- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A state Supreme Court ruling Wednesday temporarily put the Department of Transportation’s leadership in limbo and, according to lawmakers, underscored the Legislature’s need to pass a roads bill.

The justices threw out a clause in the 2015-16 budget allowing Gov. Nikki Haley to continue appointing the Transportation secretary, saying it was unrelated to the budget and therefore unconstitutional “log-rolling.”

The issue is whether “suspending the termination of the governor’s appointment power is reasonably and inherently related to the raising and spending of tax monies. We hold that it is not,” Chief Justice Costa Pleicones wrote in the 4-1 decision.

Under the 2007 government restructuring law that put the Transportation agency in the governor’s Cabinet, Haley’s ability to appoint the secretary should have expired July 1, 2015. Legislators intended to address that as part of highway-funding legislation.

When they couldn’t agree on funding, legislators tacked a one-year extension onto the budget.

The court’s order says the authority to appoint a new leader should have reverted last July to the Transportation Department’s commission, restoring its full oversight of the agency.

The ruling is another victory for Greenville resident Ned Sloan, a retired paving contractor who, for more than a decade, has successfully challenged the legislative practice of “bobtailing” - tacking one bill onto another.

Hours after the ruling, commissioners voted 8-0 in an emergency meeting to keep Christy Hall as secretary and ratify her decisions.

“We have no issue with who the secretary is. Apparently the Supreme Court has an issue with how she got there,” said DOT Chairman Mike Wooten. “She’s what South Carolina needs, and we need to keep her in that position as long as we can.”

The Senate confirmed Hall as secretary in January, but she’d been at the helm as acting secretary since last summer. It was her second stint in the interim position, following the second resignation of a Haley appointee. Legislators have widely praised Hall’s leadership during the February 2014 ice storm and last fall’s catastrophic flooding.

Rep. Gary Simrill, who has led the House’s highway-funding efforts, said he wasn’t surprised by the high court’s ruling.

“We were Band-aiding the process,” he said.

It does show the ramifications of what could happen if the Legislature continues to delay on legislation aimed at fixing South Carolina’s crumbling roads, and it highlights the need to combine reform with funding, said Simrill, R-Rock Hill.

Later Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee unanimously advanced a bill merging a Senate borrowing proposal with changes in the DOT’s governance. It would continue to give the commission appointing powers, with legislators’ approval, but allow the governor to appoint every commissioner. Currently, legislators appoint seven commissioners and the governor appoints one.

The borrowing plan - which the Senate approved as part of its budget proposal for 2016-17 - uses about $200 million in existing fees, fines and vehicle sales taxes to borrow $2 billion over 10 years. Hall has said that frees up other money the DOT can use to replace bridges and pave roads, allowing for more than $4 billion worth of work total.

Last year, the House passed a bill that would have provided an additional $400 million yearly for highway construction. A Senate version raised roughly twice that, but the session ended with opponents of increasing gas taxes preventing a vote on the Senate floor.

The DOT has said it needs an additional $1.5 billion annually over three decades to bring the state’s highway system to good condition.

“The court’s ruling underscores the need for the legislature to reform the DOT this year - otherwise we’re going to keep throwing taxpayer dollars at a system that’s broken, which would be irresponsible,” said Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, blasted the court’s ruling but said he’s optimistic the Legislature will address both funding and governance before the session ends next month.

With the budget spending hundreds of million on roads, Martin argued, nothing was more germane than a clause directing “who was going to spend that money.”


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