All of us send heart-felt condolences to those suffering after “The 1,000-Year Flood.” Accurate or not, that phrase describes the profound damage to people and property in South Carolina. Regular home insurance does not cover flooding; one must purchase that separately, and most people don’t. Government property is self-insured: the legislature decides whether to repair, replace, or neglect damaged infrastructure.
For much of the infrastructure damaged this month – roads, bridges, and dams – the choice our state government has been making for several years now is the path of least resistance: neglect. Now there is talk of calling the legislature back into session, to do something about the crisis. As the legislative session last ran out, most of us remember quite vividly the issue keeping them in Columbia an extra week: removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the state house grounds. But most people probably have forgotten that just a week or two earlier the legislature was locked in a debate on how, or even whether, to fund our huge backlog of infrastructure repairs – roads, bridges, and dams. They ultimately decided … not to decide at all. No bill was passed. No money was allocated beyond emergency maintenance. The choice made as to whether to repair, to replace, or to neglect our infrastructure was, once again, to neglect it.
We have to maintain South Carolina infrastructure. Our crumbling highways are presently funded almost entirely by the highway fuel tax, which has been stuck at 16.75 cents a gallon since the 1980s. With all the recent rain, our chickens have come home to roost. We need to repair the collapsed roads, bridges, and dams, and we need to start now. But we need to pay for that. The question is: how?
Some are saying, let’s ask for federal aid. After all, federal aid was granted to New Jersey, New York, and other nearby states after Super Storm Sandy. And our South Carolina congressional delegation voted in favor of that aid, right? Actually, wrong. Senator Scott and all six of our Republican congressmen voted to deny aid to Sandy victims; that should be left to the states, they said. Federal assistance was passed by a majority that did not include the South Carolina delegation, now themselves asking for federal help. They are not likely to get a friendly reception – assuming that the dysfunctional House of Representatives and Senate are capable of passing anything at all this session. We shouldn’t count too heavily on federal aid, not this year.
Choices are going to be required right here in South Carolina. Should we approve a bond issue and borrow money, leaving it for the next generation (or at least the next generation of state legislators) to pay back later? Many voters find that anathema. Should we instead divert money from … someplace else? I doubt that any of the “someplace else” constituencies would favor that; certainly the biggest of these, public education, cannot afford the bill. Should we raise taxes? Our legislators hate that.
But we need to do exactly that, to raise and then index the road tax and to make our state income tax rate more progressive. A “flat tax” sounds nice, but you can’t fund much by raising taxes on people with little money. This truly is a case of our getting what we pay for or, more exactly, our not getting what we don’t pay for. The choice is ours. Let’s bite the bullet, and fix our state finances. Let’s start by funding our roads, bridges, and dams.