- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - With just four days left in South Carolina’s regular legislative session, the Senate finally began debating a bill to fund road and bridge construction.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler used a rare procedural motion to leapfrog a filibuster on a separate bill, enabling the Senate to officially - after weeks of talking about it - take up the issue that business leaders and lawmakers of both parties have called a top priority for the session.

An emergency Senate GOP caucus meeting Tuesday provided no resolution.

Peeler, R-Gaffney, said that when he took the podium Wednesday to make his motion, “I was the only senator who knew what I was going to do.”

But progress on the bill is still far from certain.

Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, explained a proposed compromise that many Republican senators hope will escape Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto pen. It links an increase in the state’s gas tax - which would be the state’s first since 1987 - to a reduction of the state’s personal income tax. The proposal would reduce the state’s tax collections by $700 million annually once fully implemented in five years. That’s about half of the tax cut Haley wanted.

But some Republicans in the chamber oppose any gas tax hike. Democrats, meanwhile, oppose tying the road bill to an income tax cut.

Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, said the proposal would give a big tax break to the wealthy, while poor people who don’t pay income taxes would be forced to spend more on gas.

Meanwhile, the House on Wednesday approved a resolution creating a special session from June 16 through June 18. By law, the regular session must end at 5 p.m. on June 4, but the Legislature is far from having a state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Debate over how to fund road and bridge construction has blocked the Senate from completing its proposed budget package. The so-called capital reserve bill usually travels in tandem with the budget plan for tax collections.

But Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has been filibustering the bill that spends one-time surplus money because he opposes raising gas taxes. When the Senate meets Thursday, that filibuster is likely to resume.

Adding to the debate is the potential that legislators will have an additional $400 million to spend after state economic advisers meet Friday. The state’s tax collections are higher than the Board of Economic Advisors’ earlier predictions.

The House’s budget-writing committee has called a meeting Monday to discuss how to spend whatever extra money the board recognizes. Ways and Means Chairman Brian White has introduced a skeleton, supplemental bill to the budget.


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