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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Plans to eliminate South Carolina's gas tax for three months this fall are running on empty in the Senate even though Gov. Mark Sanford tried to rally support for the idea this week.
According to an Associated Press report, even some who like the idea of eliminating the state's 16.8 cent-a-gallon tax don't want to do it between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 because of the November elections
"In Louisiana, we call that vote buying," said Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, and a New Orleans native.
"It's a political ploy to get votes out in November," said Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia.
Ford introduced a resolution that would have cut the tax from July through September and tried to get the Senate to put it on a fast track for passage.
But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, objected, saying there's no guarantee the tax break would ever reach consumers.
The House passed a plan for the gas tax break in its final version of the budget last week, but Leatherman and at least one of the two other senators on the budget conference committee would have to agree to keep it in the state's $6.5 billion spending plan.
Supporters say growth in state revenue from a surging economy will pay for the break, according to the AP report.
"The big spenders in the Senate can play with the numbers until they're blue in the face," Gov. Sanford's spokesman Joel Sawyer said. "The fact is this budget doesn't return any new dollars to the people of this state despite nearly a billion dollars in new revenue."
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, made his fortune selling gas through a convenience store chain. He said in the report that retailers can be trusted to pass on the savings.
"There's not going to be any adverse impact," said Ryberg, a candidate for state treasurer. "That's your friends back home, the retailer."
Ryberg was one of five Senators who showed up to support Sanford's plan to suspend the tax between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which would cut $134 million in tax revenue.
Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Manning, says there is no guarantee that economic growth will make up the difference. Land also doesn't like the idea of lifting the tax and then letting it fall back in place. That happened a few years ago with a temporary reduction in grocery sales taxes. That's "unfair to the taxpayer," he said.
Sen. David Thomas, R-Fountain Inn, is on the budget conference committee with Leatherman and Land and says there are other concerns. For instance, most of the gas tax goes into road projects and repaying bonds for that work.
The governor's spokesman said Sanford's proposal guarantees bonds will be paid by other sources, but bondholders could get jittery about those promises.
At the same time, reducing tax collections for a few months could become a factor in determining what the Department of Transportation can borrow for road projects in the future.
"The bond issue is a real serious problem," Thomas said.
Apart from those concerns, local governments get almost a quarter of the fuel excise tax -- nearly 4 cents on the gallon, said Sen. Dick Elliott, R-North Myrtle Beach. Losing that would hurt those projects, he said.
Knotts agreed. "We can barely find money now to repair our roads and bridges," he told AP. "If we just set them back three months, we're going to have to make up for it later."
Sawyer says it's not a problem. "The proposal we've laid out fully funds what would have been generated by the gas tax," he said. "Our proposal holds DOT and road funding harmless."