Bell predicts a full debate on governor’s proposal for gas tax hike

By BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Posted 2/6/17

State Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) says even those who are expressing opposition to Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax proposal are acknowledging there is a need for the state’s transportation …

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Bell predicts a full debate on governor’s proposal for gas tax hike

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State Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) says even those who are expressing opposition to Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax proposal are acknowledging there is a need for the state’s transportation infrastructure.

He gave his report during a recent gathering of the Cleveland/Bradley Economic Development Council. 

Haslam wants to tackle a $10 billion backlog in road and bridge projects around the state in large part by raising the tax on gasoline by 7 cents a gallon and diesel by 12 cents per gallon.

“As I drove here, I was listening to a flame-throwing, conservative talk show in Nashville, and I listen to it when I am up there and agree with most of what I hear,” Bell said. 

He said the show’s hosts were holding a town hall discussion with both proponents and opponents of the governor’s road tax plan. 

“What was interesting was out of the whole panel they had, and they had an audience of 100 people as well, there wasn’t a single person – even those who oppose the plan – who did not say we had a need,” Bell said. “So, at least we’ve even gotten the opponents agreeing we’ve got a need.” 

He noted some of the House Republicans have raised a plan that would raise almost the identical amount of money as the governor’s plan, which is $280 million. 

Under state Rep. David Hawk’s (R- Greeneville) plan, it would dedicate 0.25 percent of the state's total sales tax collections to transportation projects. 

“I’ve got pretty strong feelings as to why that is a bad idea,” Bell said. “But, I think before [the coming] week is over you may see one or two more proposals come forward. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were four or five proposals by the end of next week.” 

He added, “I think the positive thing is almost everybody recognizes there is a need and that we have a problem.”

Bell said out of the five counties he represents, “By far, Highway 60 going to Hopewell – there’s nothing even close to the need of that road.” 

The senator said estimates show 41 percent of the current road taxes are paid by out-of-state entities.

“That’s part of the noise that can come from those who just want to say, ‘No,’” Bell said. “Sometimes you have a tough time getting that across to them.” 

“If you use the percentages, $114 million of those taxes would be paid by people who don’t live in Tennessee,” he said. “That’s not a tax increase on Tennesseans.” 

Bell spotlighted the recommended cuts in food taxes, franchise and excise taxes on manufacturers, and the next two percentage cuts of the Hall tax. 

“There’s a lot of different ideas being floated around and I’m telling everybody who has contacted me – and right now, my calls are running around 9 to 1 against the plan which is natural for any proposal – just hold your horses and keep your powder dry,” Bell said. “Even Gov. Haslam’s plan, as introduced, has not got unanimous support in the Senate. It will be two and a half months before we vote anything and there’s no telling what the proposal will look like then compared to where it’s at now.” 

Bell also spoke of the governor’s “Reconnect” program, which will allow adults to return to community colleges and technical centers. 

“That’s where the jobs are at right now,” Bell said. “It’s not in Liberal Arts colleges or degrees. The jobs are in welding and industrial maintenance and electrical. That’s what the governor’s proposal is.” 

The senator said what makes the proposal better is it will be funded by surplus lottery funds and not tax dollars. He added that, according to the constitutional amendment passed in 2002, those lottery funds can be used only for educational issues. 

“I’ve had people call me saying we should take the lottery money and spend it on roads,” Bell said. “I have to remind them of the constitutional amendment.”

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