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Roads: Cleary says plan to fund infrastructure at dead end

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

State Sen. Ray Cleary says his legislative plan to fix South Carolina’s roads is dead.

Cleary offered a compromise to Gov. Nikki Haley’s three-part proposal to increase the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon, cut the state income tax by 2 percent over 10 years and restructure the Department of Transportation. She promised to veto any alternative road plan.

Cleary proposed raising a number of fees along with a 10-cents-a-gallon gasoline increase to address the shortfall in road funding, eliminating the state’s 3 percent tax on small businesses and returning more than 20,000 miles of roads to counties to maintain with a guaranteed funding stream.

He told members of the Waccamaw Neck Republican Club Monday he met with Haley last week for the first time to talk about roads and he got a text message that she wants to meet again. “The governor’s plan,” Cleary said, “as a Republican I should support it.”

He doesn’t.

Cleary said Haley’s proposal to generate about $400 million a year for DOT with an additional 10-cents-a-gallon fee would leave 25 percent of the state’s roads in poor condition after 10 years. Cleary said he didn’t have a problem with the governor’s wanting the head of DOT to be a cabinet level position, but there are others in the legislature who do. “Does she appoint her friends to be on boards?” Cleary asked. “If you think she appoints her friends, or her best friend to be head of the DHEC board without going through a thing, then you have some concerns with her.” Cleary also said he was not willing to cut state income taxes by $1.7 billion without seeing the promised economic growth first. He said South Carolina’s effective tax rate, taking into consideration its exemptions, is 3.1 percent, eighth lowest in the nation. States that cut tax rates, like North Carolina, eliminated exemptions, he said.

Cleary, a dentist, compared fixing the state’s roads to a patient’s teeth. A filling is $150; a root canal and crown are $2,000; and an implant is $4,000. “It doesn’t get cheaper to put it off,” he said, “and it hasn’t with the roads.”

He said DOT needs an additional $1.47 billion a year for 30 to 35 years. Giving counties the responsibility for 20,000 miles of rural roads would free DOT to concentrate on main highways, he said. Western counties don’t trust legislative promises of funding. “I didn’t say they were wrong,” Cleary said.

Chances are slim of getting any road bill this year, he said.

“I told her, ‘Governor, if you call it a win, it’s a win,’ Cleary said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if she’s firm on the veto. I don’t know if we have the votes to overcome it. All we can do is try.”

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