House committee quickly approves Haslam’s gas tax proposal

By Joel Ebert via The Tennessean

Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax proposal continued to receive support from House lawmakers on Tuesday, with a committee voting in favor of the legislation in relatively brisk fashion.

After little discussion and no debate on the measure, the House Local Government Committee approved the plan with a voice vote.

Although there was a brief attempt led by Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, to amend the bill, which seeks to raise the state’s tax on gasoline by 6 cents per gallon over a three-year period, the committee approved the legislation.

The committee was given an overview of the bill and dispensed with it in less than 10 minutes.

Tuesday’s action was markedly different than previous efforts in House committees, which featured lengthy debates and procedural maneuvers to delay action on the measure.

The local government committee’s swift work could signal that more House members are backing the governor’s proposed the plan, known as the IMPROVE Act, to help fund a $10 billion backlog in road projects. The previously amended proposal is estimated to generate about $250 million for the state, $35 million for cities and $70 million for counties.

“I think there is very, very broad support (of the legislation),” said Rep. Barry Doss, R-Leoma, who is among the many sponsors of the legislation.

Doss said he didn’t think there would be any difficulty with the bill when it is next taken up in the chamber’s finance committee.

“The heavy lifting is done,” Doss said.

The latest version of the bill would combine the gas tax increase with a reduction to the state’s tax on groceries.

The current proposal calls for tax increases of 6 cents per gallon on gasoline and 10 cents on diesel fuel — 1 cent less and 2 cents less, respectively, than first proposed.

The gas tax legislation includes a local option that would allow certain cities and counties to hold referendums to ask voters to weigh in on other potential tax increases to help fund local transportation projects.

The legislation would also eliminate a previously proposed fee on rental cars, cut a controversial aspect related to indexing and provide tax relief to the elderly and disabled veterans.

The inclusion of the tax relief for the elderly and disabled veterans is expected to be among the remaining disagreements between the Senate and the House as the legislation moves forward.

Doss said he anticipates some efforts to change the House version of the bill to specifically remove the veterans and elderly tax relief program, only to allow members to advance their own bills that would provide relief to both groups.

Critics have called the inclusion of property tax relief for veterans in the IMPROVE Act a political ploy as part of an effort to generate votes.

“I’ll agree that it should have never been put on to begin with,” Doss said. “I don’t think the IMPROVE Act was the way to do that. The governor did not put that on – the Senate put that on.”

The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take up the measure on Tuesday but opted to delay action in favor of letting the House to catch up said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.

Norris said he would be happy to discussion removing the veterans and elderly tax relief aspect added to the IMPROVE Act but that his greater goal was to provide them additional relief.

Norris said when he reached an agreement with Haslam to amend the IMPROVE Act and include the tax relief program in it, the effort stood a better chance of passage than a bill on its own.

“I know some in the House misunderstood our motives in putting it in this,” he said. “It was not to force additional votes at all. It was to force tax relief for veterans, which they deserve.”

Both chambers finance committees could to take up the IMPROVE Act as early as next week. The finance committees are the final legislative step for a bill before it heads to the chamber floor.

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