- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Senators passed legislation late Tuesday that’s intended to start fixing South Carolina’s crumbling roads, hours after House Speaker Jay Lucas blasted their inaction.

The Senate amended a bill that allows for $2 billion of borrowing for highway construction over a decade and makes governance changes to the Department of Transportation. The amended bill returns to the House.

About five hours earlier, Lucas took the podium to say Gov. Nikki Haley and the Senate will be to blame if the potential compromise dies when the session ends Thursday. Senators must pass a bill, and Haley should be demanding it, he said.

Senators then negotiated behind closed doors over the leadership changes. The House and Senate versions still differ in how DOT commissioners are chosen.

Lucas, R-Hartsville, said he tried unsuccessfully to meet earlier Tuesday with the Republican governor. Haley is traveling the state this week endorsing challengers to several Republican legislators.

“It is obvious she believes her time is better spent endorsing opponents of sitting General Assembly members rather than demand the senators across the hall do their job,” he said in a speech that brought applause and standing ovations. “Gov. Haley has actively used her bully pulpit to her advantage throughout this process. But in the eleventh hour, when we should be minutes away from reaching a compromise, her silence proves that she lacks concern for good public policy.”

Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said legislative leaders know her position.

“Sometimes the best way to get something done in Columbia is to elect new people who actually want to serve the public rather than themselves,” Adams said.

Two separate measures could have allowed for the borrowing and leadership changes. With just two days left in the legislative session, Lucas urged senators to pick one and pass it.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said Tuesday he doesn’t care which of the bills, which were essentially the same, becomes law.

“But I do care that it gets done,” Massey, R-Edgefield, said at the podium following Lucas’ speech. “I think the credibility of self-government is on the line as to whether we can address the most basic needs facing South Carolina.”

In April 2015, the House approved legislation raising an additional $400 million yearly for road and bridge construction.

But senators who oppose raising the state’s gas tax - unchanged since 1987 at 16 cents per gallon - blocked any increase, saying the DOT and the separate agency that borrows money for roadwork must be reformed first.

The House then agreed to the borrowing proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman - which he calls a first step in fixing the state’s infrastructure - after inserting leadership changes. The Legislature’s budget plan for next fiscal year includes the $200 million intended for borrowing, but the money can’t be bonded if the bill doesn’t pass.

“This chamber has done everything that we can to get a roads bill passed this year,” Lucas said, saying his speech served “as a voice for the South Carolinians who are outraged because we still do not have a roads bill.”

Haley had adamantly opposed any gas tax increase for roads. But since January 2015, she’s repeatedly said she could support a 10-cent increase if the legislation also gives the governor’s office more control of the DOT and cuts income taxes.

Currently, the DOT secretary answers to both Haley and an eight-member commission, seven of whom are appointed by legislators. Both House and Senate versions keep the commission but appoint them differently.


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