- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina lawmakers and the governor are heading toward a showdown in the final two weeks of the General Assembly’s session over how to spend an extra $400 million.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley weighed in Tuesday, saying that while she didn’t have specific instructions, they better spend the money on tax breaks, state debt payments, or fixes to roads and bridges.

“If they did any of those three things, that’s a great use of taxpayer dollars,” Haley said at a news conference surrounded by about 25 Republican lawmakers.

Haley wouldn’t give details, but the infusion of about $400 million could doom any proposal to raise the state’s gas tax this year.

“This is $400 million. If roads are that urgent, wouldn’t that be the immediate need?” Haley said. “You’d say do that, and that takes all the tax increases off the table.”

The governor invited two of the Legislature’s more conservative members to speak at her news conference. One was Sen. Tom Davis, the Beaufort Republican who is filibustering a bill to spend some of the extra money this week, saying South Carolina has enough extra money to fund roads without a tax increase.

The other was Rep. Tommy Stringer, who said that if the state spends most of the extra money on roads this year, it gives lawmakers more time to come up with a long-term plan on road funding.

“$400 million buys us a lot of time,” Stringer, R-Landrum, said.

The extra money comes through economic growth and additional tax revenue. The Board of Economic Advisers will meet Friday to confirm whether the $400 million estimate by Haley and others is on the mark.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White plans to introduce a bill this week so the entire House and Senate would have a chance to weigh in on how to spend the money instead of just a conference committee of six legislators. That will likely require a special session after the Legislature adjourns June 4.

Several House and Senate leaders weren’t standing behind Haley at her lunchtime news conference. They haven’t made clear how they want to see the additional money spent.

Other Republican lawmakers who weren’t with Haley are watching the money fight cautiously. Sen. Larry Grooms, who has pushed for extra highway funding and accountability in the Department of Transportation for years, said he doesn’t mind using the extra money to pay for roads just for this year as long as something is done in 2016 - when all members of the House and Senate are up for re-election - to find a regular stream of money.

“I’m disappointed that there is a growing number of legislators that think a short-term solution is a long-term fix,” Grooms, R-Charleston, said.

But Haley said the extra money is a long-term fix. She said she believes the economists who say South Carolina’s revenues will keep growing impressively, so the state can expect revenues to keep growing.

“The economists are saying it is not going to slow down soon. That’s a great problem to have,” Haley said.

White, in announcing his new spending bill last week, pointed out that if the state sees $400 million in additional revenues, it would bring the state’s tax collections back to the levels before the Great Recession for the first time since the economic downturn started seven years ago.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/

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