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Roads: Cleary presses for details on Haley repair plan
By Jason Lesley
State Sen. Ray Cleary says he’s skeptical about a financial plan to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roads and bridges that Gov. Nikki Haley will announce in January.
“The governor is saying she is going to tackle infrastructure the way she did education last year,” Cleary said. “She will have her game plan in January. I told her she needs to tell us before the election, not after.”
Democratic critics, including Sen. Vincent Sheheen who is running against Haley for governor, pounced on her lack of specifics. “Nikki Haley’s first idea to fix the crumbling roads of South Carolina was a magical, mystical ‘money tree.’ Now, she has a super secret roads plan that she can’t share with the people of South Carolina,” said Sheheen’s campaign chairman Andrew Whalen. “South Carolinians need real leadership and they need real plans. Nikki Haley has offered neither of those things, while Vincent Sheheen laid out a comprehensive plan to repair South Carolina’s roads and bridges.”
Haley campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said, “South Carolina is one of the best places in the world to do business — and that’s thanks, in no small part, to the billion-dollar investment the governor made in roads
Cleary, who worked to pass an infrastructure bill last year, said a billion dollars over 10 years for the state’s roads is a drop in the bucket. Estimates from the Department of Transportation say it will take $29 billion over 20 years.
“One of the main reasons,” Cleary said, “we couldn’t get an infrastructure bill through in the last year and a half is because she threatened to veto any gas fee or indexing. Quite honestly, that doesn’t make sense because a third of that money comes from out-of-state people. If you are going to rebuild roads in South Carolina wouldn’t you want a third of the people from out of state to pay? Why take the whole burden on ourselves? I need to know her position.”
Earlier this year Haley proposed the idea of lawmakers using the difference between initial and final revenue budget estimates — she called it the legislature’s “money tree” — for road and bridge needs. She estimated that funding could produce $100 million a year.
“I know my daughters believe in a money tree,” Cleary said. “I don’t necessarily.”
Cleary said ice storm damage to roads in the western part of the state has turned the problem into a crisis. He said 45 percent of the state’s roads were regarded as good before the storm. Now, just 15 percent of the state’s roads are regarded as good. “We have an infrastructure problem,” Cleary said. “It’s totally different from education. It only involves money. DOT has documented that we need $1.4 billion a year in new money to make the roads good. The governor needs to tell us how she’s going to create that fund.”
Cleary said the state is already under-funding local governments by $75 million, has decreased funding for colleges by 40 percent in the last five years and is looking at a potential $9 billion shortfall in its pension fund. In addition, the state needs an extra $500 million a year to bring teacher salaries to the national average.
Cleary said he worked with budget numbers all last summer and found little room for roads. He said the state has annual revenue of $6.4 billion, and after Health and Human Services and public education there is $1.7 billion left to fund the governor’s office, the legislature, DNR, DHEC, mental health agencies, police and everything else. “DOT needs $1.4 billion,” Cleary said. “What are we going to do? Close down the entire government?”
Cleary said removing the $300 sales tax cap on new cars, airplanes and boats is gaining support. “I don’t know if we can do it even with the gas fee and with some other things,” he said. “I know we can’t do it with the governor telling us no. We have to have leadership. We haven’t had it the last four years, and she needs to provide it. We need to know that before the election. The reason people don’t trust legislators is they tell us what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear. Tell us how you are going to fix the roads. People deserve an answer.”