VOL. 132 | NO. 74 | Thursday, April 13, 2017
View From the Hill
Mistreated GOP Legislators Only Want to Be Heard
By Sam Stockard
Word has it extra tissue will be placed on the desks of some House members in the coming weeks so they can dry their tears of pain.
It seems a faction of the Republican supermajority just hasn’t gotten a fair hearing – from their own party – on opposition to Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, which contains a dreaded gas and diesel tax increase to rebuild the state’s roads and bridges. It’s the gas tax versus the surplus, which is pretty big at $1 billion in one-time money and another billion in extra recurring money.
Conservative Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Bean Station Republican and apparent leader of the “Fire and Brimstone Caucus,” took to the pulpit with about 15 other lawmakers recently to complain about how the gas tax is being run through the House committee system at “warp speed,” giving him nary a chance to stake his claim.
Granted, a meeting of the House Local Government Committee moved pretty fast with Chairman Rep. Tim Wirgau appearing to be afraid the debate would be hijacked.
So, after a parliamentary move cut off discussion and required a vote, Sexton jumped out of his chair and stormed out of the meeting room. (Never mind the fact he took an earlier opportunity to call House action a “farce” and his fellow Republicans “hypocritical.”)
A few days later, Sexton led the press conference outside the House chambers at which he asked Speaker Beth Harwell to send the IMPROVE Act back to the transportation subcommittee, where it first needed House leadership to break a tie vote to emerge.
“Some of you’uns may know. Some of you’uns may not know that (recently) I and some of my colleagues were not allowed to speak in a committee meeting. That’s not right,” Sexton said.
“That’s not why we were sent here. We have a right to voice our opinion and the opinion of our constituents, and we want them to know that our people oppose this tax. Sixty to 70 percent of Tennesseans oppose this tax. We want the people’s voice to be heard.”
Sexton was so irritated he got into an argument with Tennessee Journal writer “Easy” Ed Cromer, who had the audacity to ask him if he also opposed a cut in the food sales tax, a 1 percent reduction contained in the bill.
“Why don’t you ask me if I’m against F&E and the Hall tax (cuts)? You want to pick out something,” Sexton argued.
Cromer, who could be the most laid-back member in the Capitol Hill Press Corps, bristled at the suggestion he was being unfair – at least as much as he can bristle – and after a short back-and-forth with Sexton left the scene of the crime. (We’ve got a lot of folks storming out these days.)
Sexton, who led the 2016 effort to make the Bible the state’s official book, wasn’t done, though.
“Here’s what I’m opposed to. I’m opposed to the hard-working people of Tennessee having to make up for that franchise and excise tax (reduction). That’s what I’m opposed to. I’m opposed to Tennesseans having to make up at the gas pump for that Hall income tax (reduction). That’s what I’m against,” Sexton added.
“I’m for cutting sales tax on food, and cutting a lot of other taxes.”
Sexton did acknowledge to another reporter he voted last year to phase out the Hall tax on interest and dividends by 2021. He did not respond when asked if he is sponsoring legislation this year to lower the food sales tax further or to cut taxes on other necessities such as baby formula, diapers and women’s items, which Democrats are doing.
Fellow Republicans later urged Sexton to consult with leadership if he had a question and to learn the rules of procedure, which would have enabled him to speak during the House Local Government meeting.
Is this a case of ultra-conservative Republicans feeling as left out as Democrats, who number only 25 in the 99-member House, and getting the short end of the parliamentary stick?
Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, who joined Sexton’s press conference, acknowledges she tried to use her authority as chairwoman of the House Transportation Subcommittee to move the governor’s IMPROVE Act to the back of the line as it started trekking and let Rep. David Hawk’s proposal be heard first. Hawk’s plan involved dedicating part of the sales tax toward transportation projects but is dead for now.
“We each have to use the tools in our toolbox,” Weaver explains. “The thing that irks the most is when you have a supermajority and you have the speaker pro tem (Curtis Johnson) or the leader, Speaker Harwell, they came in and a Republican voted against a Republican when the bill was tied, which means death on arrival.”
The Legislature is full of revelations, epiphanies, DOAs and a good deal of grandstanding to go along with those other emotions, thoughts and outcomes.
The squawking from Sexton and Co. might have worked.
After the amended IMPROVE Act came out of the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee unscathed, except for removal of a measure containing property tax relief for veterans and the elderly, House Speaker Harwell said she was working on a proposal with Hawk, Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams and House Speaker Pro Tem Johnson to come up with an alternative that doesn’t involve a gas tax increase.
Hawk was expected to bring an amendment this week but hasn’t provided any details.
House Democrats didn’t like Hawk’s first plan, and it’s hard to figure out how he’s going to pass a plan that differs from IMPROVE.
Still, Democrats say this is a work in progress, adding more should be done with the governor’s proposal to help working-class Tennesseans, mainly more cuts in the grocery tax or removal of taxes on diapers, formula and feminine products.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart called Hawk’s initial move to take a fourth of 1 percent in sales taxes and use it to build roads “the worst possible plan” a team of tax professionals could propose.
“Somehow we give up our state’s tradition of fiscal responsibility and don’t fund the roads at the same time,” Stewart says, pointing toward the policy of using fuel taxes for roads without taking on debt. “Unless you’re a Republican primary voter, there’s not much in the Hawk plan that you favor.”
Stewart notes the Legislature has gone out of its way for Tennessee’s wealthiest people in the last few years, eliminating the gift and estate taxes, in addition to phasing out the Hall tax, which is being counted toward tax reductions in the IMPROVE Act. He doesn’t take the Hawk plan seriously and hopes the rest is “just noise.”
Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat, throws another kink in the plan.
“We have transportation infrastructure needs, mass transit needs in the state. I support that. I’m willing to step up and support what we need to do to do those things,’’ Mitchell says.
“I’m not in support of giving the top 5 percent wealthiest people in this state a tax break even more than we’ve done so in the past and lumping it in this bill like Washington politics.’’
That’s funny. Didn’t Jerry Sexton say nearly the same thing?
The difference is that Mitchell likely would vote to raise the gas tax while Sexton would vote to use the surplus.
The head honchos
That would put Mitchell and leading Democrats in the court of the Senate’s Republican leadership, now calling this the 2017 Tax Cut Plan.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally sees overwhelming support in the Senate for the governor’s IMPROVE Act.
“We’re evidently over-collecting in the general fund taxes we collect from people and business, so we lowered that and to a lesser extent we raised the revenues or fees in the transportation fund,” McNally says.
He commends Rep. Barry Doss for ferrying the measure through House committees, and he foresees votes on the Senate and House floor. Problems could arise, though, in a Conference Committee report, requiring another committee to be appointed and a potential stalemate at that point, he says.
Nevertheless, McNally portends enough House members will realize give-and-take will be needed to reach an agreement.
McNally, who calls the fuel tax a user fee paid by out-of-state travelers, is somewhat kinder in his analysis than Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris.
“It’s ironic that some folks continue to complain about the surplus, and yet those same people don’t want to seem to return it to the taxpayers,” Norris says.
Norris, who rewrote the governor’s bill by chopping another half-cent off the food sales tax cut and phasing in gas and diesel fuel increases over three years at a lower rate, six cents and 10 cents, considers this one of the biggest tax cuts in state history, in addition to a “change in our priorities.”
The Collierville Republican says bridge replacement should be made a priority immediately and points out the anniversary of the deadly Hatchie River bridge collapse recently passed.
McNally and Norris see the situation clearly: Their main contention is the fuel taxes should be kept separate and go toward 962 road and bridge projects costing $10.5 billion. It’s in the bill.
Why anyone “who calls themselves a Republican would reject a tax cut like this is hard to figure,” Norris adds.
Sexton and Co. want to use surpluses from the general fund. To this point, Speaker Harwell appeared to be – from a distance – guiding Haslam’s bill through the House as she weighs a run for governor in 2018.
But is political ambition suddenly clouding her views?
Asked if Speaker Harwell needs to develop some intestinal fortitude and get on board with the Senate plan, Norris says, “There’s a fine line between indecision and deception.”
Whether this is indecision or deception could go a long way toward deciding how much tissue Republicans will need on their desks in the House chamber as the time for a vote draws near.
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.