Lost on the Cloverleaf: A Self Help Guide to the Gas Tax

Have a little fun today and channel some Walker Percy while reading this and if you’ve read his book Lost in the Cosmos take it as a sign and reward yourself with a sip of Early Times before supper . . .

You might think that I have been run over with voters asking me to explain my support of the current roads bill with its gas tax increase. That has not been the case. Maybe some constituents remember one of the many articles that I wrote over the past four years about poor road conditions, unsafe bridges, gas taxes and overall tax reform. More than likely most people understand that we need to update our infrastructure plan and revenue stream. They do not need me to tell them that a gas tax last increased in the late 1980’s cannot generate the level of funding that SCDOT needs in 2017.

For those against fixing our roads that are now warming up their email machines, be assured that I have been sufficiently warned. A few people have expressed their concerns and I am always open and appreciative of their calls.  Others, spurred to action by radio signals or other less informed oracles, have promised to never vote for me again if I voted for the roads bill. Never. Ever. Not going to do it. Not a chance no matter what my past voting record has been.

My political future has no relevance to this debate so I don’t worry. My concern remains serving the citizens of our community in a prudent and conservative manner as I promised. If you share my concerns about the dismal conditions of our roads but are unsure if the gas tax should be raised or you doubt the mathematical possibility that every voter in Blue Ridge and Greer opposes the roads bill then consider the following brief guide to decide what scenario best describes your self-interest:

You are from Greer or Northern Greenville County or South Carolina – The longer you or your people have lived here, the greater the collective tax investment your family has made into the road and bridge infrastructure. If your family settled in Greenville County back in the early 1800’s they witnessed the construction of the statewide road that ran from Charleston through Greenville and over the Poinsett Bridge into North Carolina. The road gave them a much greater opportunity to prosper.

These days you use Wade Hampton Boulevard, Highway 25, Locust Hill Road or some other traffic jammed commuter road every morning to wait yourself to work while somehow equalizing your automobile time and your ancestor’s wagon time on a cosmic scale. In any event, our state infrastructure has helped your family survive by facilitating commerce. Since you and your descendants are likely to continue living here, the longer the General Assembly puts off fixing our roads, the more your children will pay for the repairs. You should support the roads bill even with its gas tax increase.

You Work and Receive a W-2 Form – Regardless if you were born here or not, you live here and work hard to support your family. You have school loans, mortgages, car payments, college savings plans, utility bills, medical bills and the temptation to buy an endless pile of stuff generated by our Madison Avenue driven consumer economy. You pay a state income tax of 7% unless you can take advantage of several credits and exemptions that will lower your actual rate. You pay a state sales tax of 6% on all the stuff that you buy unless some of that stuff falls into one of the eighty-plus sales tax exemptions. You also pay a gas tax of 16.75 cents per gallon – a tax that has been fair, flat and constant for 25 years. A tax imposed directly on those who use the roads including the 30% of drivers who do not live in South Carolina but help maintain our roads through in-state fuel purchases.

You should now pay close attention. The income tax and sales tax that you pay goes to the state’s General Fund where they are spent on a host of state agencies. Historically, none of these taxes were used to pay for our roads. The roads were supported by revenue from the gas tax. In the last couple of years, the General Assembly has used General Fund surpluses to fix our roads. The canary should be squawking the coalmine alarm in your head right now while you grab your gas mask. Using General Fund monies to repair roads shifts more tax responsibility onto you rather than onto those using our roads including the 30% from out of state. You should support the roads bill even with its gas tax increase.

Let us end with a related story. Recently, a retiree from outside the state moved into the rural Blue Ridge community. I only became aware of her because my cousin’s barn went missing. No, not her dog; her barn. The barn was in the woods near my house and for years was a darkly inviting shape on a cool autumn’s dusk, reflecting many seasons of hardships and harvests in its weathered wood and shadowed windows. Then one day, the barn vanished.

Not wanting to appear delusional and ask my cousin about her vanishing barn, I did the next best thing – I called my sister who tends to keep up with family news. I learned that this transplanted retiree had found a county ordinance that allowed her to challenge the safety of any unused outbuilding and force the demolition of the building if the building’s owner did not bring it up to code. When I called my county councilman, he said that she had driven around our community looking for old buildings and had filed over 100 complaints against property owners. One of those complaints was against my cousin about her barn. Rather than engage in a protracted battle with the county, my cousin had the barn demolished.

What a great way to be a good neighbor. Intent on improving her own property value so that she could flip her house and move on with her iconoclastic tour de force, our retiree (the Blair Witch?) destroyed part of our visible agrarian heritage while caring not about the generational worth of what had been lost. Her kind is equal to the locust of Egypt or a column of Sherman’s finest. Time and again we see the same conflict between those who want to improve South Carolina and those who want to use South Carolina under the guise of improving South Carolina. The users always seem to win.

When it comes to the roads bill, the decision boils down to this: if you care about South Carolina’s future and believe that a prudent conservative people should maintain their infrastructure investment, then support the bill. If you care nothing for South Carolina’s future and are not concerned about unsafe bridges or multiplying potholes, then oppose the bill. The decision is that simple.

My Infrastructure and Gas Tax Articles, Lest Ye Have Forgotten

For the sake of transparency, short memories, and people who think they know what I think or believe that I’m not conservative, the following are the titles to various articles that I’ve posted over the last four years about roads, bridges, the gas tax (or as it should be called, the motor fuel user fee), and other stuff that I enjoyed writing. To read these articles, please look to the right for a list, or use the search function or just  keeping scrolling through the website.

2017 – The Year of Living Dangerously in the General Assembly

A Short Reflection on the Electoral College Effect

Argus,  Ric Flair and the Looming State Pension Debt

Lee Bright and the Defense of Western Values

The Roads Bill – Reform in Progress

The Roads Bill – How We Will Pay For It

Bumping Old Hickory

The Roads Bill Amendment

The SCDOT Chicken Run

$415 Million of Surplus Revenue Applied to Road Repair

Our “Anybody but Donald Trump” Electoral College Fail Safe

Grading the Senate’s Friday Folder

A Short Reflection Upon Myths and Bad Tax Policy

Trumping the Light Fantastic in Greenville

The Planned Parenthood Roundabout

A Day in the Life – 14 January 2016

Star Wars as History Lesson

SC State Pension Plan Mechanics – A Study of the Short Sighted

SCDOT Yields to Roundabout Pressure

Planned Parenthood Investigation – All Apologies?

Office of Refugee Resettlement – Welcome to Obamaworld

Opposing the Blue Ridge Roundabout – My Letter to SCDOT

Marriage and the Modern General Assembly

Planned Parenthood – Abortion’s New Back Alley

Public Shaming, Borrowed Moral Capital and Kicking the CBF to the Curb

The Confederate Flag Vote – My Response to a Constituent

Toleration, Same Sex Marriage and Protecting Religious Freedom

Learning Curves, Senate Time and Doughnuts

DHEC Oversight of Abortion Clinics

“Sooey! Sooey!” – Our Preferred State Bond Approval Method

The Road Funding Bill Vote – By the Numbers

House Road Plan Debate – Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Speaking of State Credit Ratings & Income Tax Cuts

The Bond Defeat – Turning Bad Government into Good

The Bond Issue – More Barry than James

Killing Tillman – Part Three: Our State Budget

Killing Tillman – Part Two: Picking Cotton

Killing Tillman – Part One: The College Years

SCDOT Financial Fun Facts as of June 30, 2014

Filing the Governor’s Road Plan

Paving Roads With Good Intentions

Localizing Road Repair

The SC House Marshmallow Test

Bringing Down the House Feudal System

Saving Taxpayers $1.2 Billion

Fun Home at the Fun House

Tax Reform and Gas Tax Articles

And the list goes on . . .

One Strand on the Wall – The SC Computer Science Education Initiative

If you listen to blues music long enough, you’ll hear stories about the “one strand on the wall” upon which old time blues legends learned to play guitar. The strand was a length of baling wire nailed up on a wall and stretched tight with bricks. A broken bottleneck or old nail was used as a slide or pick.

Imagine a six-year old child, dressed in ragged overalls, barefoot with fingers wrapped around the glass neck from a broken whiskey bottle, coaxing a lonesome note from baling wire nailed up on the side of a Mississippi Delta sharecropper cabin and you will understand why he grew up to play the blues. B. B. King related much the same story about his childhood to William Ferris at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss.

Big Joe Williams told music writer Debra Devi how as a child he made himself a one string guitar with baling wire and two thread spools. He went on to a 40-year career as a bluesman and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1992. During his career, he used a nine-string guitar to trademark his unique sound. His grave marker reads “King of the Nine String Guitar,” but it was the one strand on the wall that got him started.

One strand on the wall was opportunity in the midst of a very personal poverty. Parents and siblings who saw a child’s talent had to create the strand out of necessity. They could not afford the $10 that a cheap guitar cost from Sears and Roebuck. Being a little less poor than his Delta peers, Doc Watson, known more for bluegrass than blues, sawed lumber as a child to earn the $10 for his first guitar and he was blind.

Doc Watson later left Deep Gap, North Carolina and attended the NC School for the Deaf and Blind. He went on to Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s where he became a major influence in the American folk music revival. Big Joe Williams toured around the South and finally found international fame in Greenwich Village about the same time as Doc. B. B. King went north to Memphis and then to Los Angeles where he became the larger than life B. B. King. These musicians and a host of others with similar backgrounds went on to become major influences in American music, all because of one strand and a little help from friends and family.

If we define poverty generally as having insufficient or unreliable resources, South Carolina has many communities that are impoverished on a generational level. They lack the one basic building block that would allow them to pull themselves out of poverty: a reliable tax base. Before my conservative friends call for a straight jacket and admit me to the nearest Trump property before I call for a tax increase (which I’m not doing, just to be clear) allow me to elaborate.

A tax base consists of activities that generate tax revenue from current tax rates. Retail sales, real property ownership and improvements, wages earned and large and small business activity are the basic components of a tax base. Long established rural communities that never developed these components have great difficulty pulling out of generational poverty.

When it comes to creating a modern educational system, these communities are caught in a catch-22. In our current economy, education improves people whose skills attract business that creates wealth that fuels the tax base that sustains the educational system that communities need to improve in the first place.

How do we avoid the old “throw money at the problem” impulse, which is just redistributing tax revenue from elsewhere, and help communities build their own tax base? By requiring local school districts to offer classes in subjects that students will actually need in our modern technology driven economy, classes that can be that one strand on the wall that sparks the student to develop greater skills and attract business to the community. Or better yet, creates the opportunity for that student to start his own business in the community.

House Bill 3427 creates an important one strand among many that will be needed in the future. Filed as the South Carolina Computer Science Education Initiative, it requires all public school districts to offer students at least one substantive computer science class in each high school. The Initiative goes on to require grade appropriate computer courses for k-12 students and creates the process for communities to earn a STEM designation that can be used to showcase their progress and attract business.

Then, when you are not in a dark place listening to Lightning Hopkins, take a moment to ruminate on the high school computer science requirement. The fact that these classes are not already required speaks loudly as to why generational poverty continues to exist in South Carolina.

Tommy Stringer