Originally created 05/13/05

Senators spar on gas tax plan



COLUMBIA - Plans to raise the state's gasoline tax by seven cents a gallon are likely to fuel filibusters and floor fights in the Senate next week.

A group of eight senators began drawing up plans Thursday to thwart the tax if it comes up for debate.

"D-O-A. It is dead on arrival," Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, said after opponents caucused on the Senate floor after the week's session adjourned.

"It was dead before arrival," said Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia. "It's going to be World War III."

When the bill comes up for debate, it will fall prey to a host of challenges, said Sen. David Thomas, R-Fountain Inn.

"You are going to have filibusters at every turn," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, is pushing the plan along with Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Manning. The Republican involvement bothers Mr. Thomas.

"There is going to be a resurgence of conservative principals in this Senate," Mr. Thomas said.

Mr. Land and Mr. Leatherman said the state has to address shortcomings that turned the state's road systems into one of the nation's deadliest. The state hasn't put money into road maintenance projects for years because it has lacked cash. What money it has had is earmarked for building projects that win federal matching funds, Mr. Leatherman said.

The proposal would raise the state tax on a gallon of gasoline two cents by Dec. 1, 2006, or sooner if average gas prices drop below $2 a gallon. Then drivers would pay a penny a gallon more for each of the next five years, ultimately adding seven cents to the current 16.8 cents a gallon.

When fully implemented, the tax would raise $197 million yearly for maintenance and improvement projects that range from widening and straightening secondary roads to adding shoulders to make them safer, Mr. Leatherman said.

The budget the Legislature just sent to Gov. Mark Sanford has $142 million in supplemental spending fueled by growing state revenues. If Mr. Leatherman "were interested in raising money for the highways, he should have taken the excess money we had in the supplemental bill and put it toward it," Mr. Knotts said.

With the state's budget now in the black, Mr. Ryberg says road maintenance needs to become part of the budget - not fed by a higher tax. For instance, forecasts call for the state's revenues to grow by a quarter-billion dollars yearly.

"It ought to be a line item in the general fund budget," Mr. Ryberg said. "But to tax people additional money when revenue in the state is growing at 5 (percent) to 6 percent is just absurd."

The issue was discussed for about 20 minutes in a subcommittee before reaching the floor of the Senate, Mr. Ryberg said. The only witnesses at the meeting Wednesday came from the state Transportation Department. No one from the public spoke against the legislation.

"There's no discussion," Mr. Ryberg said.

Mr. Land and Mr. Leatherman are optimistic they've got the votes to get the legislation out of the Senate. Mr. Land says at least 30 of the 46 senators will vote for it.

The tax, which is attached to a House bill aimed at increasing road maintenance funding, faces opposition from House leaders, including Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, and Ways and Means Chairman Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

It ultimately could be vetoed by Mr. Sanford.

"The governor's always been philosophically biased against raising taxes and fees," Sanford spokesman Will Folks said.