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VOL. 132 | NO. 31 | Monday, February 13, 2017

Norris Filing Catch-All Bill for Variations of Proposed IMPROVE Act

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris is filing legislation for the Haslam administration to catch all transportation tax and revenue-related bills in an effort to “start anew” and minimize confusion.

Mark Norris

Amid rancor from nearly every corner of the General Assembly, Norris says his bill will be “broad enough to welcome all comers to the well and let them bring forth their amendments along with the governor’s bill so we can sort of all sing from the same hymn book.”

The Collierville Republican points out legislators are proposing numerous plans in reaction to Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act and notes, “if you have a number of plans, you don’t have any plans.”

This proposed “reallocation of revenues” legislation is the governor’s concept, Norris says, because as Haslam calls his proposal a “tax swap,” several legislators want to return revenue to Tennessee taxpayers quicker than the governor.

Haslam is pushing seven-cent gas-tax and 12-cent diesel-tax increases along with several motorist fee increases to raise nearly $400 million for state and local transportation projects. He would soften the blow with about $200 million in franchise and excise fee reductions on businesses, as well as Hall tax cuts, and a $55 million break in the grocery tax by trimming it by half a percent.

Numerous Republicans are balking at the idea of raising taxes when the state has a $1.1 billion non-recurring surplus and $957 million in excess recurring money.

At least two House Republicans have filed alternative transportation funding bills, one of which would take 1/4 percent from the sales tax and shift the revenue to transportation, a move that would be unprecedented in a state that has always used the fuel tax for road and bridge projects.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh is sponsoring separate bills to phase out the grocery tax over 10 years and to create a $250 million education fund. Fitzhugh says his grocery tax bill is designed to take the burden off the middle class in light of the governor’s fuel-tax proposal.

Democrats cast doubt on Norris’ catch-all proposal.

“The Republicans are in a fierce competition to avoid addressing the governor’s plan by coming with all sorts of these unworkable counter-proposals, none of which I think is seriously designed to address the issues,” says House Minority Chairman Mike Stewart, “every one of which is designed to give the public the false impression that the Republican supermajority is doing anything or helping the governor.”

On the other hand, Stewart says Fitzhugh’s effort to create an education fund could be “grafted” on to any plan to create a “responsible” way for future legislatures to fund pre-kindergarten education.

In trouble early?

Speculation among legislators is that Haslam’s fuel-tax plan, if not killed, is likely to emerge from a House transportation subcommittee with an amendment containing Rep. David Hawk’s plan to use money from sales taxes for transportation projects.

Hawk, a Greeneville Republican, says he is trying to build roads and bridges without raising taxes and would tap the general fund to do it, especially in light of the surplus.

Democrats such as state Rep. Joe Towns of Memphis believe any effort by the governor to push the matter within a week or two without “working” members on both sides of the aisle would be a “tactical error.”

Moving too soon would be a “setup to fail,” Towns points out.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro also points out the speakers of both chambers knew the governor’s IMPROVE Act would be the No. 1 issue when they appointed committees this year.

“And if something’s going to fail in week one, it begs the question of whether leadership had any intention of working on this in the first place,” says Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada is sponsoring the governor’s legislation, but he also says he likes Hawk’s plan better, though he plans to support any proposal that comes out of the House Transportation Committee.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally concedes the governor’s bill might come out of the House subcommittee with amendments “we’re not very comfortable with.” McNally, a former budget committee chairman, opposes using money from the general fund to pay for transportation projects.

“I would hope the committee would realize that there are problems in funding road projects and road maintenance projects and would make an effort to address that,” McNally says.

Haslam argues the gas tax is bringing in about half the revenue it should be generating because of increased fuel efficiency and its inability to keep up with inflation, since the 21.4 cents comes in by the gallon. The governor also contends the gas tax should be used for transportation because out-of-state motorists would pay for a large portion of road projects.

Asked if he’s disappointed that House Speaker Beth Harwell appointed transportation subcommittee members who might not like his proposal, the governor says his administration’s job is to sell the plan.

“What I ask regardless of who they are is: If you don’t like our answer, come up with an answer that is a realistic answer with the math done on the problem, what you’re going to cut if you’re going to take it out of the general fund or … go tell Tennesseans we’re not gonna build those roads.”

Harwell has said the transportation subcommittee is made up largely of members who were on it in 2016.

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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