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VOL. 130 | NO. 248 | Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Norris: Gas Tax Proposal Not Happening in 2016

By Bill Dries

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Don’t look for a gas tax hike in the 2016 session of the Tennessee legislature, says the state Senate majority leader.

MARK NORRIS

“We’re not going to do a gas tax in 2016,” Rep. Mark Norris of Collierville said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “We are going to have to address it soon enough and these conversations are very important.”

Norris’ comments confirm a possibility Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam noted in November, on a statewide tour to talk about the state’s $6 billion backlog of road projects.

Haslam said then that he wasn’t sure he would propose in the coming year a solution to the backlog of unfunded projects. Haslam has been gauging public opinion, although not specifically advocating a hike of the state’s 21.4-cent portion of the 40-cent-a-gallon tax.

Since November, Congress has come through with a five-year surface transportation act that leaves the federal part of the gas tax rate at 18 cents.

“So we know that that’s off the table,” Norris said. “It does provide a relief valve for the (Tennessee) Department of Transportation because now they can budget against what they know they will receive in federal funds over the next five or six years whereas that was uncertain at the beginning of the summer. They didn’t know if there would be any new funding.”

Behind The Headlines, hosted by The Daily News publisher Eric Barnes, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

On the program, state Senate minority leader Lee Harris of Memphis said he sees some support for a state gas tax hike.

LEE HARRIS

“On my side of the aisle, we want to talk infrastructure,” Harris said. “We should also really think hard about public transit.”

Norris expects the legislature will spend time discussing what to do with a state surplus that he estimates will be “north of half a billion dollars.”

He and Harris said some should go to the state’s reserve, or “rainy-day,” fund.

Norris also acknowledged some legislators want to restore $260 million taken from the gas tax fund during Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration in an effort to balance the state’s general fund.

“I think to get to a meaningful long-term solution, at some point we are going to have to repay some of those funds,” Norris said. “And I think we’ll begin doing that in 2016.”

Meanwhile, Harris defended the state-run Achievement School District as necessary after Shelby County Schools board members passed a resolution last week urging a moratorium on any further ASD takeovers of Memphis schools.

The move follows a Vanderbilt University study that showed Innovation Zone schools run by SCS are posting better student achievement results than ASD schools.

“The reality is that we’ve had lots of schools … that have not produced results,” Harris said. “We’ve got to have a conversation about how to have high performance. The ASD, for whatever its warts, has produced a conversation about performance.”

I-Zone schools and the ASD both get extra state funding as well as greater autonomy. The ASD also gets the state’s per-pupil funding with the students that attend its schools.

Competition from the ASD as well as charter schools outside the district and the creation of six suburban public school districts – all drawing the per-pupil state funding – has lead SCS leaders to express concern about their fixed costs, even with fewer students.

“The lesson is we’ve got to figure out a way to finance schools a little bit different. The per-pupil model may be a little outdated and may not be as helpful as we think it is. … It creates a lot of financial instability,” Harris said. “Maybe it’s time to talk about a baseline funding for schools or public school systems. If they had a baseline funding that they could guarantee from year to year, they’d have more stability and be able to program and plan. They are not there yet.”

Norris said he is “open” to exploring that option.

He also expects a report to the legislature early in the 2016 session from the Haslam administration that might recommend changes to the state’s Basic Education Program formula, which determines the amount of state funding a local school district gets.

Shelby County Schools is suing the state for not fully funding the BEP. Several other school systems across the state have similar lawsuits pending.

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