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VOL. 132 | NO. 68 | Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Conservative State Republicans Want ‘Restart’ on Gas Tax

By Sam Stockard

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Claiming they’re not getting fair treatment by House leadership, a group of irritated Republicans demanded the governor’s gas-tax increase package go back to the starting line.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican from Bean Station in East Tennessee, said in a press conference Monday, April 3, he had spoken with House Speaker Beth Harwell and was told “we would get a restart.” He said the details haven’t been worked out.

“The reason it needs to be sent back is it’s not been fairly debated,” said Sexton, who previously called the way the measure was being handled a “farce.” “We want our constituents’ voices to be heard and let the people say what they feel about this legislation. They don’t like it, and it’s being pushed through at warp speed.”

Harwell’s spokeswoman, Kara Owen, said the speaker doesn’t have the authority to send the measure back to the beginning of the House committee process. Only a two-thirds vote on the House floor could put such a move into effect, Owen said.

Sexton makes it clear he opposes Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, which contains gas and diesel tax increases and several other fee increases to raise about $350 million annually for state and local governments toward $10.5 billion worth of road and bridge projects statewide. Republican leaders such as Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville say the bill is now a tax cut because it contains a 1-percent break in the food sales tax, reduction in franchise and excise taxes on businesses and phase-out of the Hall tax on interest and dividends.

Still, Sexton says Republicans who oppose the IMPROVE Act aren’t getting a chance to be heard as the measure makes its way through the House.

“If we can’t be heard in a committee, then how are our people’s voices supposed to be gotten out. This bill needs to go back, it needs to start over. There needs to be fair and honest debate, and I hope that is what will happen,” Sexton said.

The measure passed out of the House Transportation Subcommittee after Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson broke a 4-4 tie vote. In the House Transportation Committee it was amended to reflect a change Norris placed on the Senate version.

In last week’s House Local Government Committee, Chairman Tim Wirgau allowed very little comment on the measure last week, and a procedural move was made to call for a vote before any debate could be held.

Sexton stormed out of that committee meeting and the next day protested on the House floor during discussion on a separate bill.

Wirgau, who chairs the House Local Government Committee, said Monday he told Sexton afterward he could have spoken on the bill by trying to amend it.

“If he wants to stand up and gripe about the system, the system is a good system that we have. Simply know the rules,” said Wirgau, a Republican from Buchanan in West Tennessee.

Rep. Barry Doss, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said the bill might have been “rushed” in the Local Government Committee, but he pointed out Sexton let his opposition to the IMPROVE Act be well known in his committee and in the Transportation Subcommittee.

Doss contends Sexton has a “pretty weak argument” about being treated unfairly.

“It’s probably been the most debated and most discussed bill up here in a lot of years. So where he’s coming from that he’s been stifled … if he’s been stifled, then we would not know where he stood,” said Doss, a Leoma Republican from Lawrence County.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams urged members during a caucus meeting later Monday to talk to Republican leadership about legislative processes.

“If you don’t know the rules, it’s hard to operate in this system,” Williams said.

Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson said he believes the Legislature is in the phase of Republicans working against Republicans, referring to it as “R on R crime.” Republicans hold a 74-25 advantage in the House.

“Some of what you’re seeing on the Republican versus Republican deal is they’ve created a beast in Rep. Jerry Sexton, because of what happened in Local Committee (last) week,” Parkinson said. “And so now they’ve created this monster in him, and there are people that are part of that wing of the Republican Party that fully understand and empathize with him. We, as Democrats, are used to that treatment. So when it starts affecting their own party members, it’s a big shocker to the world.”

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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