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VOL. 41 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 17, 2017

House hits brakes on Tennessee transportation funding bills

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NASHVILLE (AP) — After months of debate, Wednesday was supposed to be the day that Gov. Bill Haslam's transportation funding proposal finally passed the starting line in the Legislature. Instead, lawmakers decided to hit the brakes and try again next week.

The House Transportation Subcommittee adjourned before taking up either the governor's bill that would hike fuel taxes for the first time in decades or a rival measure that would dedicate a percentage of sales taxes to transportation projects.

Haslam told reporters the decision shows that many lawmakers are undecided about how to begin tackling the state's more than $10 billion backlog in road and bridge projects.

"We've said all along this was going to be a long path and it would involve a lot of discussion and the bill could take different forms at different times," Haslam said. "But we're not discouraged by that at all."

The House subcommittee shut down after Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston tried to add a sales tax exemption on baby food. Chairwoman Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Livingston, refused to consider the amendment, and Windle successfully called for an adjournment until next week.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, lauded Windle's effort to change the bill.

"As a Democrat, he thought that any of these proposals should have some reductions for the middle class families," Fitzhugh said.

The eight-member panel is widely considered the toughest obstacle for Haslam's plan to increase the state's 21.4-cent tax on each gallon of gas by 7 cents and the 18.4-cent tax on diesel by 12 cents.

The governor proposes balancing the estimated $280 million that would be generated for transportation projects with cuts of the same amount in other areas, such as the sales tax on food, business taxes on large manufacturers and the tax on earnings from stocks and bonds.

The rival bill by Republican Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville would instead avoid any tax increase by dedicating 0.25 percent of the state's sales tax revenues to road projects. Haslam and Senate Republicans have expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of redirecting general fund money to transportation projects that the state has traditionally paid for mainly through fuel taxes.

Earlier on Wednesday, Middle Tennessee State University released a poll that found 38 percent of registered voters favor Haslam's transportation funding proposal while 28 percent oppose it. Another 33 percent of the 600 people surveyed said they weren't sure. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The poll found that support for the plan improved to 51 percent among those who said they had heard some or a lot about the proposal, while 31 percent said they were opposed. Among those who knew little or nothing about the initiative, support and opposition was tied at 24 percent.


Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.