South Carolina Lawmakers Ponder Fix for Flood Damaged Roads

While South Carolina legislators pledge to address road funding and flood relief over the next six months, there’s no consensus on what they’ll do.

A $1.3 billion windfall makes a compromise even harder. And in a year when every House and Senate seat is up for grabs, concern over attracting challengers could delay votes until after the March 30 filing deadline.

But legislators do agree there’s a bright side to October’s catastrophic flooding, which caused roadways – many of them already in bad shape – to crumble. At the Oct. 5 peak, more than 500 roads and bridges were closed across the state, including a long stretch of Interstate 95 that forced a 168-mile detour.

“The flood highlights just how poor our roads and bridges are,” Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, said at a pre-session gathering of reporters Thursday. “It brings a new sense of urgency that’s necessary.”

Fixing South Carolina’s roadways topped last year’s priority list, too.

The House passed a plan last April that would raise an additional $400 million annually. A bill raising roughly twice that through increases in gas taxes, vehicle sales taxes and license fees reached the Senate floor. But a weekslong filibuster by Sen. Tom Davis blocked a vote.

That bill is back up for debate when the legislative session resumes Tuesday.

“The focus has been on raising the gas tax instead of the need. Once people understand the need, we’ll figure out a way to fund it,” said Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce. “The need is now obvious.”

But Davis, R-Beaufort, continues his call for reforms first. He said he believes more senators see the need to change the Department of Transportation’s governance structure. He can agree to a gas tax increase later, he said, if the money’s spent wisely and more is still needed.

The $1.3 billion additional revenue available to spend – much of it surpluses from previous years – complicates the debate, said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler.

Agencies’ budget requests would gobble up all of that and much more.

But that money makes it “very difficult to go back home and explain to citizens how we’re raising their taxes,” said Peeler, R-Gaffney. “It cuts both ways – people will vote against you if you vote for a gas tax and they’ll vote against you if you don’t fix their roads.”

Republican leaders say any gas tax increase will be accompanied by a tax cut elsewhere. They don’t agree on how much.

“When you raise the gas tax, you have the benefit of those using the roads paying for the roads, but we have enough money to cut taxes at the same time,” Hembree said.

But Democrats say it’s folly to deal with income taxes inside a roads bill.

Roughly $115 million of the extra revenue will cover the state’s match for federal money spent amid the disaster.

Legislators of both parties say the state should also provide money to farmers who were devastated by flooding at harvest time. The Department of Agriculture estimates direct crop losses from the flooding at $376 million.

“Everyone I’ve talked to is worried we may well lose many, many farmers in South Carolina if we don’t provide them with aid,” said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville.

But the amount and how it would be distributed is unknown. Even less clear is whether legislators will help other property owners. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded more than $79 million for home repairs, temporary housing, and other disaster-related expenses. But that’s an average of just $3,000 per approved household. And roughly 70 percent of the more than 83,000 people who applied for help were denied.

“If they need a roof, FEMA gives them enough money for a shingle,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford.

He and other Democrats want the state to use surplus money to help restore homes. But no Republican at Thursday’s gathering backed the idea.