TN House speaker working on 11th hour bid to halt gas tax hike

Beth Harwell - Photo: WKRN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – House Speaker Beth Harwell is working on an 11th-hour effort to make sweeping changes to the funding mechanism of Gov. Bill Haslam’s transportation plan in order to eliminate any increases in Tennessee’s tax on gasoline.

If adopted, the change could put the House on a collision course with the Senate, where Speaker Randy McNally declared Wednesday that the governor’s proposal has his “unequivocal support.”

Harwell is a Nashville Republican mulling a bid to succeed the term-limited governor next year. The upper chamber’s version has been championed by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican also considering a gubernatorial bill.

Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen confirmed that the speaker plans to present an alternative plan next week when the bill comes up in its final standing committee before a full floor vote.

“The details have not been fully developed yet, but they are working diligently to offer something,” Owen said. “She knows members have a desire to find a solution for our transportation and infrastructure funding, and is encouraged by that agreement.”

Haslam’s plan calls for raising the gas tax by 6 cents per gallon over the next three years and diesel by 10 cents. It would also cut the sales tax on groceries, the tax on income from stocks and bonds and corporate taxes paid by manufacturers.

The plan is touted as a making deeper tax cuts than would be raised through the increase in fuel taxes. The added money for the highway fund would be used to chip away at the state’s more than $10 billion backlog in road and bridge projects.

Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals noted that the governor’s plan dubbed the Improve Act has been before lawmakers for four months and that various rival proposals have failed to gain support. But without knowing specifics of Harwell’s plans, “it’s tough to comment on something we haven’t seen or heard of,” she said.

The efforts to make significant changes to the bill appeared to come as a surprise to Senate Speaker McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican who said he’s had no discussions with the House about any alternative plans.

McNally said the governor’s proposal is “a clear and undisputed tax cut for Tennesseans and offers additional cuts for the veterans and the elderly.”

Harwell and other members of House Republican leadership have largely remained on the sidelines as the road funding proposal has worked its way through the House. The measure was advanced earlier Wednesday by the House Finance Subcommittee, where it gained the support of Chairman Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

McCormick said it’s a “bad idea” to try to make wholesale changes to the bill at this late point in the legislative process. He praised Rep. Barry Doss, R-Lawrenceburg, for shepherding the bill through the committee system without support of the chamber’s Republican leadership

“I think they ought to get behind him, and work with him and help him, rather than torpedo him,” McCormick said. “The leadership ought to get behind Barry Doss and pass the bill.”

McCormick said opponents of the measure should be more direct in their approach.

“If you want to kill the bill, just come out and try to kill the bill,” he said.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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