Comptroller general's push for transparency continues with gas tax spending

Legislators passed the 2-cent gas tax hike last year, which is expected to raise $600 million a year.   File photo

South Carolina's comptroller general will publish details of how much is raised from the state's 2-cent gas sales tax and where it is spent.

The publication is part of Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom's continuing drive to deliver and lead on financial transparency in the state. Legislators passed the 2-cent hike last year, which is expected to raise $600 million a year to be spent on fixing and maintaining the state's roads and bridges. Fees on purchases were also raised.

There was no legislative directive to keep an eye on the money coming in and going out, or an appropriation to cover the cost, Eckstrom told the Palmetto Business Daily.

"But this is new money coming in, and, once all the taxes are in place, it is going to be $600 million a year," Eckstrom said. "It is worthy because we lose about 1,000 people a year to road deaths, often because of design factors."

Eckstrom is working with the Department of Transportation to make sure citizens know where the money is spent. The comptroller general will also publish information on economic development subsidies, including those to attract movie production. He plans to produce a reader-friendly state bond rating financial report, and will encourage local municipalities to do the same.

Eckstrom said his office began the transparency drive 10 years ago.

"We actually led the herd (as) one of the very early states to initiate a transparency site," he said. "I think that virtually every other state is now in the business of being a lot more visible. It does not make sense to prepare records internally and make those records available on request but place unnecessary hoops to make people jump through."

One key difference in South Carolina is that his office never received any kind of appropriation from the legislature, yet, he said, constant revision is needed and there is always more information that can be made available.

"I do not think there was any design to deny us resources," he said. "We were doing this back when the economy was going downhill, in 2007. The national and state economies were started to descend. We re-allocated resources, used our tech staff among the team. They were good people, and worked weekends and evenings. There was interest immediately, and we realized we met a need."

Requests for information across the various departments diminished, which saved money in time and resources, Eckstrom said.

"We knew at the front end that we had to make it navigable, wanted to reduce mouse clicks and for users not to trawl deeper and deeper," he said. "We wanted to make it fluid."

Political donations and lobbyist funding were added last June. While data was available at the SC Ethics Commission, Eckstrom wanted to have a central, easily navigable site that people could go to.

The legislature made changes last year to freedom of information legislation, cutting the number of days that departments have to respond from 15 to 10 business days, but also telling officials they must respond substantively and not just acknowledge having received the request. Eckstrom said his office has its own two-day turnaround on FOI requests.

Leading by example, and traveling to argue the case for transparency in municipalities and counties, has led to 75 percent of the state's population now being covered by similar rules that govern the comptroller general's office, Eckstrom said.

Charleston was one of the first, and Eckstrom found a willing ear with then Mayor Joe Reilly. They teamed up to broadcast the message that "this was just a matter of good governance," said the comptroller general.

"We then went to Charleston County and told them they cannot be out done by the city," he said. "Then we moved on to others, such as Aiken County."

School districts were reluctant to publish information, he said, and needed a nudge from the General Assembly, which passed a law ordering them to do so.

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