Sep 5 2012
Senator Shane Martin says NO to gas tax increase!
Recently, our 4th Congressional District DOT Commissioner made a motion to take local project control away from counties. He won the vote and is now advocating increasing the gas tax. The Spartanburg Legislative Delegation, Spartanburg County Council, and City Council held a meeting to be updated by our Commissioner and SPATS director. During this meeting, Johnny Edwards (4th District DOT Commissioner) and O’Neal Mintz (Spartanburg County Council Member) advocated increasing the gas tax. I told them both NO!
For my response, check out the links below to The Spartanburg Herald Journal as well as the YouTube video of me standing up for you, the taxpayer.
Since then, I received the following email advocating a gas tax and attacking my stance against it. Here is my detailed response to what we are facing. This can be applied to many other issues as well.
Actual E-Mail from Constituent to me (personal information removed for privacy)
In your statement this morning in the Spartanburg Herald about waste in the SCDOT. Be specific instead of generalizing. I have a question for you. Can you buy paint at the same price you could in 1987? Can you buy a 2000 SF house for the same price you could in 1987? However you expect the SCDOT to take care of the second largest road system in the country on 1987 funding. If you really think there is waste in the DOT then do something about it and quit hiding behind the rhetoric. Our infastructure is deteriorationg before our eyes and we have no leadership to do anything about it. The commision is trying to patch the system because legislature ignores it. I guess when we have a major catastrophe like Minnesota then we will have a knee jerk reaction. I will remind you of this email and everyone else I can.
My response to constituent:
I appreciate you asking for specific examples of SCDOT waste. Perhaps the most glaring is the I-73 project as a whole and specifically the I-73 interchange near Dillon. I-73, I trust that you would agree, will never be built in our lifetime. The northern states of its origin, such as Michigan and Ohio have done little or no actual work on it. The fact is, why would they build an express lane to carry their dwindling populations away to vacation or even move to other states? South Carolina, on the other hand, remains undaunted.
Let me begin by noting that it costs $150,000 to resurface one mile of two-lane, flat road. The entire SC portion of the I-73 project is estimated to cost approximately $2.3b dollars. Most of that money, of course, has been neither spent nor even appropriated, but instead of planning that money for, to use our example, the resurfacing of over 15,000 miles of existing roadway (over 10% of the state’s total), the SCDOT Commission prefers to plan for a section of US Interstate that will link up with—nothing.
SCDOT indeed approved in April 2011 a bond issue, i.e. borrowed money to spend on an I-73 interchange. The proposal contained “projects” across the state to garner the support of all commissioners—in true log rolling fashion. The I-73 project was the interchange in Dillon that will cost $185m, $105m of which would be borrowed under this scenario. That money could pay for over 1200 miles of resurfacing in the Pee Dee, but politicians like to cut ribbons instead of fill potholes. The politicians down there call it the “Interchange of Hope”, but given the likelihood of I-73 itself, I call it the “Interchange to Nowhere”.
Now, the Commission is a 7-member body from the state’s 6 transportation districts and one at-large. The district commissioners are elected by legislators within those districts and the at-large is appointed by the governor. The Secretary of Transportation, who runs the agency, also is appointed by the governor. So, the legislature controls the Commission, which picks the projects, and the governor controls the Secretary, who carries them out. That means, of course, that no true accountability exists, and when things go wrong or the politics are uncomfortable then the governor blames the Commission and the legislature blames the governor and her secretary.
I believe that the SCDOT should be a true cabinet agency, and I have voted to abolish the Commission, and I will again every chance that I get. Legislators who want their local projects, however, will block such efforts, and I suspect that it will be many years before we get there. Projects similar to I-73, of course, exist all over the state. SC taxpayers put over $12m into road infrastructure at CU-ICAR which, over a decade later, remains nearly empty. Taxpayers are on the hook in the future for over $550m to extend I-526 to James and Johns Islands in Charleston even though the locals, including the local elected officials, don’t want it. And the list goes on.
Your question about the relative value of money over the last 25 years actually allows me to illustrate even more brightly the point that I was making last night. I’m sure that you are aware that inflation over that period has led to the approximate halving of the relative worth of a dollar between 1987 and 2012. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that it takes $2.02 in current money to purchase the same goods as did $1 in 1987. The standard argument in Columbia now is that we must raise taxes to cover inflation. That argument not only offends the taxpayer but also masks the true problem, government spending practices themselves.
Inflation, of course, appears in every single walk in life, not just roads. The concept of inflation, moreover, was not new in 1987. Everyone, in other words, knew that it would happen over the ensuing 25 years. Inflation, as you may recall, ran at an average rate of just over 7% in the decade of the 1970s and just over 5.5% in the ‘80s (you undoubtedly remember that it broke into double digits for three of those years). Simply using recent history as a guide, SC and the SCDOT at that time should have set aside money to account for inflation. Such prudent financing in fact would have led to large surpluses inasmuch as inflation in the ‘90s and ‘00s fell off dramatically (3$ and 2.56% respectively). I suppose, however, that we should not expect SCDOT to accomplish basic financing when, as we saw last winter, they can’t even maintain a positive cash balance without asking for a bailout from the federal government.
This, of course, is what successful private sector businesses do, but we know that such is rarely if ever the case in government, and it certainly was not the case at SCDOT—or any other SC government agency for that matter. SCDOT, and SC government in general, spends every dollar that it receives for two reasons. The first, as previously noted, is that politicians like to cut ribbons and not, in this case, put money aside for future needs. The second is that politicians always assume that when things get bad enough, e.g. crumbling roads and bridges that they will be able to hornswaggle the taxpayers out of more money with arguments like “safety” or “for the kids” or, in this case, “what can you buy in 2012 with 1987 dollars?”.
Taxpayers, as you know, have succumbed to this chicanery for decades, but they don’t believe it any longer. The problem in government is not lack of money but lack of prioritization, lack of standards and, most importantly, lack of the ability to say “no”. You may have heard of a large group of people out there whose motto is “Taxed Enough Already”. I agree with them. We have been taxed enough already. It is time for the government, or in this case SCDOT, to treat our money like something other than Old Faithful which it can count on more of with unceasing regularity.
The Commission, to go to your last point, is not trying to do anything noble in the wake of other failures. The Commission not only is part of the problem but also the architect of the problem. The Commission sets the priorities and votes on the projects. The Commission is a purely political animal responding to political impulses and cares not a whit about the sound finances of South Carolina or its taxpayers. It has ample assistance from the politicians, but the Commission itself is no angel.
So, to summarize, I will not now, nor will I ever, vote to increase the fuel tax unless and until I see that the SCDOT spends every penny of taxpayer money that it already receives like I would spend my money at home—and then I still would oppose a tax increase because regardless of the era we must live within our means. Increasing the flow of money to Columbia, for any agency, will only result in more special favor boondoggles like I-73 or more sheer financial incompetence as we see now at SCDOT. I will not be a party to that.
I do appreciate, nonetheless, your passionate insistence that we take more money out of the pockets of taxpayers. I always enjoy a straightforward discussion, but on this one we simply disagree.