Gas tax measure dominates action at state Capitol

By BRIAN GRAVES brian.graves@clevelandbanner.com
Posted 3/18/17

NASHVILLE — “If this session were viewed as a five-day week, we’ve crossed into Wednesday afternoon now,” said state Sen. Mike Bell.

Bell and the other three Bradley County representatives …

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Gas tax measure dominates action at state Capitol

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NASHVILLE — “If this session were viewed as a five-day week, we’ve crossed into Wednesday afternoon now,” said state Sen. Mike Bell.

Bell and the other three Bradley County representatives to Nashville were busy Thursday, going from a floor session to one meeting after another.

All agree this session of the state Legislature is one filled with major issues.

But unlike the U.S. Congress which has a tug-of-war between parties, the Republican super-majority in Nashville is having to work through the differences within the party itself to find the answers needed in order to produce legislation on hefty items such as infrastructure funding and broadband access.

“There are many, many big issues — and there is broadband which has been one of the biggest issues for three or four years,” said state Rep. Dan Howell. “Unfortunately, the gas tax has pushed everything off the front page pretty much.”

“Fortunately, the broadband issue does have support and it has passed through committees in both houses at this point,” he said. “I look for us to have some broadband bill on the floor to vote on. Most everyone I talk to expects that to happen.”

Howell said the gas tax bill “keeps getting amended.”

“Frankly, I’m disappointed in the last version I saw amended in the Senate,” he said. “They had included some tax credits for veterans. I’m a great supporter of veterans. I have several veterans in my family. But, veterans’ benefits have no place in a bill for highways. It just doesn’t belong there.”

Howell said placing those benefits there, which he notes were deemed unaffordable in the last session, puts lawmakers on the spot.

“That is just pandering,” he said. “It sets up people who may have some issues with the current structure of the bill of being forced to vote in a way they are perceived to be against veterans. That’s just unfair. Let’s just have a straight up bill and vote it up or down. Then on the other side, we have bills already on line for veterans; there are eight of them alone on the Local Government committee I serve on. Let’s treat them as separate entities and quit the pandering.”

Howell said it is hard to say now where the infrastructure funding proposal is headed.

“I am on record saying we have to find a better and broader revenue stream,” he said. “You can’t continue to fix and maintain your roads on 1989 revenue because inflation has eaten half of that up. It would be like trying to live on what I made 30 years ago.”

Howell said his concern is “we’re just looking at a tax.”

“I think there are other opportunities out there to find revenue,” he said.

State Rep. Kevin Brooks agrees the current session is bearing a major load of significant issues.

“I think that’s an accurate observation. There’s been a lot of hefty lifting,” Brooks said. “I think that has a lot to do with Gov. Haslam seeing he’s only got 24 months left in office. There’s this impending sense of urgency to get things tied up with a bow.”

Brooks said the governor is “an incredibly gifted administrator and CEO.”

“This is not the first Fortune 500 Company he’s run, and now he’s the CEO of Tennessee and he runs it like that,” Brooks said. “He really feels like he only has a few board meetings left. I’ve heard him say it a dozen times, he wants to leave the state better than he found it.”

He noted programs such as Tennessee Promise which have been established under Haslam’s watch “represent hundreds of millions of new dollars that have never been spent on education.”

“I think he has a very full agenda for the first half of this session and we’ll come back for the second half and that will be a continuation of that heavy lift,” Brooks said.

Brooks acknowledged the IMPROVE Act’s portion which would increase the fuel tax has become “the most polarizing topic we’ve had in a long time.”

“It’s not that everybody is generally OK with it,” he said. “There are people who are very, very OK with it. There are those who are very, very upset by it. There are very few people in the middle.”

Brooks said there is now a proposal to take the sales taxes realized from car sales and place them into the infrastructure funding.

“That sales tax now does not go to transportation,” he said. “You buy a car which uses the roads, damages the roads and puts potholes in the roads. That sales tax goes to the general fund. It’s the gas tax which goes to the transportation fund.”

“It’s a good proposal and something worth looking at,” Brooks said. “It’s like when I carried the bill to do away with the Hall Tax — which thankfully we are now doing — the governor asked how we would fill that hole. Because he is my friend I smiled and said, ‘Governor, that’s your responsibility and not mine.’”

He added “a lot of great business minds are looking at this.”

“A 100 percent gas tax solution is probably not going to pass,” Brooks said. “A 100 percent sales tax — the Hawk plan — is probably not going to pass. We are going to have to find a good compromise we can all agree on and I’m not sure everyone will love it.”

He noted the words of one of his predecessors who would say, “If the bill makes everyone a little uncomfortable, it’s probably a very good bill.”

“If one party is too happy, there’s probably too much for them in that bill,” Brooks said.

He said there is an effort to find the art of compromise among the Republicans in Nashville.

“We are very blessed,” Brooks said. “We went from my first year in 2006 in the minority. Then-Speaker of the House Kent Williams thought we had the majority. We did not. We had a super-plurality. Nobody was in charge. Then we had Speaker Harwell in 2010 and gained the majority. By 2012, we had a super-majority. By 2014, it’s what we call a supernatural majority — unprecedented numbers.”

“We no longer fight with the Democrats. We don’t have to find a compromise with the Democrats. There are enough of us now, and there is talk we are seeing the potential of picking up even more seats,” he said. “We’re not having to find compromises with the Democrats. We’re having to find compromises within our own party.”

Brooks said being in the majority “is more difficult.”

“When we were in the minority, sadly, we knew our place. We fought the good fight,” he said. “It took us so long to gain our majority — we had to fight so long and so hard — we never stopped fighting. We just changed enemies and now, the enemy’s within.”

“Tennessee is such a conservative, Republican state. We believe in business. We believe in free enterprise. We believe in job creation,” Brooks said.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire has been very involved in the subject of education and has a proposal now which provides what he calls “an opportunity scholarship.”

“This would only effect 1.6 percent of the children in the state of Tennessee and give them the opportunity to get a better education,” Gardenhire said. “This has nothing to do with anything else but giving children a better opportunity. It gives children who are in schools that are not up to snuff the opportunity to get a better education and not be stuck in these failing schools because of these self-serving special interest groups who want to keep them in the classes for reasons other than the kids’ education.”

Gardenhire is also sponsoring a bill which will give the children of undocumented parents, who are educated within the state, maintain good grades and stay out of trouble, to attend state colleges paying in-state tuition. He noted the childrens’ citizenship status is “not their fault.”

“These children have no access to HOPE scholarships or Pell Grants,” he said. “If they have to pay out of state tuition, they can’t get educated and become part of our society and end up paying taxes instead of being a burden on the taxpayers of this country. They need the opportunity to become productive citizens and American citizens at some point.”

Gardenhire called those bills “my toughest.”

Bell notes there is progress now being made particularly on broadband access.

“It passed unanimously in the Commerce committee,” Bell said. “I think this is a great first step to bringing broadband to those unserved and underserved areas of our state.”

Bell agrees the major issue getting the most attention is the gas tax proposal.

“What passed out of the Senate transportation committee this week actually contains $100 million more in cuts than it does in increases,” Bell said. “It does raise the tax on gas by 6 cents, not the 7 cents the governor proposed and 10 cents on diesel instead of the 12 cents which was proposed.”

“It adds property tax relief to veterans and the elderly as well as adding another ½ cent to the grocery sales tax cut,” he said. “It’s not come to a point where I have had a chance to vote on it, so I have not had a chance to look at it thoroughly and debate it.”

Bell said committees will start to wind up their business within the next few weeks “and move toward an adjournment and getting a budget passed.”

He sees the Legislature winding up their business by late April or early May.

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