- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s Senate promises an extensive debate, starting Wednesday, on how to get more money to the state’s roads and highways.

On Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman told members of the chamber to get to the Statehouse two hours early Wednesday for a session that could go well into the evening.

The proposal getting the most attention in the Senate would raise the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over three years and increase or add some other fees. In five years, an estimated $723 million extra would be put into roads yearly to repave pothole filled interstates and roads, repair aging bridges and expand some highways. But plenty of amendments changing those figures are likely from Republicans who don’t want to raise a lot of taxes and Democrats leery about widespread tax cuts.

Another big issue: Who gets to run the South Carolina Department of Transportation? Some conservatives oppose a plan to have the directors of 10 regional government councils each pick three candidates for the DOT board to send to the governor to make the final choice. Gov. Nikki Haley wants more power over who is appointed to the board at the roads agency. Legislators currently pick seven members, with the governor choosing the eighth.

Here are people to watch as the roads debate begins in earnest:

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RAY CLEARY AND JOEL LOURIE

Cleary, a Republican from Murrells Inlet, and Lourie, a Democrat from Columbia, are the lawmakers trying to pull together a compromise.

They volunteered in part because they aren’t running for re-election this year and feel they can herd the Senate to make what could be some unpopular decisions on raising and cutting taxes.

“There’s nobody in here who is going to get everything they want,” Lourie told senators.

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TOM DAVIS

Davis filibustered the roads bill last year and is the most vocal critic of how the DOT spends its money. The Republican from Beaufort hasn’t ruled out voting for a gas tax increase, but is demanding reform at both the DOT and the State Infrastructure Bank, which pays for larger projects without the same kind of ranking process lawmakers require of the DOT.

Davis suggested last week that lawmakers use extra revenue to spend $65 million immediately and get almost all the pavement on existing interstates up to good condition, so they can take more time to get a roads funding bill right.

“When you swallow an elephant, you do it a little at a time,” Davis said.

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NIKKI SELTZLER

As Senate Minority leader, Setzler answers to Democratic members who want good roads, but aren’t sure South Carolina needs to be cutting taxes when it’s under a court order to come up with a plan to improve poorer school districts, and with a state employee workforce that’s only received small raises in the past eight years.

The West Columbia Democrat also thinks improving South Carolina’s interstates is the key to keeping the state growing. He wants to widen nearly all of the more than 900 miles of interstate highways in the state to at least three lanes in each direction. That costs at least $10 million a mile, or a total price tag close to $9 billion. There are no current plans to do that.

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HARVEY PEELER

Peeler has spent much of his 35 years in the Senate trying to get 20 or so miles of Interstate 85 widened in Cherokee County, where his home in Gaffney is located. It’s one of only three two-lane segments of I-85 in the 265 miles of highway between Durham, North Carolina, and Anderson

Peeler has long felt road funding is too politicized, as powerful lawmakers along the coast get money for projects that aren’t as important.

Peeler, the Senate Majority Leader, must get a wide variety of Republicans on board - from conservatives reticent to raise taxes to more moderate members worried infrastructure problems will never get solved without a steady revenue stream.

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GARY SIMRILL AND NIKKI HALEY

The Senate is not the end of the road for highway funding. Whatever comes out must go back to the House, where Rep. Simrill helped guide a bill through last year that would have raised about an additional $500 million a year for roads.

The Rock Hill Republican says he’s watching the Senate carefully, encouraged by its discussion. He doesn’t agree with all the Senate ideas, but knows the bill will likely end up as a compromise between the Senate and the House.

“I think in conference we can work out details,” Simrill said.

Haley has said she will only sign a bill that reforms DOT and offsets any increase in the gas tax with a comparable tax cut. She hasn’t said whether she likes the Senate’s plan. And she wields the veto pen.

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