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VOL. 132 | NO. 42 | Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Bills Aimed at Raising Road Project Funding Collide Again This Week

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – The chairwoman of the House Transportation Subcommittee is defiant in her handling of legislation that could have derailed Gov. Bill Haslam’s fuel-tax plan, a high-profile measure on the panel’s calendar again Wednesday, March 1.

The governor’s proposal stalled in the subcommittee last week when Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, an opponent of the fuel-tax increase, moved a bill to raise sales-tax revenue for transportation to the front of the calendar. The measure by Republican Rep. David Hawk is considered the main opposition to Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, which would raise gas and diesel taxes along with several fees to bring in about $400 million annually and start attacking a $10.5 billion backlog of road and bridge projects.

Neither one reached a vote after a Democratic lawmaker, Rep. John Mark Windle, pulled a procedural move to adjourn the meeting.

Meanwhile, Windle filed five amendments to Hawk’s legislation Monday after being rebuffed last week by Weaver. Windle, of Livingston, is introducing measures to remove sales taxes on baby formula, milk, bread and baby diapers. Yet another amendment would provide a 10-year franchise tax exemption on manufacturing plants that open or expand in economically distressed counties.

Asked if her decision to push Hawk’s bill ahead of Haslam’s was designed to circumvent the governor’s legislation, Weaver says “it’s not unusual” for bills to be moved up for consideration.

“I’ve got the helm, buddy. I can do whatever I want. … It happens a lot,” Weaver, a Republican from rural Lancaster in Smith County, said during a short interview in her office.

Pressed on why she moved Hawk’s bill to the front, she said most of the bills on the calendar were taken off notice, though the governor’s bill remains on notice for consideration.

Weaver also points out her opposition to Haslam’s proposal is well known.

“My district knows it. I’m opposed because my district is opposed to it,” she says.

Haslam wants to add 7 cents to the gas tax and 12 cents to the diesel tax, in addition to increasing the motor vehicle registration fee by $5 and raising fees for rental cars and alternative-fuel vehicles. He would offset those by reducing franchise and excise taxes on businesses, the Hall tax on investments and the grocery tax by 0.5 percent.

Hawk’s bill would take one-fourth of 1 percent of the sales tax and shift it into the transportation fund, an unprecedented move for funding highway projects in Tennessee.

Democrats are backing a measure to phase out the 5 percent grocery tax over 10 years to offset a fuel-tax increase. They also persuaded the governor to change his bill and allow local governments to hold referendums for raising several types of taxes, other than the local option sales tax, to fund mass transit projects.

Windle brought last week’s meeting to an abrupt end when he asked for an amendment to Hawk’s bill to reduce the sales tax on baby formula. When Weaver told him the amendment had not been filed in time for consideration, he called for a vote to adjourn the meeting, a procedure that is non-debatable.

The panel voted 5-3 to adjourn, setting the stage for another potential clash on the matter.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who supports the governor’s plan to raise transportation funds through the gas tax rather than through sales-tax revenue, though not necessarily in the same amount, called the incident in the House subcommittee “a bump in the road.”

House Democrats used it to attack Republicans who control the House.

“Once again, the supermajority proved itself unable to accomplish even the most simple tasks when the House Transportation Subcommittee fumbled all over itself and the governor was unable to get any sort of transportation funding bill out of that committee,” says state Rep. Mike Stewart, of Nashville.

The chairman of the House Democratic Caucus contends the situation is similar to the demise of Insure Tennessee two years ago when a Senate committee voted against the governor’s market-based proposal to use federal taxes to catch some 280,000 people in an insurance coverage gap.

Because the chairwoman of the committee was “unable or unwilling” to move the Haslam’s bill, Stewart says, “the governor was left basically standing around in the hallway wondering when it is the supermajority is ever gonna work with him.”

Stewart calls Windle a “seasoned legislator” who realized Haslam’s proposal was “going off the track, that nothing good was gonna come from that proceeding, so what was needed was a reset.”

Haslam says the committee’s outcome shows the members are still deciding “the right approach.”

“We’ve said all along this was going to be a long bath, it would involve a lot of discussion, and the bill could take different forms at different times, but we’re not discouraged by that at all. We’ve seen this as a process all along.”

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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