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VOL. 132 | NO. 82 | Tuesday, April 25, 2017

House Concurs on Gas Tax Senate Version, Sends to Haslam For Signature

By Sam Stockard

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Wrapping up wide-ranging legislation that dominated the opening year of the 110th General Assembly, the House concurred Monday with the Senate’s IMPROVE Act, inserting a $7 million measure to increase property tax breaks for veterans.

In a 67-21 vote, the House sent the bill to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature with a provision raising the ceiling to $175,000 for veterans’ property tax values and $27,000 for the elderly and disabled.

“I would rather ensure veterans get their relief on this vote than to roll the dice and veterans not get their relief on other votes,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who served in the Marines. “The governor’s bill has passed, and now we’re voting whether or not to give veterans relief, plain and simple.”

The benefit for veterans was a sticking point for the Legislature’s Veterans Caucus, which was upset by a Senate move to include the property tax break in the IMPROVE Act, making it difficult for lawmakers to oppose the overall bill and its gas tax increase.

The vote to concur was needed because the House earlier removed the property tax measure from its version of the IMPROVE Act. But a compromise of sorts was forged by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris who persuaded Haslam to accept the higher rate, up from $135,000, and put another $2 million in his supplemental budget for the final spending plan for fiscal 2018.

Haslam praised passage of his signature measure.

“The IMPROVE Act is a conservative plan that directly addresses how we fund our roads and bridges for the first time in 30 years,” he said in a statement Monday night.

Several legislators argued that the governor’s gas tax/tax cut legislation, billed as the biggest tax reduction in state history, should have been split up to stand on its own. Lawmakers also contended that with $2 billion in surplus and extra money, the Legislature should be able to fund tax relief for veterans, the disabled and elderly without packaging it with a gas tax increase.

Rep. Micah Van Huss, an East Tennessee Republican and Marines veteran, accused the Senate of using veterans as “pawns” to pass the IMPROVE Act. Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Lancaster Republican who opposed the gas tax increase, called the Senate’s action “despicable.”

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who voted against the IMPROVE Act because he felt minorities were being left out of the measure, said he felt voting for the amendment Monday meant he would be voting for the governor’s overall bill.

“I would like to be able to vote in favor of the tax relief for our veterans, but it should be done on its own merit, the same way the IMPROVE Act should stand on its own merit as a gas tax,” said Hardaway said, who voted against the measure to concur.

However, legislators such as Rep. Joe Towns encouraged House members to “stop playing games” and risking a vote that could wind up hurting veterans.

“This is a test of whether our members are dedicated to helping our veterans,” said Towns, a Memphis Democrat.

Others lawmakers pointed out the Legislature’s Veterans Caucus met before the House session with veterans groups who weren’t enthused with the process but were happy to see the proposed increase in benefits.

Rep. Barry Doss, who carried the IMPROVE Act through the House, pointed out the Senate “humbled” itself and increased the amount of tax relief to $175,000.

“I would suggest you humble yourselves and give veterans and the elderly the tax relief they deserve,” he said.

Bill Summers, of the Military Officers Association of America, said veterans are likely to look at the IMPROVE Act as a measure that raises their gas taxes but gives them a property tax reduction.

“It’s hard to please them all. But for what we entered this legislative season with, and that was to try to restore the $175,000, it looks like that goal is on the cusp of being achieved, maybe not the way people thought and maybe not the methodology people thought, but at the end of it, at least for the veterans, if that occurs, it’s been a successful year from a veterans’ standpoint,” Summers said.

Overall, the IMPROVE Act, once fully effective, will raise about $355 million annually to start cutting down on a $10.5 billion backlog in 962 road and bridge projects. It phases in a six-cent gas tax increase over three years, along with a 10-cent diesel tax increase, while tacking $5 onto vehicle registration fees and putting a $100 fee on electric cars.

It is to be offset by about $300 million next year in tax reductions on the food tax, Hall tax on interest and dividends and franchise and excise taxes and $500 million annually once fully in place.

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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