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Statehouse: Lawmakers differ over road funding

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

State Sen. Ray Cleary and Rep. Stephen Goldfinch want to see South Carolina’s crumbling roads and bridges repaired. They have a difference of opinion about legislation to set aside the necessary money, estimated at $1.47 billion annually for the next 30 years, as they enter the new session of the General Assembly next week.

Goldfinch said he has declined to renew his pledge to the Americans for Tax Reform, an organization formed by Grover Norquist that opposes all tax increases. He has pre-filed a bill to raise the state sales tax cap on automobiles from $300 to $750. It is among a number of measures Goldfinch is proposing to fund highway repairs.

Cleary said raising the tax on gasoline is the fairest — and smartest — way to fix the state’s roads. “If you’ve got to spend $1.5 billion and you can get out-of-state people to pay 34.5 percent of it why put the burden strictly on South Carolinians?” he asked. “For a retiree who drives 10,000 or 15,000 miles a year, why would he want to pay the same as somebody who drives 100,000 a year? A gas tax makes perfect sense. It’s a user fee with more than a third paid by out-of-state people.”

Goldfinch said the sales tax on automobiles is a consumption tax, something conservatives support. “Nobody is pressuring you to buy a car,” he said. “You’ve got to buy gas.”

Goldfinch said his decision about the tax pledge won’t change his philosophy. “The pledge became a political pawn,” he said. “I’m still going to do everything in my power to make sure taxes are as low as possible in South Carolina, and I don’t need a pledge to do that.”

Goldfinch said Gov. Nikki Haley has promised to veto any increase in the state’s gasoline tax. “I am 100 percent opposed to spending a year or two, only to send it to the governor and get it vetoed,” he said. “We are not going to have a veto-proof House. It’s somewhat frustrating for me. Is there one particular magic bullet? No. If there was, everybody would complain about it because it would be too much money.”

Among the bills Goldfinch pre-filed for road funding are measures to raise the registration fee for golf carts from $5 to $50, and utility trailers, excluding farmers, from $20 to $25, and to add $250 to fines for drivers convicted of an offense carrying six points or more. “What we are doing here,” Goldfinch said, “is exactly what I told everybody I would during the campaign, which was look for alternative sources of funding for highways and bridges that will pass. If you are abusing the highways, you are going to pay for the highways. Every single one of these revenue raising devices goes into the non-federal highway fund.”

The increase in the car sales tax is the measure most likely to hit turbulence. “I spent some time with dealers discussing the issue,” Goldfinch said, “I have not spent time discussing it with their lobbyist, I can tell you that.” Goldfinch said the additional $450 sales tax is more an issue for auto lenders than dealers. “As long as the lenders are willing to wrap it into the purchase price, the dealers don’t care,” Goldfinch said. “We may still negotiate it down or amend it.”

Cleary said the state’s road problem is so big it will take 30 years to fix the backlog. “A good road costs about $20,000 every five years,” he said, “a road in poor condition costs millions. It’s just like your teeth. I’m a dentist. You can take care of your teeth, do regular cleaning and small fillings, or wait on a root canal. Everybody gets it. That’s what bothers me. Educated people in the legislature understand it, but we are so worried about getting re-elected.”

Cleary has resumed his quest for term limits with another bill to limit terms in the House and Senate to 12 years. “We’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “Once you’ve been up here 12 years, it gets that you own the job more than you are doing a temporary job for the people. I would like to see us have a discussion. I think term limits are as important as ethics. We’ve lost a Speaker of the House, a lieutenant governor and several senators. I think term limits go a long way toward making it better.”

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