Gas-tax-hike law could make it harder to hold state lawmakers accountable

June 21, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

When it comes to fixing South Carolina’s deteriorating roads and bridges, where residents live could determine how hard their state lawmakers push to get unfinished work done.

Since the gas-tax-hike law took effect nearly two years ago, raising the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increasing other vehicle taxes and fees, The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out that the S.C. Department of Transportation has spent relatively little and completed few major projects with those revenues. The next 2-cent gas tax increase takes effect July 1.

The law, which took effect July 1, 2017, also changed the way DOT commissioners are appointed – though critics contend that it’s not any better than the old selection system.

Under the new law, S.C. House members and senators in the state’s seven congressional districts – each of which includes multiple counties – confirm appointees to seven of nine seats on the DOT Commission, which sets priorities on which roads and bridges get fixed, and approves funding for those projects.

Last year, legislative delegations confirmed appointees to four commission seats, while the Legislature as a whole approved candidates for two at-large seats. Next year, four-year terms expire for three other seats to be voted on by the respective delegations.

Under the gas-tax-hike law, the governor makes the initial appointments in the seven congressional districts, though the respective legislative delegations can reject the nominees or force new appointments if they don’t act on the initial ones within 45 days of the referrals.

That gives separate groups of lawmakers ultimate control over those DOT Commission seats.

The law also requires that lawmakers’ votes in the delegations be weighted by House and Senate chamber to reflect – based on their interpretation of a federal court ruling – the percentage of the population that the legislator represents in a congressional district. Given that, if lawmakers represent more constituents in a congressional district, their votes for the respective DOT commissioner count more compared to other legislators’ votes.

Looking at it another way, residents who want their state lawmakers to push their respective DOT commissioner to get their bad roads and bridges fixed might not get much help from those legislators if they live in areas where the lawmakers have low-weighted votes.

Take Sen. Nikki Setzler, for example.

The West Columbia Democrat led the 2nd Congressional District Legislative Delegation in last year’s confirmation vote for that DOT Commission seat and also is a member of the 6th Congressional District Legislative Delegation. Most of Setzler’s Senate district, which includes parts of Lexington, Aiken, Saluda and Calhoun counties, is in the 2nd Congressional District.

Delegation voting records recently obtained by The Nerve from the Governor’s Office and Secretary of State’s Office show that Setzler was among 38 senators and House members in the 2nd congressional delegation who voted for commission candidate John Burriss. The records are unclear, however, about whether Setzler participated in the delegation vote for the 6th Congressional District commission seat.

Setzler didn’t return a phone message last week from The Nerve seeking comment.

Burriss, a real estate developer from Lexington County and former state lawmaker, told The Nerve this week the legislative delegation interviewed him for about an hour in the Gressette Senate building on the State House grounds before confirming him in the same meeting last year. Records show the vote was taken on the March 7, 2018, though it was recorded in the Senate Journal more than a month later.

“It was my understanding they all voted; it was unanimous,” Burriss recalled.

Burriss said the meeting was held near Setzler’s Senate office, and that as part of the process, he provided financial statements to the Governor’s Office and Setzler, though those records were not given to the other delegation members at his request.

Burriss replaced longtime commissioner John Hardee of Columbia, the son-in-law of powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Gov. Henry McMaster in February 2018 made the appointment announcement one week after The Nerve revealed that Hardee was a paid consultant with the Outdoor Advertising Association of South Carolina, a lobbying trade group that received thousands of state tax dollars annually for public service announcements on billboards and signs statewide, though much of the revenue was used to cover Hardee’s salary.

Hardee came under scrutiny in 2015 when The Nerve reported his ties to South Carolina Logos Inc., which received a 12-year DOT contract for highway billboard-logo signs statewide. The Nerve that year also revealed how Hardee, who previously had served on the DOT Commission from 1998 to 2007, quietly regained his commission seat in 2014 after being found qualified by the legislatively controlled Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC), of which Leatherman had been a longtime member.

The 10-member JTRC, which largely controlled the appointment of DOT commissioners, was abolished with the gas-tax-hike law. In January this year, Hardee agreed to plead guilty to a federal charge of evidence tampering, court records show, though authorities have released no specifics about the case, and he has not yet been sentenced.

Other delegation votes

Leatherman led the 7th Congressional District Legislative Delegation in confirming DOT commissioner Tony Cox on Feb. 21, 2018, records show. Leatherman, whose Senate district covers most of Florence County and part of Darlington County, had about 14.5% of the weighted senators’ votes; the final total vote among senators and House members was 23-1, with four lawmakers not voting, records show.

Leatherman also voted last year for 6th Congressional District commission candidate John Fishburne, according to records. A small part of his senatorial territory is in that district.

As has been his longstanding practice with The Nerve, Leatherman did not respond to a written message last week seeking comment. Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, who led the 6th Congressional District delegation vote and separately voted for the 2nd Congressional District commission candidate, also did not respond for comment.

Delegation voting records on Fishburne’s confirmation appear to show a number of proxy votes – cast by one lawmaker on behalf of another legislator – including at least four House proxy votes cast by Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton. Of the total 44 recorded votes, at least a dozen were proxy votes, though the records aren’t clear whether there were any ‘no’ votes or whether weighted voting was done.

Margie Matthews, who is not related to John Matthews, told The Nerve when contacted last week that she couldn’t recall if she had cast any proxy votes at the May 3, 2018, delegation meeting in the Gressette building, though she noted the practice was “common courtesy” in Senate committee meetings.

Sen. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg, told The Nerve this week that the 4th Congressional District Legislative Delegation met last year at the State House to reappoint DOT commissioner Woodrow “Woody” Willard. Records show that 30 lawmakers voted on Feb. 27, 2018, for Willard; all signed a letter of approval, as was done in Burriss’ confirmation.

“There were no votes in opposition; there were no abstentions,” said Talley, who, as the county legislative delegation chairman, formally notified the governor and House and Senate clerks of the confirmation vote.

The delegation meeting was open to the public, and advance notice was given, Talley said, though he couldn’t recall specifics about how the meeting was advertised.

Editor’s Note: The South Carolina Policy Council has launched “Project Road Repair” to encourage citizens to contact their lawmakers about getting their bad roads fixed. To learn more about the project, go here.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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