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VOL. 132 | NO. 16 | Monday, January 23, 2017

House Leader Says Haslam’s IMPROVE Act Will Need More Votes for Passage

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Haslam made his pitch on a multi-faceted fuel-tax increase, softened by an array of tax breaks this week. Now, he has to seal the deal.

Mark Luttrell

With some of Tennessee’s liberal lawmakers noting the IMPROVE Act comes with a “lot of moving parts,” Haslam will have to put a full-court press on the state’s most conservative legislators in order to pass the bill.

One of Haslam’s biggest stumbling blocks could be his own financial success as governor, a $2 billion surplus for the coming fiscal year – a combination of recurring and non-recurring money from previous tax breaks and strong tax collections.

The question is whether he has enough votes to pass the IMPROVE Act with a billion-dollar recurring surplus.

“That is a very fair question: Will there be the votes? Today, probably not,” says House Majority Leader Glen Casada, a Thompson Station Republican. “But the governor will present it and he’ll present the reasons and logic why his plan is better than the other plans. And we’ll see if he changes the members’ minds.”

Several alternative bills are expected to be floated to the governor’s plan, which will be introduced in four pieces of legislation, according to Casada.

Legislators across the state say instead of raising taxes Tennessee should take money from the surplus to ramp up road and bridge construction, now estimated to have a $10.5 billion backlog. But Haslam contends a fuel-tax increase should be enacted so all road users will have to share the cost.

“The guy that’s driving down I-40 in the truck from California, why do we want Tennesseans to give him a break on his road costs?” Haslam asks, “or the driver from Ohio driving down I-75 to Florida … when we traditionally have said the people who use roads are the people who are going to pay for those roads?”

State Rep. Ron Lollar, a Bartlett Republican who chairs the Shelby County legislative delegation, believes Haslam makes a good argument from that perspective.

But he’s not sold on raising the gas tax by seven cents or diesel by 12 cents, along with fees on electric cars and a $5 registration increase. And, Lollar says he wants clarification on the governor’s plans to cut franchise and excise taxes, which is part of the proposal along with reductions in the grocery tax and Hall income tax on investments.

“I’m in no way saying I’m for a gas-tax increase,” Lollar says. “I want to see the plan and hear what the folks of Tennessee say.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, one of dozens of city and county officials who attended the governor’s announcement at the State Capitol, is supporting the measure. It also calls for legislation enabling local governments to adopt alternative forms of revenue by referendum for mass transit projects.

“I don’t think anyone really likes to see taxes increase, but when it comes to certain very pressing issues as far as our infrastructure’s concerned and due to the fact that he offsets it with tax cuts, I think it’s more than fair,” Luttrell says.

Shelby County has 20 projects estimated to cost about $600 million lying on the state’s drawing boards.

Supporters will have to overcome opposition from rural legislators such as Rep. Andy Holt, a Dresden Republican from West Tennessee.

“For those of you not familiar with legislative gamesmanship, this is an effort to create the opportunity to claim ‘Andy Holt voted against cutting taxes on groceries’ when I vote against the gas-tax hike,” Holt posted on Facebook.

Raising the cost of fuel increases the cost of all items transported, Holt contends, and he adds, “We have a massive, and I mean massive budget surplus – projected to be well over $1 billion. This means that we are being overtaxed by that same amount …”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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