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Lawmakers say Haley’s move to U.N. could be good for state roads

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Rep. Chris Murphy, R-North Charleston, talks about the upcoming legislative session during the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon on Tuesday in Summerville. (Photo/Andy Owens)

State lawmakers representing Dorchester County said Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointment as U.N. ambassador could mean South Carolina’s infrastructure problems might finally be addressed in the next legislative session.

Rep. Chris Murphy, R-North Charleston, said Haley sent mixed messages about raising the state’s gas tax and put in so many stipulations that very little happened in the General Assembly last year.

“In fact, I blame her a lot for our inability at the state level to enact a motor-user fuel tax, an increase in the gas tax,” Murphy said Tuesday during a Dorchester County legislative luncheon. “First she was against it, then she surprised everybody by being for it, but then she was for it but then she put these handcuffs on the General Assembly which basically made it impossible from a legislative standpoint to do what we needed to do in South Carolina.”

Murphy joined two senators and newly elected Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Summerville, for the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon at Summerville Presbyterian Church.

Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, agreed with Murphy and suggested that Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, who will become governor if Haley is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, would be more open to working with the General Assembly on a number of issues, including the user tax for motor vehicles.

“Roads is going to be a big issue for us, and quite frankly, I think with Gov. McMaster in the seat, I think we have a much better chance of getting an infrastructure bill done this year,” Campbell said. “Because our present governor has put all kinds of ifs, ands or buts about what we can do and what we can’t do before she would not veto the bill.”

Campbell said South Carolina roads are killing people, causing unnecessary property damage each year and costing more per mile than is necessary. The state has said the S.C. Department of Transportation needs tens of billions of dollars to fix and maintain the state’s roads and bridges.

“The only way to do it, folks, is a gasoline tax, in my opinion, a motor-vehicle user fee,” Campbell said.

Last year, the General Assembly worked out a compromise to put $4 billion toward the problem. Campbell said he and other senators backed a plan last year to cut income taxes by 15% and raise the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon over three years.

“We did a lot of reform to the system last year, and now it’s time to fix the funding mechanism,” said Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, who called roads a “big-ticket item.”

All four lawmakers said that roads and infrastructure are the top priority for the state and the Dorchester County legislative delegation for the upcoming session that begins Jan. 10. Arrington said fixing roads is an “absolute must” and expressed support for a fuel tax.

“We need that money in there, and we can’t take it out of education, and we can’t take it out of health care, so I commend them for doing it,” Arrington said of previous efforts by lawmakers. “Hopefully this year we’ll get it through.”

Bennett and Campbell said the state also needs to focus on the faltering state pension system, which is facing a growing, multibillion-dollar shortfall.

“The South Carolina pension system right now is about $19 billion underfunded,” Bennett said, adding that the official number doesn’t completely characterize the entire problem. “I will tell you that number’s probably closer to $40 billion.”

Arrington, the freshman representative, said she went through three pairs of shoes going door-to-door during the campaign and spent her summer sitting in on committee meetings to familiarize herself with the issues likely to come before the state Legislature.

“Coming into the next session, so I have big dreams. Our nation, our state, our county, our town. We all need unity coming into this session,” she said. “I think the House, the General Assembly, and the Senate both are amazingly positioned this season.”

Bennett, who expressed support for capitalizing on the state’s technical college system to grow jobs, said roads and pensions are challenges the House and Senate could handle this session.

“We can solve both of those problems, but it’s going to take some commitment on the part of the General Assembly,” Bennett said.

Murphy said Haley was going to be a lame-duck governor regardless of the U.N. appointment by President-elect Donald Trump. She would have been in the last two years of her second term, and he said McMaster was already planning to run for governor.

“I think he’s going to come out fast, and he’s going to want to see some changes made, and I think that’s going to bode well for the state of South Carolina as a whole,” Murphy said.

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

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