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VOL. 132 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 9, 2017

House Committee Delays Haslam's Transportation Bill

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – A split House Transportation Committee slammed the brakes Tuesday on Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, even though it contains a measure to use the sales tax for transportation funding instead of raising fuel taxes.

The committee voted 9-8 to postpone consideration for one week after several members complained about political “smoke screens,” saying they expect the bill to be changed dramatically once it’s out of their hands.

“I want to know whether we’re going to vote to raise taxes or not,” said Rep. Jerry Sexton, an opponent of Haslam’s proposal.

The governor is seeking to raise the gas tax by 7 cents to 28 cents and the diesel tax by 12 cents to 30 in addition to increasing several other fees to bring in $400 million more annually for the state and local governments to build roads and bridges. The plan is to chip away at $10.5 billion in backlogged and new transportation projects over the next 12 years.

Even though the governor’s bill is moving through the House, but just barely, it contains an amendment to use a quarter of 1 percent of the state sales tax for transportation. It also eliminates the governor’s plan to tie fuel taxes to the Consumer Price Index.

Democratic Rep. Barbara Cooper of Memphis urged the committee to do its due diligence and vote the bill “up or down,” and said the issue should not be about getting re-elected.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican co-sponsoring the bill, presented the measure and immediately drew the ire of opponents. It’s sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada, the House Majority leader, but had been ferried so far by Republican Rep. Barry Doss of Leoma, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Several committee members were miffed that Dunn was presenting the bill with Doss running the meeting. An effort to adjourn the meeting failed, but ultimately Dunn hit a roadblock despite arguing the state should continue using fuel taxes for transportation projects as it has for decades.

“The guy in Michigan who gets in his motorhome and drives to Florida, he’ll come through and help pay,” Dunn said, noting use of the fuel tax will help the “next generation” instead of putting a burden on the sales tax.

Sexton and several other legislators contended the state should use a $1 billion surplus to pay for road and bridge construction. Even Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell said he wasn’t ready to support the governor’s plan because he felt it would give the state’s wealthiest residents a break on Hall incomes taxes and only a half-cent cut in the state’s grocery tax to working families.

“This is not what’s going to be the final product,” Mitchell said.

Earlier in the day, a Senate Transportation Subcommittee voted to send the governor’s IMPROVE Act to the full Senate Transportation Committee but without any measures for increasing taxes and fees or offsetting them with tax breaks. The governor’s original plan calls for reducing franchise and excise taxes for businesses, the Hall tax and the grocery tax to make the plan “revenue neutral.”

The measure contained nothing but an amendment with $962 million worth of road and bridge projects identified by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Jim Tracy said amendments would be placed on the bill at some point, either by the full Transportation Committee or Finance, Ways & Means Committee, containing the funding and tax-break mechanisms.

During the House Transportation Committee meeting, Republican Rep. Bill Sanderson of Kenton said he hoped House and Senate leaders could come up with a piece of legislation both chambers can agree to support. He urged action “without having backrooms deals with mock Senate Transportation meetings.”

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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