Inundated with phone calls and letters, proponents of statewide transportation reform watched helplessly in recent weeks as the opposition campaign against a gas tax hike bowled over legislator after legislator, compromise after compromise.
Those largely responsible for the steamroll: Americans for Prosperity, a D.C.-area-based anti-tax group founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, waging its first major statewide grassroots campaign in South Carolina. The end result speaks for itself: gridlock over promised transportation reform and more money for the state's woeful transportation infrastructure facing an uncertain future.
Even opponents admit that AFP's campaign was wholly effective — and it's just a sampling of what's to come on transportation and other issues, says Dave Schwartz, AFP's state director in South Carolina.
Schwartz says an estimated 200,000 pieces of mail and thousands of phone calls sent lawmakers running for cover as they contemplated increasing the state's gas tax, which is among the lowest in the nation. "When you get hundreds of calls, something is up in your district," he said. "This is an appetizer for what's to come. Folks are engaged; they're excited."
The conservative group's anti-tax campaign is part of a broader $125 million effort by the Koch brothers to expand the conservative voter base and push free-market principles at the state level nationwide, Politico reported last May. The Kochs' large network of conservative activists and donors hopes state-level advocacy will have a "ripple effect" across the country. The Kochs also launched campaigns and initiatives in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, the website reported.
Schwartz declines to say what AFP raised or spent in South Carolina but says that grassroots activists were key to defeating transportation plans this year.
The group passed out information in districts, emailing and calling voters to urge them to contact lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley to vote against the tax hike. Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley), chairman of the Senate transportation committee, was one of those targeted. He has pushed the Senate GOP caucus for months to support a plan that would raise the state's gas tax but couple it with an income tax reduction and reform at the Department of Transportation. Grooms says things changed soon after a November Senate GOP Caucus meeting when he polled other members on his plan. Back then, there was near universal support for his blueprint, he says.
When Haley endorsed a similar plan in January, some members expressed their disdain, not wanting to support a plan associated with the governor. And as AFP began to decry the proposal and senators were inundated with calls, even more Republican members began to peel off. "I haven't seen an outside group take it to the level of dishonesty they did," Grooms says of AFP. He says he hopes the group's impact isn't lasting. "You can fool the voters for a little while. Some of our Tea Party groups who understand [the issues] feel used."
Grooms' main point of contention is that robocalls called him and others out for supporting a gas tax hike — without pointing out that reforms and an income tax reduction were all a part of the mix.
Schwartz, who has advocated for getting the politics out of DOT before any new money is spent on transportation, says Grooms' idea of reform would result in the same ineffective system the state has now. Grooms' plan consolidates more power under the governor, but those in charge of transportation decisions would still be vetted and confirmed by members of the Legislature. It's just another way for transportation decisions to be made in "smoke-filled rooms," Schwartz says.
But Grooms says putting complete control over transportation decisions under one branch of government won't solve the state's problems. "When you take a look through Western civilization you always find a recurring theme: Anytime power becomes concentrated, that power over time becomes abusive and corrupt," he says.
While AFP played a significant role, there were other reasons the reform effort fizzled. Observers cited a lack of leadership across the board to make the case for more dollars. They also said Haley's insistence that lawmakers couple any gas tax hike with an income tax reduction splintered fragile coalitions, making the debate about tax reform instead of transportation.
Also, arguments that transportation dollars are ineffectively managed by state officials, put forward by AFP, the S.C. Policy Council, and other lawmakers, held significant sway as the session wore on. As the session wound to a close last week, Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) launched a filibuster against any tax hike to fund a roads deal, ending any final hopes for reform. On the other side, pro-business interests like the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, funded by construction companies and other business interests, had early momentum through their own advocacy campaign.
AFP won the day by tapping into people's fear — both voters and politicians, says Michael Rentiers, president of Push Advocacy, a Columbia- and Charleston-based firm that handled the advocacy effort for the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads.
"They tapped into every elected official's fear of a primary, and that's about the only thing they did well," Rentiers says. "Something has to be done about the roads situation. Now we have nothing."
AFP says it will continue to engage voters over the summer months before the next legislative session in January, which comes in an election year for the entire General Assembly. "If we're able to get our message out, [a gas tax hike] will be dead and you'll see politicians running from the mountaintops screaming, 'We were reformers all along! Gas tax hike, what?' They're politicians. They don't know any better," Schwartz says.
This story originally ran in the Free Times.