- Associated Press - Monday, May 8, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Senators have approved a road-funding compromise that would eventually raise the state’s gas tax by 12 cents but allow South Carolina drivers to get the money back.

Senators’ 32-12 vote late Monday would be enough to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s promised veto. The vote came after senators ended another hourslong filibuster by GOP Sen. Tom Davis.

“It’s a big freakin’ deal,” Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said of the vote.

The debate returns to the House, which has repeatedly given super-majority approval to road-funding plans. The roadblock has been in the Senate, with Davis as the chief blocker. Monday’s vote signaled that a bill intended to provide a long-term funding stream for South Carolina’s crumbling roadways would likely become law after several years of debate.

The compromise worked out last Friday between a House-Senate panel would increase the gas tax to 28.75 cents per gallon over six years. The rise starting July 1 would represent South Carolina’s first gas tax hike in 30 years.

“You’re going to say people won’t feel that? They’re going to feel it,” said Davis, who opposed hiking the gas tax at all and argued the Department of Transportation should be restructured before it gets more money.

McMaster opposes hiking any tax and vows to veto the bill as soon as it reaches his desk. But his threat is expected to be moot.

“Hopefully, by the end of the week, the bill will become law,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, who crafted the plan that passed the Senate two weeks ago. Its various tax cuts were needed to “draw as many votes as possible,” he said.

The compromise reduced the Senate plans’ tax-cut provisions, but the coalition mostly held. Two Republican senators withdrew their support.

The agreement would eventually raise more than $600 million additional annually for roadwork, while its tax cuts would reduce revenue by $105 million annually.

The DOT has said it needs an additional $28 billion dollars over the next 25 years to bring the state’s 41,400 miles of roadway to good condition.

“Over the next decade, our roads should dramatically improve,” said Sheheen, co-chairman of the compromise panel. While all roads won’t be perfect, the law will provide “a noticeable, real difference in the lives of drivers.”

The revenue reaches $630 million after a rebate ends.

Drivers could recoup the extra money paid at the pump through their income tax returns. The cumulative cap would rise from $40 million the first year to $114 million in year six, then sunset. Legislators would have to pass another law to continue it.

Once the plan is fully phased in, the bulk of the revenue would come from the gas tax. The bill also includes increases to vehicle sales taxes and registration fees. Tax cuts would go to manufacturers, low-wage earners, married couples and college students.

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