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.

State House Report Week 6 – Remembering Rep. Joe Neal

This 6th week of the legislative session was marked with sorrow as we lost a friend and colleague, Representative Joseph H. “Joe” Neal of Hopkins, South Carolina. An ordained minister, Reverend Neal was first elected in 1992 and fondly remembered as a “gentle giant” and “friend to all.” His hallmark was a voice of distinction and his passion for the people of our state will remain etched in the hearts of those who knew him and enshrined in the legislative proposals he championed. Please join me in praying for the family, parishioners, and friends of Representative Neal who mourn his death and celebrate his legacy.

The week was spent remembering our friend and colleague. As a result, our work on the House floor was light, but we did continue committee work throughout the week. Of note was the Real ID legislation. A number of years ago the federal government imposed requirements on the issuance of recognized government identification cards such as a driver’s license or stand-alone identification card. It was another federal mandate on states and we fought full compliance to every extent possible on principle.

For years our state, along with many others, applied for and were granted waivers for compliance. However, the time has come where the federal government has said it may no longer grant these special request waivers. Through research and committee testimony, we have determined compliance to carry a price tag of approximately $20 million. While we have again requested another waiver, we are simultaneously preparing to reach full compliance through legislative initiatives. That bill moved out of committee this week and will now be debated on the House floor. This simultaneous approach will ensure no disruption in the lives of the citizens of our state no matter the outcome.

Finally, my colleagues and I were honored to have President Trump back in the Palmetto State Friday morning to celebrate the rollout of Boeing’s new 787-10 Dreamliner. For decades, President Trump has advocated for common-sense policies to get government out of the way of job creators like Boeing. South Carolina House Republicans share President Trump’s zeal for private enterprise and we know with world-class employers like Boeing and others, the future of our state remains bright.

In closing, for those who wish to attend, a public viewing will begin at 11:30 AM Monday, with funeral to follow at 1:00 PM in the same location at:

First Nazareth Baptist Church

2351 Gervais Street

Columbia, SC

It is an honor and a privilege to serve you in Columbia. If you need help navigating state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me at Tommy@tommystringer.com.

State House Report Week 5 – Business License Reform, Roads Bill & FOI Act

Our 5th week of legislative work in 2017 was the busiest yet as committees and subcommittees continued to iron out a wide variety of legislation. The legislative process requires most bills to begin in committee for in-depth examination prior to being debated and voted upon by the full House body. In fact, hundreds of bills are sent to committees and subcommittees each year, and this week I’ll highlight a few proposals that have moved from committee to the House floor.

Business License Reform

Current state law allows cities to levy business licensing fees on businesses that wish to operate within city limits. For years the business community has sought reforms to this structure to reduce the burdens placed on businesses while still ensuring businesses pay their fair share and contribute to the operating funds of cities in which they exist. Business advocates say the current law creates incentives for businesses to locate outside city borders, effectively avoiding the licensing fees, which in turn can drive up the cost of doing business. A pro-business reform that would address these issues has cleared a key House committee this week and now heads to the House floor for a full vote.

Movement on Roads Legislation

It’s abundantly clear the number one issue in South Carolina today is addressing the unsafe state of our roads and bridges. We currently lead the nation in traffic fatalities – surpassing even large states like California and Texas in annual traffic deaths. This week a bill aimed at fixing our broken roadways cleared the House budget-writing committee by a vote of 20-0. The legislation would give the Governor control of the South Carolina Department of Transportation, raise the road user fee by 2 pennies per gallon each year for 5 years, and create a Highway Maintenance Trust Fund to ensure 100% of revenues go directly (and only) toward our roads and bridges. The proposal now goes to the House floor for debate and a vote.

Freedom of Information Act

Finally, a bill that would establish a Freedom of Information Act Office for use by citizens and journalists has cleared a final vote in the House Judiciary Committee. The pro-transparency measure would streamline the current process used by those seeking access to government documents. After all, government operates in the public sector and the laws instituting the FOIA process are intended to ensure the business of the public remains public. This bill enhances those laws and makes compliance easier and cheaper for both government entities and those seeking government documents alike.

It is an honor and a privilege to serve you in Columbia. If you need help navigating state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me at Tommy@tommystringer.com.