SC House alters roads bill; senators say bill is likely dead

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – The South Carolina House made changes Wednesday to the roads bill that has been debated for more than a year, leading senators and the governor to say the proposal is likely dead for the year.

South Carolina roads will still likely get more money. The House has placed an extra $400 million in its budget it sent to the Senate.

But Wednesday’s amendment greatly reduces the chances of reforming how commissioners are chosen to the board that helps run the Department of Transportation. Many lawmakers have said that is a critical first step toward getting closer to the extra $1 billion a year the road agency has said it needs to get state highways back to good condition.

The House could have agreed to the Senate road bill, which allows Gov. Nikki Haley to appoint all members of the DOT board with Senate approval. But instead, the House changed the bill to have approval by the House and Senate.

“Government closest to the people is usually best. And there is no need to take 124 people out of the process,” Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said of House members.

State Sen. Larry Grooms said in South Carolina’s 240 years as a state the Ethics Commission is the only body where both chambers approve members. The Republican from Charleston said senators can’t just remove that kind of precedence.

“They knew before they voted that putting in a joint confirmation was going to kill it,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “Several of us told them that beforehand. They knew it and they did it anyway. I think they’ve killed the bill.”

Simrill, who has led the effort to pass a roads bill in the house since the fall of 2014 said that shouldn’t be true. He said the House and Senate should agree to a conference committee to hash out their differences.

Massey said that committee likely wouldn’t reform DOT enough.

The House waited until after the Legislative Audit Council released its report on DOT. It found that 54 percent of the state’s primary roads are now in poor condition, compared to 31 percent eight years ago. The audit also found DOT revenues aren’t even keeping up with inflation.

House Speaker Jay Lucas said the audit shows the Senate plan isn’t enough.

“The legislative process exists so that the General Assembly can work together to move South Carolina forward, not provide opportunities for political grandstanding,” the Hartsville Republican said in a statement.

Gov. Nikki Haley has taken to Facebook to scold and threaten House members this week. After their 113-6 vote to amend the bill Wednesday, she posted the roll call. In an earlier message, she suggested the House was creating problems for future work to get more money for roads.

“The Republican House of Representatives plans to kill two years of work and that as a result, there will be no change in their road conditions anytime soon,” Haley wrote.

Simrill said that kind of rhetoric doesn’t respect the legislative process. He points out the House passed a more comprehensive road bill that included a gas tax increase nearly one year ago and the proposal sat in the Senate for 11 months.

The House also removed a Senate proposal to move $400 million each year from the general budget fund and put to roads.

“At worst it is unconstitutional, and at best it is bad public policy,” said Simrill, pointing out the state has failed to fund similar promises to education and local governments.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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