TWO WORDS: ELECTION YEAR
One or more of the following statements are true: (1) lawmakers hope you don’t pay close attention to what they do in Columbia, (2) lawmakers hope you don’t understand what they do in Columbia, or (3) lawmakers believe citizens won’t hold them accountable for what they do in Columbia.
Here’s what I mean. As session came to an end, Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) led a three-week filibuster on the Capital Reserve Fund bill. In part, he wanted to force the Senate to prioritize road funding in the one bill they pass every year that’s supposed to fund capital projects but in fact funds a variety of (often non-capital) boondoggles. Part of Sen. Davis’s aim, it’s fair to say, was to prevent the Senate from taking up the next bill on the calendar: a bill increasing the gas tax. No matter the motive, though, he and a handful of other senators managed to expose the fact that most of their colleagues knew very little about how our roads are funded, who’s accountable for the current system, and what exact improvements would be made with additional revenue from the gas tax increase.
You might wonder how senators could support a $700 million tax increase if they couldn’t even answer the basic questions about how the money would be used. You might wonder, in other words, why they were in a mad rush to pass the thing. One reason, evidently, was that they didn’t think they could pass a gas tax increase next year. And why not? Because, as a number of senators have pointed out over the last few days, next year is an election year in the Senate. (In fact, the entire legislature is up for reelection.) So a good number of those who supported the tax hike this year won’t support it next year, since to do so would be to invite a primary challenge.
Lawmakers don’t think much of South Carolinians’ long-term memory, I guess. What they might be able to get away with two years out from an election won’t fly one year from an election. Or maybe they were banking on passing the tax increase this year and having an extra year to perfect the spin of how, somehow, “this is not a tax increase.” Or perfect the spin that, while this may very well be a tax increase (and it would have been), it’s a fair one because citizens from other states – tourists? people who happen to be driving through? – would also have to pay taxes.
My confidence that lawmakers were just ill-informed on the state’s revenue problem and subsequently favored a gas tax to address the state’s dire infrastructure needs – as opposed to just self-serving – is minimal. I am confident, however, that if citizens don’t continue to hold their elected officials accountable for the action they take in Columbia, a $700 million tax hike – or higher – is fair game when the legislature reconvenes in January.
Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.