- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A House committee that has been studying how to fix South Carolina’s deteriorating roads for four months passed several recommendations Tuesday, including lowering the gas tax and adding a sales tax on fuel and turning over thousands of miles of state roads to counties.

But the committee’s chairman, Rep. Gary Simrill, said he knows his group of lawmakers only took the first step down a long path as officials from Gov. Nikki Haley down to county councils try to have their say on how to improve the state’s roads.

Even this group didn’t reach a consensus. Democrats worried the plan doesn’t raise enough money and poorer counties will be left behind as roads get turned over to them without the money or equipment to maintain them.

Simrill’s committee recommended lowering South Carolina’s gas tax by 6 cents to 10.75 cents and placing a 6 percent sales tax on fuel. That should raise at least $400 million, the amount of extra money Department of Transportation Director Janet Oakley said her agency needs to keep roads as they are and assure the system doesn’t get worse, said Simrill, R-Rock Hill.

DOT has previously said it would cost $1.5 billion a year to get all state roads to good condition by 2040.

Other proposals approved by the committee would have the governor appoint members of the DOT board, revamp a special bank that loans out tens and hundreds of million dollars for big projects, and turn over 15,000 miles of short, lightly traveled state roads over to counties along with a promise to send along part of the gas tax and extra money to pay to upkeep those roads.

Democratic Rep. Russell Ott said places like Calhoun County, where he is from, don’t have the equipment needed to maintain roads or mow the grass. He also questioned if an extra $400 million a year is enough, since many of the state’s roads are already in bad condition.

“I’ve talked to people in my district, and they aren’t interested in keeping our roads the way they are right now,” Ott said.

A bill will now be written and go to a subcommittee, the House Ways and Means Committee and then on to the House floor. Senators will likely come up with their own plan, and if lawmakers from both bodies agree, the governor can sign or veto any road-funding bill that passes.

In her State of the State address last week, Haley suggested raising the state’s gas tax by 10 cents as long as South Carolina’s top income tax bracket is cut by 2 percentage points. She said she must get the tax cut for any bill to get her approval.

“The governor respects the good work of the committee, but thinks a straight-out tax increase is not the best way to go. She remains confident that a meeting of the minds will take place to both address our roads needs and help our economic competitiveness,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.

Ott, who was elected to the House in 2013, voted in favor of the committee’s recommendations because he felt like it was a good first step. But he said he expects the final plan will be different.

“As I am learning slowly but surely, things rarely look in the end the way they look in the beginning,” Ott said.

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