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VOL. 132 | NO. 71 | Monday, April 10, 2017

IMPROVE Act Proponents Stand Firm as Alternative Bills Are Devised

By Sam Stockard

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Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris gets revved up when he talks about the IMPROVE Act as a tax-cutting and bridge-safety measure. It’s a message he’s been sending for weeks, yet other lawmakers aren’t catching on.

The Collierville Republican rewrote the governor’s bill more than a month ago to phase in 6-cent gas tax and 10-cent diesel tax increases over three years, along with other transportation-related fees to raise about $375 million and start chipping away at a $10.5 billion backlog in road and bridge projects. Those are to be offset by a 1 percent cut in the food tax, reductions in franchise and excise taxes and another break in the Hall tax on interest and dividends.

With $1 billion in one-time surplus and $960,000 in recurring extra money expected in the fiscal 2018 budget, Norris’ job isn’t quite as easy. A number of House Republicans would rather use the money on hand than raise fuel taxes, and they’re bothered by the fact the IMPROVE Act contains tax breaks, making it harder for them to oppose.

“There’s a group of us down here who are doing all we can to prevent a permanent tax from affecting the state of Tennessee,” says Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Lancaster Republican who tried to derail the IMPROVE Act in the House Transportation Subcommittee she chairs.

Says Norris, “It’s ironic that some folks continue to complain about the surplus, and yet those same people don’t seem to want to return it to the taxpayers.” He notes the proposed tax reductions are a reaction to an “over-collection in revenues.”

Norris and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally are taking a jaded view toward a proposal expected in the House this week to pay for some 962 transportation projects without raising the gas tax. House Speaker Beth Harwell last week announced she is working on an alternative plan with other House Republican leaders that won’t involve raising taxes.

“The details have not been fully developed yet, but they are working diligently to offer something,” Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen says. “She knows members have a desire to find a solution for our transportation and infrastructure funding and is encouraged by that agreement.”

Norris and McNally contend any effort to use general fund money to pay for transportation projects would not pass in the Senate, where the IMPROVE Act has strong support.

“We’re giving the massive tax cut to Tennesseans and we’re readjusting our priorities otherwise,” he says. “It’s an increase of a few pennies over several years in the gas tax and the diesel tax, but it’s really a change in our priorities by reallocating our attention to that sector.”

While Gov. Bill Haslam tries to sell the IMPROVE Act as an economic development tool, Norris, who is considering a gubernatorial run, focuses on safety instead, especially for bridges. His West Tennessee district has a large number of small bridges which, he says, allow school buses to pass only because they have one axle on the bridge at a time and, for that reason alone, don’t exceed the weight limit.

“We know we’ve got too damn many dangerous bridges, and one of the pieces of this legislation is the high priority bridge replacement project,” Norris says.

He reminds people April 1 was the anniversary of the “grisly” Hatchie River bridge collapse that killed several people in West Tennessee.

“And here we are on the precipice of an opportunity to get after those dangerous bridges and keep people safe in this state, and help them save money at the same time. And how anybody could be confused at this point is beyond me,” Norris says.

He discounts the argument that raising the diesel tax would result in higher costs for goods delivered to grocery stores and other retailers. Norris says he met with the Tennessee Trucking Associations and Tennessee Retail Association and reviewed studies by the University of Tennessee College of Business, which determined an increase in the diesel tax would be unlikely to raise prices.

“But if it did, the terminology used is it would be minuscule, at best,” Norris says.

Since proposing a deeper cut in the food tax to 4 percent from 5 percent, Norris has said people will save more at the store than they’ll spend extra at the pump.

During a House Transportation Subcommittee meeting last week, IMPROVE Act co-sponsor Rep. Barry Doss said a family of four with two cars would pay $5.40 more at the pump each month but save $7.70 to about $9.50 at the grocery store every month.

Democratic Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis, though, raised concerns about a proposed $5 increase in the vehicle registration fee. That would bring in $34 million to the state.

“We really fee ourselves to death in Tennessee,” Camper says.

But Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican who chairs the committee, contended the bill remains a “net tax cut.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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