By Joel Ebert via The Tennessean
A recently formed Senate transportation subcommittee unanimously approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax proposal but an altered version than how it was introduced.
The subcommittee amended Haslam’s bill which is a caption — broadly written legislation that allows for changes — to only include a list of transportation projects that would be addressed if the measure is approved. The Senate amendment makes no mention of the governor’s proposed gas tax hike or tax cuts stated in his original plan.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee opted against taking any action on the measure.
The unanimous vote by the Senate subcommittee, which came Tuesday afternoon, is a stark contrast to what a similar House subcommittee did just last week, when House lawmakers altered the governor’s bill to include components of a competing transportation funding proposal.
As amended, the House version of the bill relies on using a portion of existing revenue generated through sales tax to pay for the state’s transportation needs instead of a gas tax increase. The idea came from Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who sponsored a bill that failed to make it out of the House subcommittee last week.
Haslam’s original bill seeks, among other aspects, to increase the tax on gasoline by 7 cents per gallon while cutting taxes in various other ways. The additional revenue would help fund a $10 billion backlog in transportation improvement projects.
The support of Haslam’s legislation, known as the IMPROVE Act, by the five-member Senate Transportation and Safety Subcommittee is in line with what Senate leadership has said in recent weeks, as they’ve expressed concern about the competing proposal.
Little discussion or debate took place in the Senate subcommittee about the overall IMPROVE Act or the competing proposal from Hawk.
After the subcommittee’s vote, which sends the bill with a positive recommendation to the full Senate transportation committee, Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, said although there was support for the governor’s plan, that should not be viewed as a full on endorsement of the proposal.
“I’ve stated all along that I don’t think the IMPROVE Act is the right plan,” Bailey said, while praising Haslam for bringing a plan forward.
Among the changes Bailey said he would like to see are additional tax cuts beyond what Haslam’s plan calls for removing the portion that ties the gas tax to the Consumer Price Index and eliminating any potential new fees on rental cars.
“Any plan that comes forward in regards to revenue … we need to take that conservative approach,” he said.
Minutes after the subcommittee’s vote, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, issued a statement applauding the panel’s work.
“Almost everyone agrees that there is a need to address our road funding situation in Tennessee,” he said. “The only thing left to determine is the how. I look forward to future committee work in both the House and the Senate to determine how best we can address this issue while continuing to cut taxes for our citizens.”
Later in the day, a House lawmaker called the Senate’s action a “mock” move.
Tuesday’s decision in the Senate comes one day after the full Senate transportation committee approved the state Department of Transportation’s $2.1 billion fiscal year 2017-2018 budget which includes the finances outlined in Haslam’s IMPROVE Act.
While voting on the budget, Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, said, “This budget includes the IMPROVE Act. Essentially its based on that.”
She, along with Sens. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, were one of three committee members to pass — which is the equivalent of a no — on voting.
Five senators — Bailey; Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville; Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville; Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville — approved the department’s budget.
The House Transportation Committee deferred action on the governor’s amended proposal. During the committee’s meeting, some lawmakers said they were not able to read through several of the amendments they received earlier in the day.
After the meeting, Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, and Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, said they wanted more time to read through the 10 different amendments that had recently been introduced.
Two amendments alone were about 90 pages. While both had significant portions of Haslam’s original plan included, Weaver and Sexton said they did not know what was in the lengthy amendments.
“I haven’t had a chance (to look at them),” Weaver said.
Another amendment, from Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, would restore Haslam’s initial IMPROVE Act.
In addition the the issue of the amendments, some lawmakers were worried that that the changes to the bill that were approved in the House subcommittee would be undone at some point in the future.
Many anticipate the House version of the Haslam bill to be altered again as it makes its way through the legislative process.
The practice of amending bills as they make their way through the committee process is common. But with so much interest, and fear among some lawmakers, in the possibility of a gas tax hike being instituted the usually mundane inner workings of the legislature are facing the spotlight.
“I want to know whether we’re going to vote on raising taxes or not,” Sexton said during the meeting.”Why do we want to smokescreen everything to make it look like we’re doing one thing when we’re doing something else.”
Throughout the meeting there were somewhat testy interactions between lawmakers. Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, challenged the ability of Rep. Barry Doss, R-Leoma, to preside over the meeting, given that he is a co-sponsor of the IMPROVE Act.
At another point there was an unsuccessful effort, led by Weaver, to adjourn the gathering.
After nearly 45 minutes, the committee narrowly voted in favor of delaying action on the amendments and the bill until next week.
Dunn, who presented the bill in committee, expressed disappointment about the decision to continue to delay action.
“We’ve been kicking the can down the road. The road is crumbling, its full of potholes and its bumper to bumper traffic.” he said. “We need to quit kicking the darn can.”