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VIEWPOINT: Let South Carolinians pick their path to prosperity

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By J. Richards Todd
Published Feb. 25, 2016

Washington-based Americans for Prosperity is sponsoring a misguided, behind the scenes gas-tax-demagogue with apparently little understanding of state or road building budgeting. They show little respect for South Carolinians’ self-determined, indisputable top priority, which is to improve our roads. In doing so, they are alienating their best would-be allies in the legislature and effectively erecting road blocks to one of the most fundamentally proven and necessary paths to “prosperity.”

rick todd head shot
Recent AfP-financed, anger-inflaming rhetoric tied President Obama’s proposed oil-tax-for-transit to S.C.’s gas-tax-for-road-improvements. They must not realize that South Carolinians naturally fight waste and government overreach. We pay our bills; abhor debt almost as much as taxes. We zealously guard our triple-A credit rating. And until recently, we have been fairly good at eschewing out-of-state invectives. The only black holes we want to dump money into are pot holes.

AfP robo-calls compelled a true conservative senator to post: “To all my conservative constituents and the rest of those in South Carolina who continue to receive the annoying robo calls from AfP that are telling half-truths or in some cases outright lies, I apologize as do my fellow senators ... ask them their plan to fix our crumbling roads."

AfP is a relative newcomer to the Palmetto State, but late to this debate, elbowing their way into this long-running family feud over how to best deal with our aged and overstressed highway system. We have studied our road needs and vetted the options ad nauseam. Unlike many other states and certainly the federal government, we’ve preserved the utility and integrity of the gas tax. We’ve methodically eliminated road-tax diversions, appropriately re-directed select general revenues to roads, while incentivizing and leveraging local revenues and priorities with smart bonding to deliver projects on time and under budget. Yet these political immigrants operate blissfully oblivious to the legions of informed citizens, stakeholders, business and political leaders who have grudgingly, but responsibly acquiesced to the inevitability of an increase in the gas tax.

Just last year, citizens in adjacent states of North Carolina and Georgia demanded more and similar investments in their economic lifelines. Most states have per gallon rates more than double ours, and their roads show it. We wonder if AfP would have opposed Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System?

It is that very system, funded in large part by gas taxes, that has enabled this group’s founders to produce tremendous wealth. By utilizing public infrastructure, their industries have benefitted from a safe and efficient supply chain. But we have 830 structurally deficient bridges, 396 of which are load restricted. Many are on rural, low volume routes, and rank low on our state DOT’s priority list. AfP’s backers own plants and facilities that are impacted, yet, they rail against paying more in the form of this most-fair user fee in exchange for responsible capital expenditures by the state.

We last adjusted our “gas tax” in 1987 under the leadership of the iconic, late-great Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell. Politics may have changed, but Campbell’s steady intonation of “you can’t build an economy without building roads” hasn’t. As an East Coast bridge state and popular tourist destination, we leave a lot of money on the table with a stupid-low fuel tax, which captures 30% from out-of-staters.

With legitimate road system needs pegged at an additional $1.2 billion per year, it’s politically impossible and fiscally irresponsible to redirect that much revenue away from other citizen-demanded services. Our legislature has done well to squeeze some road support from the left-over crumbs from recent budgeting. Hopefully, they can resolve to find even more.

South Carolinians get the connection between good roads and adequately set, fairly apportioned, efficiently levied, and dedicated road user fees. The gas tax is about the only tax/fee that meets the test. Other options could betray tenets of reciprocity between neighboring states, or potentially violative of the Commerce Clause.

Staring at a road system that’s crumbling from decades of neglect and choked from growth, the tide of public outrage is not with “the system,” but with our state legislature’s fear-based inability to address the problem.

It has been a generation since our citizens agreed to pay more for the use of our road system. Gov. Nikki Haley has inherited this situation, and wants to minimize the burden. But some net pain at the pump is necessary to eliminate it from our commerce and commutes.

Politics won’t fix our roads, only leadership can. The gas tax is the only significant solution for the near-term. And, frankly, it’s up to South Carolinians to decide this for themselves.

J. Richards Todd is president & CEO of the SC Trucking Association and is a life-long South Carolinian, and an active leader of a broad based industry and highway user Coalition for Road and Bridge Improvements.

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