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VOL. 132 | NO. 21 | Monday, January 30, 2017

Road for Haslam’s Fuel-Tax Plan Has Many Twists and Turns

By Sam Stockard

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Three major West Tennessee road projects, including Lamar Avenue in Memphis, are part of a wish list Gov. Bill Haslam sent to the Trump administration as it weighs the start of an aggressive infrastructure program.

Bill Haslam

The Lamar Avenue project at $252 million, Interstate 40 widening in Jackson, $66.3 million, and an I-69 project in Obion County estimated at $236.7 million are on the seven-project list totaling $1.4 billion.

The Haslam administration sent the request to the Trump administration through the National Governors Association, in response to the new president’s push to rebuild the nation’s highway and bridge system. Reports show Trump is interested in pursuing private partnerships to expedite projects estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars.

Haslam says he understands the Trump plan could include public-private partnerships with toll roads and bridges paid back over time by governmental entities to private companies.

“We agree there needs to be infrastructure work, so the president and I are 100 percent on the same page,” Haslam says. “We would love it if it was something that followed a traditional formula where states got X percent of that (federal) revenue and we could count on that for our long-term needs. So far, I haven’t heard anything along those lines, but we would welcome it if it happened.”

Haslam points out Tennessee doesn’t borrow money for road and bridge construction, instead using the state’s fuel taxes for funding. The governor says his office was asked to provide examples of infrastructure projects “ready to go.”

“So we forwarded them the list of big projects that we know we need, and we’re ready to hit the ground running on,” Haslam says.

Set to make his State of the State address Monday evening, the governor is dealing with fallout from his proposal to increase fuel taxes and motorist fees, softening them with tax breaks on groceries, businesses taxes and another cut in the Hall income tax, to start chipping away at a $10.5 billion backlog of road and bridge projects in Tennessee.

Numerous House members says they want to use nearly $2 billion in recurring and one-time revenue surpluses estimated for the next budget to pay for road work.

Haslam, however, says the fuel-tax increases and fees are needed or projects approved but not funded will take anywhere from 10 to 15 years more than expected to get done.

Open container law opposition

Tennessee’s district attorney generals, including Shelby County DA Amy Weirich, are inundating Haslam’s office with letters asking him to reconsider plans to seek an open container law in Tennessee so the state can shift $18 million in federal grants to the transportation fund.

The federal government restricts that money to Highway Safety because Tennessee law allows people in vehicles to have open containers except for the driver, conflicting with federal guidelines.

The District Attorney Generals Conference says $5.6 million of that funding is used for 30 assistant district attorneys who focus on DUI prosecution and training, 24 coordinators and three positions with the conference, affecting 25 of 32 districts statewide. Alcohol-related crashes are down significantly from five years ago while DUI/traffic-related crimes are up, indicating an “increasing trend in arrests, which requires more specialty DUI prosecutors,” conference officials contend.

The Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office receives more than $300,000 from the grants for two prosecutors in a DUI-vertical unit, a coordinator position, and training and expense money, according to Weirich.

Losing the funds “would severely hamstring us in fighting these crimes, and it’s not just the DUI,” says Weirich, who sent a letter to the governor’s office. “That unit also handles all the vehicular assaults and the vehicular homicides that come as a result of drunk or drugged driving. We’re dealing with people whose lives have been torn apart and destroyed because of drunk driving.”

Weirich says her office’s DUI attorneys are “aggressive” and “specialized” in the field of drunk and drugged-driving prosecution and can devote their time to the best methods for handling DUI cases and keeping up with changes in laws.

Haslam says he is aware the state funds DUI prosecutors through the restricted federal funding.

“I think we’re willing to look at other ways to make certain that that function gets paid for. We realize that’s critical,” Haslam says. He argues, though, the state should decide how to spend the money, not the federal government, and he believes the funding should go toward building roads.

Minimum wage debate

Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway is reviving the debate over minimum wages by filing legislation to more than double the federal rate of $7.25 per hour used in Tennessee.

Hardaway’s bill would raise the rate to $15 per hour and set a minimum wage for people working in the service industry who receive tips and are compensated solely by gratuities. 

The Memphis legislator says a big part of raising minimum wages deals with enabling parents to work only one job so they can spend more time with their children and keep them off the streets. Hardaway doesn’t buy the argument that raising the minimum wage would lead to job losses.

The National Federation of Independent Business plans to oppose the legislation, as it has for several years. NFIB notes a Congressional Budget Office study in 2014 that found raising the minimum wage to $10.10 could cause the loss of 500,000 jobs.

The U.S. Senate turned down a measure to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 in 2014, but four states passed measures in 2016 to raise their minimum wage.

Relaxing pot laws

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, filed legislation this week to increase the amount of marijuana possessed or exchanged under the misdemeanor offense of simple possession to one ounce from a half-ounce.

The Memphis City Council passed an ordinance in fall 2016 allowing police to write citations for possession of half an ounce of pot or less, instead of arresting them and charging them with a criminal offense that could lead to jail time and expensive fines. The Tennessee attorney general later opined the law would not hold up in court.

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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