COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA)—The number one issue in the South Carolina legislative session is set to be decided in the final week of the session, as lawmakers vote on a compromise plan to fix roads. A conference committee of three senators and three House members formally adopted the plan Monday afternoon.
The plan would raise South Carolina’s gas tax by two cents per gallon a year over six years, which was the Senate’s version. The original House bill would have raised the tax by a total of 10 cents over five years instead of the Senate’s 12 cents over six years. South Carolina’s current gas tax is 16.75 cents per gallon, which is the second-lowest gas tax in the nation.
However, the Senate’s bill would have indexed the gas tax to inflation while the House’s would not. In the final bill, the gas tax will not automatically go up tied to inflation.
The Senate’s plan to raise driver’s license fees was also taken out of the final bill. Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who led the House negotiators, says, “They doubled the driver’s license fee. The House did not want to go along with that. We won in the end so driver’s license fees are not going up.”
The House also got its version of increasing the sales tax limit on vehicles. Right now, regardless of how much a vehicle costs, the most sales tax anyone pays is $300. The Senate version would have doubled that to $600 but the House’s version was $500. The final bill would increase the cap to $500.
The Senate prevailed on including some tax cuts and credits in the bill, including a tuition tax credit and a property tax cut for small manufacturers. There’s also a rebate built in to temporarily offset the gas tax increase for South Carolina residents. State drivers will be able to claim on their tax returns either the amount they pay in higher gas tax, or what they pay for car maintenance or repairs, whichever is less. The original bill would have required drivers to keep their gas tax receipts but that was taken out of the final version. The rebates would end in the seventh year, unless lawmakers renew them.
Rep. Simrill says, “What we did not want to do was create a situation where the Department of Revenue, who’s in charge of this, would have to go out and hire a whole new division to be able to facilitate and work through this rebate process.”
Columbia driver Toby Turner said Monday he wouldn’t mind paying a higher gas tax. “I think that it’s definitely needed, that our roads have been hurting for a long time. South Carolina needs to do something about it. Seems to tear up everybody’s cars and we need to move forward to get something done for sure,” he says.
But other drivers think the problem with state roads is not how much the gas tax generates but how the SCDOT spends what it already gets. The final bill tries to address that by restructuring the DOT Commission. Now, it has eight members: seven from the state’s Congressional districts and one at-large. Under this bill, the total would go up to nine, with two at-large commissioners. All of them would be appointed by the governor, with approval by the House and Senate. The full House and Senate would have to approve the at-large members while lawmakers from each Congressional district would have to approve the ones from their districts.
The governor would be able to fire commissioners for any reason.
The full Senate started debating the final bill Monday afternoon. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who’s against it, started filibustering it. The full House is expected to start debating the final version Tuesday.
Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to veto a bill that includes a gas tax increase, so the question will be whether the House and Senate will have enough votes to override that veto.