The Governor’s Highway Funding Plan – A Response

We rarely witness the appearance of a political crisis simple enough to be understood by a majority of voters and large enough to evoke substantial change in the size and scope of government.

South Carolina’s crumbling road system and the lack of revenue to repair it has become that crisis. It threatens our safe travel, our economic competitiveness and presents taxpayers with an exponentially increasing, and unnecessary, cost to fix the problem.

During her State of the State address to the General Assembly last week, Gov. Haley unveiled a three-point strategy to end the crisis.

Her first point was expected. She asked that the Department of Transportation become a true cabinet level agency responsible to the Governor and that the district-based commission structure be abolished. She understands that the current structure lacks accountability, encourages inefficiency and props up our antiquated regionalism that limits the responsiveness of DOT and harms statewide economic development.

Her second point was courageous. She admitted that a gas tax increase would be required to repair our roads. After realizing that the majority of voters understand this simple truth much better than their elected members of the General Assembly, her admission created an anvil upon which her other two points can be forged.

Her third point was prescient. She redefined the gas tax increase as tax reform, most particularly the reduction of our personal income tax rates. Her critics should remember that including the gas tax as part of a tax reform package was recommended in the TRAC report back in 2010. For a reminder of the hard work put in by that commission, please look here. Their gas tax recommendations can be found on page 214.

Though I do not agree with all of the solutions found in the report, it does give us an idea of what can be done with our tax policy. The report recommends a blending of Gov. Haley’s suggested gas tax increase and the hybrid funding approach suggested by the House Transportation Study Committee led by Rep. Gary Simrill. The report suggests ways to flatten our tax brackets, broaden our tax base and remove exemptions. Like Gov. Haley, I add the reduction of income tax rates and sales tax rates to that list.

If we truly want South Carolina to be a 21st century economic force, as every politician claims, we must stop clinging to our 19th century regionalism – I am talking to the Senators here – and our restrictive 20th century tax code – pay attention House members.

I applaud the window of opportunity that Gov. Haley has opened for the General Assembly. We should allow this unexpected and fresh breeze to blow the cobwebs of apathy and recalcitrance from our minds.

Benefit Corporation Law Actually Benefits

Back in 2012, as I was working on tax reform legislation, I also explored ways to encourage business to directly commit their resources to solving societal problems that normally do not fall directly within their business model.

Normally, politicians use tax incentives to entice business to become involved in these areas. This model has several problems including the inherent inefficiency and inaccuracy that comes when government decides both the problem and the solution. A better way is to let businesses and consumers determine which societal problems that they would like to help solve.

I discovered that several states had passed benefit corporation legislation and I thought it was a great fit for South Carolina. So, I introduced it into the House in 2012. It passed through the General Assembly and Gov. Haley signed it into law without reservation. We are now seeing the results from it.

The Greenville New recently ran the following article about these results –

A Blue Ridge Roundabout . . .

Though rumors have been flying for months, I received formal notice from our state Department of Transportation (DOT) this past Wednesday that they were starting the process of building a traffic circle where North McElhaney Road meets Highway 101 at Lake Cunningham Fire Department.

Let me say that again . . . DOT wants to build a traffic circle on Hwy 101 . . . beside the fire station. Visions of nocturnal short track racing started dancing in my head.

I talked with Chief Travis Balliew at Lake Cunningham Fire Department to discuss his concerns. I called Sen. Tom Corbin and met with him and DOT on Thursday regarding the project. Here’s DOT’s rationale –

The federal government gave them a grant to be used only for a safety improvement project. This means that the federal government will pay 90% of the cost; the state will pay 10% of the cost. Well . . . that means that they will borrow 90% . . .

DOT determined that this particular place on 101 met the requirements of the grant. According to their numbers, 32 accidents have happened at that junction in the last 6 years. I reminded them that stop lights had been installed since then. I asked DOT if they had the accident count starting just 3 years back. They are researching those facts.

We discussed the possible impact on the fire station’s ability to respond to calls and the impact the circle would have on the flow of traffic, especially with the new houses being built between there and Blue Ridge High School. We also learned that DOT has already built a traffic circle near the fire station in Conestee and claim that it has worked out fine. We are confirming that statement.

My other concern lies with the expenditure of scarce transportation dollars for unneeded projects. If they are looking for a safety hazard, they only need go down 101 where it meets Milford Church Road. Now, that’s a hazardous intersection in the mornings. School buses have a hard time making that turn, much less fire trucks.

Finally, we discussed that the delay in completing the Memorial Drive Extension bridge replacement had become a major issue with our residents. To put it bluntly, we told DOT to fix the bridge before starting a roundabout.

After the meeting, I called Sen. Tim Scott’s office to determine how hard it would be to redirect the safety funds to another project in my district, if it is warranted. They are researching it, but not before expressing surprise at a traffic circle on 101. “You are kidding!” was the phrase that sticks in my mind.

This project illustrates my frustration with DOT and the lack of communication with elected officials. To be fair, DOT acted quickly to meet with us once I contacted them. However, Sen. Corbin and I received notice just two weeks before DOT is scheduled to purchase the right of way for the project. This gives us very little time to act in the best interest of our constituents.

DOT never discussed the project with Chief Balliew at Lake Cunningham or any of his fire commissioners. DOT assured us that the fire trucks would have no issue leaving the fire station and getting through the circle. But a little consideration goes a long way.

Sen. Scott’s office had no idea that the grant funds were being spent on a traffic circle on 101.

The traffic circle may be the best idea since somebody put salt on grits but communication before the project starts is necessary to its acceptance. I am not a traffic engineer and I don’t want to interfere with a project that might actually even out the traffic flow down 101 and make our travel safer. But when every elected official from the fire commissioner to the U.S. Senator has been left out of the conversation, trust becomes an issue.

We have another meeting scheduled to discuss the project before Febraury.

Paving Roads with Good Intentions

Please note that this piece ran in The Greenville News on 11 January 2015.

In the old Grimm’s fairy tale Snow White, the Evil Queen asks her magic mirror to name the fairest in the land. Writers often use mirror imagery to hint that divisive issues within the story will reflect the true nature of their characters. In this tale, the Queen did not like the mirror’s answer and her attempted murder of Snow White proved the mirror true.

Mirror imagery holds true in politics as well. Political problems provide excellent mirrors to reflect our politicians’ true natures. Which should be easy to see since we have enough problems in Columbia to make the Statehouse look like the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles . . . or in a carnival.

Our state’s crumbling infrastructure dominates our Hall of Mirrors. This issue constantly reflects our lawmakers’ reluctance to discuss the revenue problems at DOT while our roads worsen and the deferred cost to repair them exponentially increases each year.

They are like characters out of some parable that confuses bad stewardship with the prodigal son. As they spend what they collect in gas taxes today with no thought of tomorrow, they are quick to shed tears when a bridge closes for months, a pothole damages a constituent’s car or the president of Michelin North America points out that our roads are a “disgrace.”

Instead of repeating sound-bite-proof denials of reality, they should explain to their constituents why our current gas tax does not generate enough revenue to maintain our infrastructure. They never mention the insolvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund, which supplies us with federal matching dollars to maintain our interstates. Revenue stagnation from a static gas tax happens in Washington as well as South Carolina.

The Highway Trust Fund was created in 1956 to finance the construction of the interstate system. Over time, Congress expanded the types of roads eligible for matching funds. Though they raised the federal gas tax and added other fees to keep the Fund solvent, they failed.

Since 2008, the Fund has spent $54 billion more than it has received in revenue. Federal law prohibits the Fund from running a deficit, so Congress started transferring dollars from the Treasury’s general fund to make up the difference. During the next decade, the Fund will suffer an additional deficit of $167 billion.

As these transfers turn into life-support infusions, Washington politicians dither about how to save the Fund. Some have introduced legislation increasing the federal gas tax to keep the Fund solvent. Others want to eliminate the Fund completely. Chances are that Washington will remain gridlocked as state matching fund payments fall further behind.

The delay of matching dollars impacts us locally. Just ask anyone in Greer who has detoured around the closed bridge on Memorial Drive Extension. The bridge was washed out last August and remains so.

While we have ignored our infrastructure problem, 30 states have passed significant new road funding measures to repair their roads. The measures include increasing tolls, building new toll roads, redirecting sales tax revenue and raising gas taxes. These states, including North Carolina, have gained a competitive advantage over us.

The General Assembly has a real opportunity this coming Session to pass a viable plan to fix our roads. An important first step to develop this plan has already been taken by Rep. Jay Lucas, the new Speaker of the House.

Last fall, he appointed a bi-partisan transportation study committee that includes Rep. Chandra Dillard and Rep. Phyllis Henderson from Greenville, to explore options to fix our roads. Through their open debate about the severity of our problems, the proper scope of DOT and the diminished capacity of our gas tax, the committee built an excellent foundation of knowledge for the House to use this session.

Yet, even after seeing the hard work of the study committee and hearing the overwhelming consensus from our citizens that our road problems must be fixed, many lawmakers balk at moving forward. They fear that the Governor might veto a revenue increase or that our local governments might be upset if they are given responsibility for secondary roads that they should already be taking care of. Though well intended, they want to move slowly, if at all.

While the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, we really just need concrete and asphalt to pave ours . . . and a mirror to show us lawmakers with the determination to fix the problem.

Sledge Hammer or Rubber Stamp – The Legislative Oversight Committee

The House LOC has been vested with investigatory powers by the General Assembly to determine if state agencies are functioning as defined by state law. Each agency will appear before the committee (under oath, if necessary) and answer questions. The committee will publish a report on each agency that will include a recommendation that their functions should be continued, curtailed or eliminated.

As a member of LOC, I’m looking forward to witnessing how the committee evolves. That evolution will be a direct reflection of personalities and ideological stances of the lawmakers who serve on it. Either the committee will offer constructive criticism that will force improvements in how our agencies operate or it will continue the status quo of just letting it slide.

Let me be clear – I believe that governmental reach into our lives and pocketbooks should be as limited as possible. Governmental interference that we do deem necessary should be limited to a narrowly defined purposed as defined by law. Furthermore, it should be funded adequately to ensure its efficient operation. As a lawmaker, downsizing and overseeing an efficient limited government is my priority.

Tommy Stringer