NEWBERRY — The Newberry County legislative delegation shared fellowship with the public at the Newberry Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative breakfast held Tuesday morning.
Sen. Ronnie Cromer said the state needs to come up with the funds to maintain and repair deteriorating bridges and roads.
The state faces a $29 billion shortfall over the next 20 years, he said, and said many people see a gasoline tax as part of the solution. He said a proposal currently before the Legislature would add a four-cent fuel tax on gasoline and diesel fuel over a 10-year period.
“South Carolina has the second or third lowest fuel prices in the nation,” Cromer said.
Rep. Walt McCleod said he was in favor of a gasoline tax but was concerned about more than just interstate highways and major thoroughfares.
He noted how the Legislature voted in 2013 for highway funds but the majority of the money went to main roads, a fact he attributed in large part to lobbying.
McLeod said he supported an amendment that would have indexed the gasoline tax over eight years and tether the tax to the consumer price index. He said he would support the tax again unless a proposal set a tax rate that he considered too high.
“Our roads need help bad,” McCleod said. He hopes that if the Senate and House pass a bill, it will at least send a clear message of the Legislature’s intention, although Gov. Nikki Haley has promised she would veto any gas tax increase.
Cromer also discussed flow control and television commercials implying that out-of-state waste could end up in Newberry landfills. Cromer said he researched the issue and was assured by county officials that there would be no trash in Newberry County landfills from anywhere other than Newberry County.
Cromer said Horry County passed an ordinance five to seven years ago that created a monopoly on its landfill industry by telling contractors and others that they could not remove trash from the county nor bring outside waste into the county.
The flow bill legislation, Cromer said, was a bill aimed at correcting that monopoly. Cromer said two months ago, Horry County decided to compromise with commercial entities on the waste issue, rendering flow control “a moot point.”
Cromer anticipates the bill will die once the June 2014 deadline is reached.
The other main issue on Cromer’s mind was the ethics bill that he hopes to learn more about in a few weeks.
The bill would remove the House and Senate from the investigative process and instead use an independent investigator. However, the punishment phase would still be handled by the House and Senate per the S.C. Constitution.
Cromer believes this ethics bill compromise is a good fit and has hopes it will move along in the legislative process this session.
McLeod touched on reasons he supports the newly created Department of Administration but cautioned those present to keep an eye on who controls the bidding, bonding and procurement processes.
That control, in his view, does not need to be in the governor’s office because having too much power concentrated in one area could open up public officials to bribery and corruption.
On ethics, he mentioned a major victory because now any witness before a legislative committee or subcommittee must be sworn in. If evidence shows a lobbyist or other official lies to the committee then he or she can be sentenced for contempt of the General Assembly and face jail time.
McLeod believes that change will provide legislators with more accurate information with which to make their decisions.
Other information he shared included the extra $250 million in state revenue than was anticipated from July-Sept 2013. He applauded Haley’s decision to use the funding for education activities.
McLeod mentioned the need for equitable funding in education, a greater focus on literacy and increased pay for teachers early in their careers.
“Newberry County has a smaller tax base, but (we) shouldn’t get less money for education than those in areas with a higher tax base,” he said.
Chamber president Ted Smith replied to McLeod saying, “Highways and education are two major things companies look for and though our governor has done a great job bringing industry to this state, in Newberry County we could use more industry.”
Smith said the chamber is actively working to do its part to help the county improve both its highways and its school system.
“Everyone in this room wants to build a stronger Newberry,” Smith said.