their current condition. The DOT has said closer to $1.5 billion a year is needed to get South Carolina roads to good condition by 2040.
It is vital to make sure South Carolina roads get enough money for decades and that's why his target is so much higher than other plans, Cleary said.
"Do you want us to fix it with a Band-Aid and come back in four years for more, or do you want us to fix it for good?" said Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet.
Senate leaders asked Cleary to begin studying roads more than two years ago and he has diligently held subcommittee meetings to discuss all sorts of plans. How much support this bill will get is hard to say. Cleary said he let Haley's staff know he was going to file the plan and didn't hear back. He said he hasn't had any substantial discussions with the governor about roads in the past two years.
In her State of the State speech in January, Haley backed a plan to raise the gas tax by 10 cents, but only if it was paired with a reduction in the state's income tax rates. In the past week, she has said she is willing to negotiate that more. Leaders of the House continue to talk to the governor.
Cleary said he is willing to negotiate too. His plan does not include restructuring DOT, which the House and Haley have made priorities. Instead, Cleary said his bill would turn over more than half of the over 40,000 miles of state roads over to counties and split about $160 million to maintain them. Counties could raise their sales tax by a penny for roads, and the state would give them more money.
Putting fewer roads under DOT's management would allow the agency to drastically cut its staff and act as its own restructuring plan, Cleary said.
The senator also said he hoped Haley would be flexible, saying she could be remembered like former Gov. Carroll Campbell was for restructuring state government or former Gov. Dick Riley for improving education.
"I think this governor would be great if she went down as the governor who fixed our infrastructure," Cleary said.
Cleary, who carefully calls the gas tax a fee, said he thinks people in a conservative state like South Carolina will support the plan because all the money raised will be guaranteed to go to roads. He also won't get rid of sales tax exemptions on groceries, electricity and newsprint.
Cleary's bill would also require South Carolina's gas tax to always be lower than the surrounding states of North Carolina and Georgia.
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