With just two days left in the General Assembly’s regular session, one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers has found a way around the normal legislative process to get his funding proposal in a transportation bill.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and the Senate Finance Committee chairman, convinced his Senate colleagues Tuesday to add a bill (S. 731) sponsored by him, which was introduced on May 23 but had not been approved by either chamber, as an amendment to a House transportation bill (H. 3360).
Typically, bills that didn’t pass out of either chamber by a May 1 deadline would have little, if any chance, of becoming law this year. Leatherman’s move on Tuesday to add S. 731, which passed Senate Finance last Thursday, as an amendment to H. 3360, which passed the House on Feb. 20, gets around that deadline.
It also prevents the public from voicing their opinions on Leatherman’s proposal.
H. 3360, sponsored by Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens, authorizes the S.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) to add or remove roads from the highway system if agency officials can work out mutual agreements with cities, counties or other affected entities.
Leatherman’s bill that became an amendment to H. 3360 would direct $50 million a year from the DOT to the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank – a separate state agency – for “bridge replacement, rehabilitation projects and expansions and improvements to mainline interstates.”
Leatherman is a member of the governing board of infrastructure bank, which critics contend is a wasteful agency that has funneled billions of dollars since its creation in 1997 mainly to the Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Greenville areas – decisions, critics say, were based more on political considerations than on objective criteria.
Under Leatherman’s proposal, the $50 million could not be used for infrastructure bank projects approved before July 1 of this year. His amendment would require the DOT to submit a list of bridge and road projects to the infrastructure bank for “its consideration.”
Critics suspect the influx of cash will be used by the infrastructure bank to leverage as much as $500 million in bonds as way to get around current bond-debt limits incurred by the bank.
A bill (S. 209) sponsored by Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee and the Senate majority leader, sought to disband the infrastructure bank and direct its responsibilities to the DOT, but the bill hasn’t moved out of Leatherman’s Senate Finance Committee after being introduced on Jan. 10.
Leatherman is a former president of and, according to his most recent state income-disclosure form, a minority stockholder in Florence Concrete Products, which has received more than $30 million in state funding, mainly through the Department of Transportation, since 1993, The Nerve reported in April.
Leatherman successfully pushed to add a proviso to the proposed fiscal 2014 state budget directing $50 million from the DOT to the infrastructure bank. A budget proviso has to be renewed every year; in contrast, Owens’ bill containing Leatherman’s funding amendment would be a permanent law if given final approval by both chambers and the governor.
Senators on Tuesday approved a second reading of the amended House bill on a vote of 36 to 4, which likely will be sent back to the House today after an expected routine third reading. This year’s regular legislative session ends on Thursday.
In the earlier Senate Finance Committee debate on S. 731, Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, questioned the availability of funding for infrastructure bank projects in the Anderson area.
“What it says, senator, DOT will make suggestions to SIB (State Infrastructure Bank) for SIB to consider,” responded Leatherman. “What those considerations are I have no way of knowing what they would be.”
Concerns about the state’s roads and bridges evolved in the early stages of this year’s legislative session when S.C. DOT Secretary Robert St. Onge announced the agency would need an additional $29 billion over the next 20 years to fix existing roads and bridges. S.C. DOT oversees more than 41,000 miles of roads in the state, according to the agency.
Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington and the Senate minority leader, has proposed allowing the state to seek $500 million in state bonds for transportation needs, but his proposal has not made it out of the Senate Finance Committee after being introduced on Feb. 20.
Other proposals this session have included raising the state gasoline tax, which was last raised in 1987 and is one of the lowest nationwide at 16.8 cents, or raising driver’s license and vehicle registration fees, or both, to generate more money to fix the state’s deteriorating infrastructure.
Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.