- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A bill that’s supposed to raise money to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roadways has been turned into a hoax on taxpayers, legislative leaders said Wednesday in criticizing a bipartisan deal negotiated in the Senate.

The amendment, approved late Tuesday, would cut income taxes, give college students a tuition tax credit, cut businesses’ property taxes and allow South Carolinians to get a rebate for extra taxes paid at the pump.

The plan is projected to eventually generate roughly $800 million additionally annually by increasing the state’s gas tax and other fees. But the inserted tax cuts and rebates could reduce revenue by more than $650 million.

“We’re not really funding the roads,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, among the 16 Republicans who tried unsuccessfully to kill the amendment. “It’s a whole bunch of stuff piggy-backing.”

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said the “horrendous, God-awful” deal was negotiated without most senators’ input.

“This is sneaky. We’re deceiving people,” said Massey, R-Edgefield. “It makes no sense whatsoever. Why talk about putting money toward roads and then take money out?”

But Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, countered that a deal was necessary to pass something.

“I don’t think that’s sneaky. I think that’s brokering a deal,” she said.

Once the plan is fully phased in, South Carolina drivers could get back up to $465 million if they keep their receipts for vehicle maintenance and gas fill-ups and submit them with their income tax returns. The plan specifies that up to $150 million of that would come from the new roads revenue, while the rest would come from reserves and the state’s general fund.

Senators who voted for the amendment say they expect the claims to tally less than $150 million, as many drivers won’t go through the hassle of keeping up with receipts and filing for the reimbursement.

Massey particularly opposed the tuition tax credit, which he contends would essentially allow students to attend two-year technical colleges for free.

Democrats countered that Senate Republicans who oppose increasing the state’s 16-cents-per-gallon gas forced the need for a deal. The tax hasn’t changed since 1987.

The proposal advanced by the Senate Finance Committee only raised revenue. It included increasing the state’s gas tax by 12 cents over six years; doubling the sales tax cap on vehicles to $600; and raising drivers’ license and registration fees.

Last week, Senate Democrats opposed Republican efforts to insert tax cuts into the proposal, arguing those amendments should be tossed out as unrelated. But their arguments were rejected.

So with just seven days left in this session’s legislative calendar, those Republicans don’t like the tax-cut deal that their insistence to cut taxes ushered in, said Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro.

“Wah, wah, wah,” she said.

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, said he’s embarrassed by what’s happened.

“Some of us went home last night really scratching our heads. We ought to have a straight-up vote on roads,” he said. “None of us should take victory laps. We know it’s a hoax.”

House leaders also blasted the Senate’s latest plan.

It’s a “nonsensical approach to addressing the state’s greatest economic and safety issue,” said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville. The Senate is attempting “to deceive the people of South Carolina by claiming to offer a long-term and sustainable roads bill.”

The House voted Wednesday to insert its road-funding plan into the budget, to set up negotiations on the chambers’ differing spending plans. That chamber’s roads plan would eventually raise about $530 million annually for roads.

But the move will likely be thrown out in budget negotiations. The Senate has repeatedly rejected efforts to change permanent state law in the budget.

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