By Chris Gregory, Managing Editor

Differing viewpoints on a proposed increase in Tennessee’s gas tax were front stage in Hartsville last week.

Debate continues in the General Assembly on Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed IMPROVE Act, which would raise an estimated $278 million annually for transportation needs in Tennessee. The bill calls for a 7-cent raise in the gas tax, 12 cents on diesel and 15 cents on propane. A concurrent half-cent reduction in the sales tax on groceries is designed to make the bill revenue neutral.

On Monday, the Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-1 to approve an amended measure that has a 6-cent hike in the gas tax (10 on diesel) that would be implemented over three years and a reduction in sales tax on groceries to 4 percent.

Chris Gregory / Hartsville Vidette
State Senator Mark Norris, second from left, speaks with members of the audience during his visit to Hartsville.

Last Thursday, State Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville) was the guest speaker at the weekly meeting of the Hartsville Rotary Club. Norris, who serves as Senate Majority Leader, spoke in favor of the measure and took questions from the audience at the Community Center. The meeting was held there to accommodate expected public interest.

“We’re into keeping Tennessee safe, keeping her strong,” Norris said. “The way to do that is to build the bridges and rebuild the infrastructure.”

“It’s a tough sell. It’s taxpayer-driven, but we have sufficient cash flow to reallocate some of these revenues and reduce taxes further… It’s not a tax increase, it’s a reallocation revenue to your benefit.”

Norris noted that he is supporting an all-around cut in the sales tax to correspond with road funding, not just a reduction on groceries.

“We want to cut it across the board, so that you really feel the difference.”

Norris did say he was uncertain of the bill’s prospects, saying, “We can pass it in the Senate; I don’t know about the House.”

Norris also spoke on the status of a bill to expand broadband accessibility in rural areas. The governor’s proposal would allow electric cooperatives, such as Tri-County, to provide broadband service.

“The broadband bill is now beginning to move in the General Assembly,” Norris said. “The bill is now moving without opposition, starting in the House, which will address some of the small providers. We’re trying to foster competition.”

On Friday, State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver stopped at the Early Bird Café for her monthly ‘Coffee and Conversations’ visit. Weaver said she remains opposed to a gas tax increase.

“The House is doing our work and we’re seeing how we can do the same thing using what we have, without a tax increase,” Weaver said. “That is my first priority.”

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The House Transportation Committee, on which Weaver serves, last week postponed consideration of the IMPROVE Act for a week. It was expected to come back up at Tuesday’s planned committee meeting.

Weaver discussed a potential amendment that would take a portion of sales tax collections on new and used car sales and earmark that for transportation.

“History is on our side with this; we used to do this,” Weaver said.

Weaver claimed such a plan would raise around $300 million for transportation. She said she felt the Transportation Committee would take up the measure, perhaps as soon as this week.

Critics of using sales tax revenue to fund transportation have pointed out that doing so would require cuts in other budget areas should the state experience an economic downturn. Weaver said those issues would have to be addressed when and if they arose.

“I don’t have a crystal ball; I don’t know what to project,” she said. “I do know this: by keeping taxes low, we can have record revenue. We’ve just got too big for our britches.”

Reach Chris Gregory at 615-374-3556 or cgregory@hartsvillevidette.com.