COLUMBIA — Legislators said on Monday that a tentative agreement could provide $800 million for road and bridge work across South Carolina without raising taxes.
A three-part compromise approved by a panel of House and Senate members would provide up to $141 million in state taxes toward infrastructure in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The legislation said $50 million would go to the State Infrastructure Bank to fund major projects through borrowing. Up to $50 million from the current year’s surplus would go toward bridge repair. The proposal also transfers $41 million from the state sales tax on vehicles to the Department of Transportation for repairing secondary roads, representing half of the money that the tax – capped at $300 per vehicle – puts in the general fund.
Borrowing and federal highway matches could push the total to more than $798 million.
The Senate’s Republican and Democratic leaders agree the infrastructure compromise was critical for reaching an agreement on the overall budget for 2013-14.
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler called it an unbelievable start toward addressing the state’s infrastructure needs.
“It’s certainly more than people conceived we could do in the first year and gives us momentum moving forward,” said Setzler, D-West Columbia.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, called it a bipartisan effort that helps all areas of the state by repairing rural roads and interstates while also providing construction jobs. He stressed it does so without raising taxes or fees, generally an unpopular idea in this deeply red state.
In her State of the State address, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley called funding infrastructure critical to the state’s economic development but promised to veto anything that raised the state’s 16-cents-per-gallon fuel tax, unchanged since 1987.
Her spokesman was noncommittal on Monday’s compromise.
“The governor has not hesitated to voice her strong support for strengthening infrastructure with funds we have available now,” said spokesman Rob Godfrey. “She is going to take a close look at the state budget as soon as the General Assembly sends it to her.”
Last year, the Department of Transportation estimated needing $1.5 billion yearly over the next 20 years just to bring state-maintained roads to “good” condition. Hoping to find a more palatable figure, a loose coalition of the state’s business leaders issued a report in January urging legislators to spend $6 billion over the next 10 to 15 years on the most critical projects.
The president and CEO of the state Trucking Association applauded the compromise.
“There has finally been an unavoidable realization that major attention is going to have to be paid to finding adequate funding for a highway system that’s in dire need of improvement, and this is a great first step,” said Rick Todd, whose group is part of the coalition. Legislative leaders found a way to provide substantial funding “without having to try to fight and force some tax fee increases, which is just politically not doable at this moment.”
The infrastructure compromise legislation requires approval by both the House and Senate, which return to the Statehouse on Tuesday for a special session.
A separate legislative panel continues to work on a compromise on the chambers’ separate $6.3 billion plan for state taxes.
Lawmakers hope to pass a budget this week. That would give time for Haley to issue her vetoes and the Legislature to deal with them before the 2013-14 fiscal year begins in two weeks.
Last year, a continuing resolution kept the government running over a five-day gap before the budget took effect.
Issues left unresolved from Friday’s meeting include whether to give state employees a 1 percent pay raise or cover increases in their health insurance premiums. Advocates for state employees said they’ll otherwise see a reduction in their paycheck because of a scheduled increase in their pension contributions.
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