3 Reasons the Gas Tax Compromise Isn’t a Conservative Victory

South Carolina Senate Roads Compromise
Far from being a victory, we've yielded our high ground and allowed the enemy to escape to fight another day.
South Carolina Senate Roads Compromise
Far from being a victory, we’ve yielded our high ground and let the enemy escape to fight another day.

All opinions expressed here are solely my own, and not those of any other individual or organization (and certainly not those of Sen. Hugh Leatherman). 

Last week the Senate (temporarily) ended weeks of gridlock on the roads issue with a compromise amendment that removed the gas tax bill, among other things.

This may sound like a huge conservative victory, but unfortunately it isn’t. Here’s why.

1. It’s not real reform.

More important than the money we dedicate to roads is how we spend that money. Why? Because last year we gave $1.6 billion to transportation. Why are our roads still crumbling? What have they done with that money? We don’t know.

To prove this, let’s talk about how road repair decisions are currently made.

The DOT is governed by the 8-member DOT Commission. The Commissioners are screened by the Joint Transportation Review Committee and elected by the approximately 30 legislators from each of the 7 Congressional districts (the Governor gets one appointee).

Now, that’s how it works in theory. In actuality legislative leadership is able to pretty well control the candidate approval process so that the legislative elections are a mere formality and often don’t even happen (they just sign a letter approving the recommended nominee).

Why does this matter? Because this system spreads the accountability out so thinly that the real power over our transportation system and road money stays with a few legislators, not the people.

If you are dissatisfied with the road conditions, what can you do? Who can you call? This is why it’s so important to abolish the Commission and put the DOT directly under the Governor.

That is not what the Senate compromise does.

The Senate compromise keeps the DOT Commission in place, but lets the Governor appoint all 8 of them with the Senate confirming them. That sounds good, but think about it for a minute. You still have 8 people deciding how road money will be spent. Who are those 8 people accountable to if they are doing a bad job?

Well, no one, because the Governor can’t fire the Commissioners. So once she appoints them, they can forget about her for the next four years. The ones they will be influenced by are the ones who hold the purse strings: the Legislature. See, nothing’s really changing.

The whole point of putting the DOT under the Governor was to give the people of SC more control over how their road money is spent. This compromise just shuffles things around a little without giving the people any real additional power.

Plus, there are no transparency measures built in, which means we still have no real oversight over their spending and contracts.

That being the case, the $400 million of additional revenue is just more money chucked down a black hole.

The other problem is that the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank isn’t eliminated. Bluntly speaking, that legislative fiefdom needs to die (here’s why). All the Senate compromise does is to require that the DOT Commission approve their decisions. Since the DOT will still be accountable to the legislative leaders instead of the taxpayers, that won’t do us much good, and it won’t help with all the rest of the shenanigans that agency is responsible for.

In a nutshell: this compromise doesn’t change who holds the power, which is the key to fixing our roads.

2. It’ll make real reform harder to get if passed.

Here’s where strategy comes into play. If a bill passes, you can’t bring up the same issue next year. In the minds of politicians and, more importantly, the people of SC, you’ve taken care of that issue whether the bill actually reforms anything or not.

We saw this happen several years ago. We needed to eliminate the Budget and Control Board and put the executive functions under the Governor. What we ended up with was a bill that pretended to strengthen the executive branch with a few inconsequential new powers, all the while keeping the job that matters most – procurement – in the hands of yet another unaccountable hybrid board (the SFAA). No real reform, but do you hear anyone today talking about the need to restructure state government?

Nope. All that public pressure was squandered on a bill that did next to nothing and we won’t get a chance to revisit the issue for years.

This is why doing nothing is far, far better – not to mention more honest – than pretending to do something while actually doing nothing.

3. The gas tax will probably get added back in.

The Senate compromise is an amendment that was adopted, but the bill itself is still up for debate. The day after the amendment was adopted President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman stated that several amendments were being drafted and would be debated the following Tuesday (tomorrow) when the Senate comes back in for session.

The Democrats are not happy with this compromise. The Republican leadership doesn’t like it either, and since anything the Senate finally passes will go back to the House, then (most likely) to a conference committee, there will be plenty of chances to put the gas tax hike back in the bill.

I’d be surprised if they don’t at least try.

Now, if conservatives really wanted to kill the gas tax hike, they could have forced the Senate to kill this bill and start over, in which case the gas tax couldn’t have been re-added at any point due to the Constitutional requirement that revenue increases must start in the House, not the Senate.

If all that is true, why is this compromise being celebrated?

Well, mainly because it takes out the gas tax hike. That’s like saying that I’m a good person because I have decided NOT to clobber you in the head with a baseball bat after all.

We have some good guys in the Senate. The problem is that they are so used to playing defense that for them, getting pushed back three yards instead of fifteen is a conservative victory.

No! Guys, those three yards are three yards of freedom, citizen control of government, and responsible spending that we want to keep. And we didn’t just send you there to hold your ground. We sent you there to reclaim territory that’s rightfully ours, not to negotiate on how much ground we will give up this year.

It’s not just what they believe, it’s how they’ll fight.

So many elected officials sound great, but when they get down there, will they just sit back in their padded chairs and push the red button when bad bills come up, or will they study the rules, take on the leadership, and persevere in fighting that bill every step of the way?

The most powerful force in politics is inertia, which means the odds are automatically against getting anything done. All our guys had to do is harness that inertia. That is what happened when Senator Davis filibustered for weeks, effectively destroying any consensus over the road plan – until now.

How much more could we accomplish if Senate conservatives were determined to win this thing on the people’s terms?

If our guys don’t grow a backbone and decide to be fighters, we may never find out.

One final note: if a gas tax becomes law this year, it will be the fault of the Senate conservatives who could have killed the bill, and chose not to.