DOT Budget Woes 

Road To Nowhere: The budget impasse pits Lowcountry against Upstate, again

Last Thursday, the South Carolina General Assembly adjourned itself without finishing its state constitutional requirement of passing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

At issue is a garden variety dispute between the House and Senate over the Department of Transportation (DOT) reform.

Apparently, the House and Senate could not come to an agreement on restructuring the financial arrangements of the DOT with the House leadership, alleging that senators were never interested in reform to begin with. This culminated in a flurry of name-calling, press releases, grandstanding, and personal attacks by the members of both parties in both chambers, which is what we've come to expect from the close of the legislative session of any given year, minus the fisticuffs that highlighted the close of the Alabama state legislature this year.

Lawmakers were concerned enough for the welfare of ordinary South Carolinians to vote themselves more time to approve the budget (which is complete and relatively noncontroversial this year) and a stop-gap funding measure should they not finish their job when the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

General Assembly members are also planning on dealing with some of Gov. Mark Sanford's vetoes when they return June 19.

Sanford's press monkey Joel Sawyer told The State that the governor wasn't happy with the budget being left in limbo, "There's obviously a lot of work left to be done. Is it preferable to get everything done before today? Yes, but getting it right is important."

Sounds to me like "getting it right" means "getting my way."

Anyhoo, the root of all evil in the current impasse is money, but then again, when isn't it? House negotiators involved in the DOT fracas want $40 million for road construction and maintenance, with half the money going to the State Infrastructure Bank and the rest to the DOT.

Senate negotiators are holding up the talks and allege that all the money in the Infrastructure Bank would go to road projects in the districts of the House leadership.

The real deal? Upstate lawmakers are still pissed that key offices in state government are occupied by Charlestonians.

Last Sept., Reps. Annette Young and Converse Chellis (R's-Summerville) petitioned the Transportation Commission for $40 million to finish more than 20 road projects in Berkeley County, including the Berlin Myers Parkway.

The commission declined the request, saying it would not have the estimated $9 million annually the projects would need.

Young, conveniently the chief House negotiator in the dispute, told commission members, "As first vice-chair of Ways and Means, I can assure you we're going to have $9-$10 million a year."

Well, so much for transparency in the people's business.

Senators don't want all that money going to Charleston-area road projects and, for the most part, subconsciously want the Holy City to fall into the Atlantic.

Young takes issue with the Senate's hold-up, saying, "There was no earmark. This was just to fix potholes."

Thus demonstrating "Tip" O'Neill's truism that "All politics is local."

Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) took a rare turn on the floor and asserted that the impasse was all about the Senate's desire to raise the gas tax to fund road improvements.

"It's not about getting a particular or any particular projects done. It's about a gas tax increase. They want a gas tax increase desperately. We're trying to stop a gas tax increase," said he.

Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), finance committee chair, said, "They're crazy. I haven't heard any talk over here."

There's that transparency thing at work again.

Regardless, the upshot is that the budget is in limbo ... no grocery sales tax relief or income tax cuts go into effect, no new school buses, no money for drugs for SC's HIV-infected citizens, etc.

So much for GOP claims of being the party that "gets things done!"


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