From our News Partners at WCBD-TV:

South Carolina lawmakers agree that improving state roads and bridges will be one of their top priorities when they go back into session next week, but they disagree on how to pay for those improvements.

Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, says he’s got 17 amendments to create or raise “fees” to help pay for roads, including raising driver’s license fees and raising the gas tax. He says the DOT needs an additional $1.6 billion a year to bring our roads and bridges up to good condition, money that’s not available within the current state budget.

"When do we stop robbing Peter to pay Paul?” he asked at a legislative workshop Thursday at the Statehouse, where lawmakers spoke to reporters about the upcoming session. “We haven't increased the gasoline tax since 1987, but it's astronomical how much you would have to increase the gas tax to come up with $1.6 billion."

Sen. Tom Alexander, R-Walhalla, was the only lawmaker on the panel who was a lawmaker back in 1987, and he says he supported that gas tax increase. "What I hear from the citizens that I represent is they want us to take care of what we've got. They want the roads resurfaced and maintained and the bridges safe. I really think that the public is out in front of the General Assembly on this issue," he says.

But they’ll have to fight some of their fellow Republicans to get a gas tax increase, or any other fee increase, passed. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, says, "I think the House Republican Caucus, anyway, is going to do everything that we can to look for revenue that exists now without raising taxes, without looking to the citizens, or anybody else, to pay additional money to the government to support the infrastructure that we have."

One option to bring in more money without a big tax increase for South Carolina residents is being floated by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. His idea is to pass a gas tax increase but have a rebate, or state income tax credit, for state residents. "Basically, it would alleviate some of the burden of any increase that might go along with what's needed to fix roads and bridges, so that local citizens only foot part of the bill. Those people that are really coming through out of state, they pay their full share of a user fee," he says.

Rep. Bannister says it would be pointless to pass any gas tax increase because Gov. Nikki Haley has promised to veto it. But Sen. Hutto says lawmakers should do what they think is right for the state without worrying about a veto threat.

Hutto says the problem with House Republicans’ plan to use existing money in the budget is that there’s not enough to meet the state’s road needs, especially when Medicaid, schools, law enforcement, and colleges and universities are all asking for more money in next year’s budget.

The state is expected to have more than $265 million in “new” money, from tax collections being higher than predicted, but state agencies requested $1.25 billion more.

Gov. Nikki Haley is proposing to use almost $160 million of the new money for her education improvement plan, which she announced Wednesday. It would spend more on poor students, add a new focus on reading in the early grades, and provide more technology in schools.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, says he thinks the governor’s plan has a good chance of passing.

State lawmakers go back into session January 14th.

Photo Credit: Sean Pavone Photo