The chambers approved a portion of Haslam’s IMPROVE Act that would raise the state’s gas tax on gasoline by 6 cents and diesel by 10 cents, as well as cuts on the state’s grocery tax and franchise and excise tax.
“IMPROVE puts money back in the pockets of all Tennesseans and helps attract manufacturing jobs all while delivering nearly 1,000 road and bridge projects across all 95 counties. The Tennessee we can be provides not only access to opportunity, but the tools to be successful – good roads that take you to good jobs. As a conservative plan, the IMPROVE Act helps make us the Tennessee we can be,” Haslam said in an email statement last week.
The Tennessee House passed the legislation on a 60-37 vote, as Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, voted against the measure, while Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, voted in favor.
Lynn said roads are the No. 1 issue in the district and her constituents – through nine town hall meetings – expressed they were more in favor of Haslam’s plan than other alternatives.
Lynn said many people questioned how the state could look to raise the gas tax when there is a $2 billion surplus. She said it’s the right time to restructure the state’s funding and highlighted how the state got the surplus.
“When I tell people where the surplus comes from, it really makes a difference to them. It makes a great difference to them. I wonder how many people in here really know where the surplus comes from and who we really have to thank for that surplus,” she said.
Lynn said a portion of the surplus comes from about $511 million state departments turned back to the state treasury at the end of the previous fiscal year, which means the state would likely see the same refund since the current year budget was approved before they knew about the returns.
“That is savings. Those are efficiencies in government and isn’t that what Republicans are supposed to be about. That’s what we want to see happen – government get more efficient,” said Lynn, who said additional surplus comes from normal growth and other areas.
Lynn said although Haslam’s plan would not be pocketbook neutral for all residents, it would benefit most residents in some fashion. Lynn also said a majority of her town hall attendees were in favor of the legislation.
“Everything we do up here is not to make sure that nobody pays anything. What we’re doing is trying to balance and make every taxpayer pay their fair share and be fair to everyone. So I want you to understand we are all getting something from this plan,” said Rep. Barry Doss, R-Leoma, who sponsored the legislation in the House.
Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, who held a joint town hall meeting with Pody and Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said she was against how the legislation reached the House floor and the timing of the bill.
“We have denied and ignored transportation needs down here since I’ve been here. Now, we want to go ahead and pass legislation for our irresponsibility and put it on the back of the taxpayers of the working families of this state. I think it’s wrong. I think it’s dishonest,” Weaver said.
Pody tweeted his thoughts on the legislation from the House floor.
“Gas tax is going to pass even though we had other alternatives to fund TDOT without any tax increase. Sorry I couldn’t stop it,” he said.
The Senate passed the legislation on a 25-6 vote as Beavers voted against the legislation.
The House made several attempts to alter Haslam’s plan, including a popular alternative introduced by Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville. Hawk’s plan would have redirected a quarter of 1 percent of sales tax directly to the transportation fund, which should create about $291 million of reoccurring money every single year.
Several legislators questioned why money from a surplus could not be used rather than increasing the gas tax. Haslam said he did not want to commit surplus money to the road projects because they are too important and the surplus is not guaranteed every year.
Under the IMPROVE Act, a total of 962 projects throughout the state would start within the next eight years, including 10 Wilson County road projects.
Among the Wilson County projects are two highly debated roadways in State Route 109 and South Mt. Juliet Road. The State Route 109 project is designated for the roadway from Highway 70 and north to the county line at Dry Fork Creek. The 7.5 miles of work is estimated to cost $18.5 million. The South Mt. Juliet Road project is estimated to cost $25.4 million to address the area between Central Pike and Providence Way.