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Lost on the Cloverleaf: A Self Help Guide to the Gas Tax

Have a little fun today and channel some Walker Percy while reading this and if you’ve read his book Lost in the Cosmos take it as a sign and reward yourself with a sip of Early Times before supper . . .

You might think that I have been run over with voters asking me to explain my support of the current roads bill with its gas tax increase. That has not been the case. Maybe some constituents remember one of the many articles that I wrote over the past four years about poor road conditions, unsafe bridges, gas taxes and overall tax reform. More than likely most people understand that we need to update our infrastructure plan and revenue stream. They do not need me to tell them that a gas tax last increased in the late 1980’s cannot generate the level of funding that SCDOT needs in 2017.

For those against fixing our roads that are now warming up their email machines, be assured that I have been sufficiently warned. A few people have expressed their concerns and I am always open and appreciative of their calls.  Others, spurred to action by radio signals or other less informed oracles, have promised to never vote for me again if I voted for the roads bill. Never. Ever. Not going to do it. Not a chance no matter what my past voting record has been.

My political future has no relevance to this debate so I don’t worry. My concern remains serving the citizens of our community in a prudent and conservative manner as I promised. If you share my concerns about the dismal conditions of our roads but are unsure if the gas tax should be raised or you doubt the mathematical possibility that every voter in Blue Ridge and Greer opposes the roads bill then consider the following brief guide to decide what scenario best describes your self-interest:

You are from Greer or Northern Greenville County or South Carolina – The longer you or your people have lived here, the greater the collective tax investment your family has made into the road and bridge infrastructure. If your family settled in Greenville County back in the early 1800’s they witnessed the construction of the statewide road that ran from Charleston through Greenville and over the Poinsett Bridge into North Carolina. The road gave them a much greater opportunity to prosper.

These days you use Wade Hampton Boulevard, Highway 25, Locust Hill Road or some other traffic jammed commuter road every morning to wait yourself to work while somehow equalizing your automobile time and your ancestor’s wagon time on a cosmic scale. In any event, our state infrastructure has helped your family survive by facilitating commerce. Since you and your descendants are likely to continue living here, the longer the General Assembly puts off fixing our roads, the more your children will pay for the repairs. You should support the roads bill even with its gas tax increase.

You Work and Receive a W-2 Form – Regardless if you were born here or not, you live here and work hard to support your family. You have school loans, mortgages, car payments, college savings plans, utility bills, medical bills and the temptation to buy an endless pile of stuff generated by our Madison Avenue driven consumer economy. You pay a state income tax of 7% unless you can take advantage of several credits and exemptions that will lower your actual rate. You pay a state sales tax of 6% on all the stuff that you buy unless some of that stuff falls into one of the eighty-plus sales tax exemptions. You also pay a gas tax of 16.75 cents per gallon – a tax that has been fair, flat and constant for 25 years. A tax imposed directly on those who use the roads including the 30% of drivers who do not live in South Carolina but help maintain our roads through in-state fuel purchases.

You should now pay close attention. The income tax and sales tax that you pay goes to the state’s General Fund where they are spent on a host of state agencies. Historically, none of these taxes were used to pay for our roads. The roads were supported by revenue from the gas tax. In the last couple of years, the General Assembly has used General Fund surpluses to fix our roads. The canary should be squawking the coalmine alarm in your head right now while you grab your gas mask. Using General Fund monies to repair roads shifts more tax responsibility onto you rather than onto those using our roads including the 30% from out of state. You should support the roads bill even with its gas tax increase.

Let us end with a related story. Recently, a retiree from outside the state moved into the rural Blue Ridge community. I only became aware of her because my cousin’s barn went missing. No, not her dog; her barn. The barn was in the woods near my house and for years was a darkly inviting shape on a cool autumn’s dusk, reflecting many seasons of hardships and harvests in its weathered wood and shadowed windows. Then one day, the barn vanished.

Not wanting to appear delusional and ask my cousin about her vanishing barn, I did the next best thing – I called my sister who tends to keep up with family news. I learned that this transplanted retiree had found a county ordinance that allowed her to challenge the safety of any unused outbuilding and force the demolition of the building if the building’s owner did not bring it up to code. When I called my county councilman, he said that she had driven around our community looking for old buildings and had filed over 100 complaints against property owners. One of those complaints was against my cousin about her barn. Rather than engage in a protracted battle with the county, my cousin had the barn demolished.

What a great way to be a good neighbor. Intent on improving her own property value so that she could flip her house and move on with her iconoclastic tour de force, our retiree (the Blair Witch?) destroyed part of our visible agrarian heritage while caring not about the generational worth of what had been lost. Her kind is equal to the locust of Egypt or a column of Sherman’s finest. Time and again we see the same conflict between those who want to improve South Carolina and those who want to use South Carolina under the guise of improving South Carolina. The users always seem to win.

When it comes to the roads bill, the decision boils down to this: if you care about South Carolina’s future and believe that a prudent conservative people should maintain their infrastructure investment, then support the bill. If you care nothing for South Carolina’s future and are not concerned about unsafe bridges or multiplying potholes, then oppose the bill. The decision is that simple.