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VOL. 41 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 07, 2017

House count finds 37-30 GOP margin against Haslam gas tax plan

By Sam Stockard

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House Speaker Beth Harwell says she believes it’s important to have a transportation funding plan counter to Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax/tax cut act after House Republican Caucus members voted to oppose the governor’s idea.

The caucus, which has 74 members, cast anonymous votes on popsicle sticks Monday night after the House session. Thirty voted in favor of the IMPROVE Act, which was rewritten by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, and 37 voted against it. Two didn’t vote and four didn’t return a ballot, says Kara Owen, spokeswoman for Harwell.

“In light of the caucus vote, I think it would be wise to offer an alternative to the members, in order to keep this important conversation of infrastructure funding moving forward,” Harwell said Tuesday evening.

The House speaker made the statement in response to the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee sending the governor’s IMPROVE Act to the Calendar and Rules Committee, which will schedule it for a House floor vote, choosing it over one she formulated with Rep. David Hawk.

Rep. Ryan Williams, who chairs the House Republican Caucus, said he wanted a “whip count” to find out where members stand on the IMPROVE Act before the matter goes to the House floor, though representatives didn’t put their names on the sticks.

“As caucus chairman, I just needed to know where people are, because any time we have a vote and we don’t know what the results are going to be, generally, it tends to give somebody a primary opponent,” Williams said.

If 30 House Republicans support the IMPROVE Act, it would need 20 of 25 Democrats to back it for passage in the full House, though those votes are far from locked up. The measure is almost assured to be approved by the Senate, whose members largely support using fuel taxes to pay for transportation improvements rather than shifting money from the general fund.

The measure passed 10-1 Wednesday in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee with Norris guiding it.

The House finance committee opted for the Haslam/Norris plan over an amendment brought by Hawk, who said he worked with Harwell on a measure that would take about $300 million from the general fund and send it to the transportation fund to start cutting into a $10.5 billion backlog of road and bridge projects. The Hawk/Harwell plan would use 75 percent of the sales tax on new and used vehicle sales, an increase in the vehicle registration fee and fees on electric and hybrid cars.

Hawk withdrew his amendment after Rep. Gerald McCormick, the former House Republican leader, called for a procedural move to table it.

McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican, pointed out the Hawk plan would bring in less revenue for transportation projects than Haslam’s and would put the onus on Tennessee auto buyers instead of those who travel through the state purchasing gas and diesel. He also noted it is late in the session to consider a new plan that would delay the governor’s budget plan.

Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville in East Tennessee, isn’t giving up, saying he could “poke holes” in the Haslam plan just as McCormick could critique the proposal he and Harwell made.

“This issue is far from being done,” Hawk said. “We will have a conversation on the floor about how we better fund transportation and what is the responsible way to do it.”

Gov. Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, also dubbed the 2017 Tax Cut Act, which is being carried by Rep. Barry Doss through the House, calls for a three-year phase-in of six cents on the gas tax, pushing it to 27.4 cents per gallon and 10 cents more on the diesel tax, raising it to 28.4 cents per gallon. In addition, it would place a $100 fee on electric cars, add $5 to the state’s vehicle registration fee and give local governments the option to raise a set of six taxes to pay for mass transit projects through voter referendum.

To offset those fuel and vehicle fee increases, it would cut franchise and excise taxes on manufacturers, expedite reductions in the Hall tax by 1 percent in the next two years and reduce the food tax to 4 percent from 5 percent.

In full effect, the state would be cutting taxes by $400 million and raising fuel taxes and fees by only $350 million, according to Doss.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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