Let’s talk about highways and bridges – what most of us think of, when we think of “infrastructure.” A few months ago this column addressed how our highway infrastructure is presently funded: almost entirely by the highway fuel tax. Our state highway tax is 16.75 cents a gallon, and was set at that rate in 1989. Governor Haley has vowed to veto any increase, currently one of the lowest in the nation and well below that of our neighboring states. At the same time, the state government acknowledged there is a $40 billion maintenance backlog for highways and bridges, based primarily on the lack of funded maintenance since the turn of the century.
The Columbia newspaper reported this week that one state legislator (not from our district) has proposed the following solution. Let’s transfer responsibility for maintenance of many of the state roads and bridges from the state to the counties! That way the state’s maintenance backlog will immediately be reduced, and at the same time we can divert some state funds to the counties so they will be able to begin repairs and renovations. He is also having the committee he chairs (a special House committee on transportation) look at the idea of eliminating the highway fuel tax altogether, instead applying state sales tax to gasoline. Would that make a difference?
The South Carolina (SC) state sales tax rate is currently 6%. Depending on local municipalities, the total tax rate can be as high as 9%. In addition to the current 16.75 cents state per gallon there is an 18.4 cents a gallon federal tax. With gas prices hovering around $2.60 per gallon right now after those taxes, that means that we pay around $2.25 per gallon plus taxes. With that number as a base, we would potentially be replacing our 16.75 cent state tax per gallon with 6% to 9% of $2.25 – or between 13.5 cents and 20.3 cents, depending again on local municipalities.
That’s a shell game. The maintenance backlog will remain the same, whether it is considered a state backlog or a backlog for each of the counties. If the idea is that the Governor will veto any increase in the state gasoline tax rate, can any of us then imagine that if they had the authority, Edgefield County would tax gasoline sales six or seven cents higher per gallon than, say, Aiken County? Funding highway infrastructure should be a state obligation all of us pay, and not one that would make sure that highways in our poorest counties would get worse, while those in more populous counties might get better.
You get what you pay for. We are only fooling ourselves to think that moving around who ought to pay the bill for our past neglect of infrastructure, state or county, will magically solve the problem. The only real question is this: will we keep our taxes at the same level and allow our highways and bridges to fail, or will we raise taxes and pay for their repair and renewal? Pick one.