Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina has a fix for the state’s sorry highway finances, but she can’t let us in on the secret until after Election Day.
Haley’s state has more than 66,000 miles of public roads, “one of the highest per capita totals in the nation,” according to The Herald, and 40 percent of them are in poor or mediocre condition. More than a fifth of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. South Carolina leads the nation in fatalities on rural roads, due in part to their appalling maintenance. State officials estimate that an additional $1.5 billion is needed each year for the next 20 years just to make the roads adequate.
Infrastructure funding is a pressing topic, with the federal Highway Trust Fund set to run out and states struggling to keep up with road repairs. You don’t have to be a motorist to realize that our infrastructure is crumbling around us, even as gas prices continue to rise – conjuring images of Mad Max dystopia and collapsing bridges.
Come to think of it, replacing elections with Thunderdome-style cage matches might not be a bad idea.
Enter Governor Haley, stage far-right, with a scheme to save the roads (and perhaps some motorists’ lives). The catch is she won’t reveal the plan until January, two months after the end of her reelection campaign. This, of course, is the opposite of how campaigns usually go, where candidates make their proposals public so that voters can judge them on their merits.
Unsurprisingly, South Carolinians have been slow to praise the governor’s political courage. For one, Haley has insisted she will veto any increase in the state’s gas tax – even though it’s one of the lowest in the country (half of what’s charged in neighboring states Georgia and North Carolina).
Furthermore, South Carolina’s gas tax hasn’t been raised since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. As ITEP has reported, inflation has eroded the purchasing power of many state gas taxes over time; in fact, South Carolina would have to more than triple its current gas tax to have the same purchasing power it did in 1968. Put simply, sixteen cents doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to.
In a reversal, Haley has also ruled out shaking the state’s “money tree,” a budgetary accounting scheme which is as ridiculous as it sounds.
“Thanks for the fruit! Also, do you have a billion dollars for necessary road repairs?”
In the absence of any concrete proposals, there has been wild speculation. Some think the governor’s plan will involve new casinos in Myrtle Beach; others think she’ll revive a plan to divert some sales tax revenue to highway maintenance. Whatever the truth is, ruling out any increase in the gas tax makes little sense. South Carolina motorists pay an extra $811 million every year in vehicle repairs and operating costs; surely they would be willing to pay a little more at the pump for better roads.
So far, the only gubernatorial candidate willing to endorse a hike in the gas tax is independent candidate Tom Ervin, an attorney and former judge.* “Nobody likes a tax increase,” notes Ervin. “But we want our highways to be safe. And we also want to continue to attract quality industry to our state, and you can't get products to market when the highways are falling apart.” It’s always refreshing, if all too rare, when a candidate tells the truth before the election.
*Haley’s Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen declined to endorse a gas tax increase, but said all options should be on the table.