Bill mandating school bus seat belts clears first vote

A bill requiring all Tennessee school buses be equipped with safety restraint systems by mid-2023 cleared its first House hurdle Wednesday, report the Times-Free Press. The voice vote came after two Chattanooga physicians gave dramatic testimony about the “terrible night” in November when a Hamilton County school bus crashed, killing six children and injuring others.

“I truly believe that the pain of those families and suffering of their children could have been prevented or lessened,” Dr. Alan Kohrt, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, told Transportation Subcommittee members.

He said that included not just the seat belt bill (HB395) sponsored by Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, but another Favors bil (HB127)l. It requires school bus drivers be at least 25 years old and have had a five-year clean driving history before getting licensed by the state to transport students.

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House Transportation Committee votes for revised Haslam tax bill

The House Transportation Committee today approved, 11-7, the same revised version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s tax package — including higher taxes on fuel and lower taxes on food – that was approved earlier in the Senate Transportation Committee. The panel has been viewed as the biggest obstacle to ultimate approval of the governor’s proposal, though several hurdles remain.

The vote came after about 90 minutes of debate and defeat or withdrawal of multiple amendments. A couple of amendments were adopted. Most notably, perhaps, one would reverse a current law that says that any cut in federal gas taxes would automatically trigger a corresponding increase in state gas taxes. The amendment says any increase in federal taxes would trigger a corresponding decrease in state fuel levies.

The most debated amendment was on a proposal by Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, that would have diverted money from sales taxes collected from the sale of vehicles to the highway fund without any fuel tax increase. It failed on an 8-10 vote.

The basic bill (HB534), as now approved by both the House and Senate Transportation Committees, raises the gas tax by six cents per gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon – both increases phased in over a three-year period. The governor’s original proposal was seven cents per gallon on gas and 12 cents on diesel, both taking full effect July 1.

The revised version also cut the state sales tax on groceries from 5 percent to 4 percent. Originally, Haslam proposed a reduction to just 4.5 percent. Administration officials say the grocery tax, for most average Tennesseans, would now more than offset the increased taxes they will pay for fuel.

Most other provisions of the governor’s original package remain in place — including a corporate tax break designed to benefit for manufacturers.

The revised bill also won approval today, as expected, in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. In the Senate, it now goes to the Finance Committee. In the House, it now goes to the Local Government Committee.

The committees overseeing local government legislation are involved because the bill also includes provisions allowing city and county governments to hold referendums on raising taxes for transportation spending.

Note: The House committee roll call vote is HERE.

Haslam’s gas tax bill left in legislative muddle for another week

Legislators left Gov. Bill Haslam’s transportation funding bill in a confused tangle Tuesday.

A special Senate subcommittee amended the measure to eliminate everything but a list of highway projects that should be funded, then approved the measure. The House Transportation Committee, meanwhile, argued about the bill at some length, then put off a vote until next week.

From the Times-Free Press report:

Asked about his take on what had transpired (in the House committee), Transportation Commissioner John Schroer told a reporter “just come back in a week.”

As for whether it means problems ahead for the bill, which seeks to raise gas taxes by 7 cents per gallon for regular unleaded and diesel by 12 cents, Schroer said, “you’d have to ask them [commmittee members].”

Earlier in the day, a specially created Senate Transportation subcommittee unanimously approved the Republican governor’s proposed road improvement plan. But it didn’t include Haslam’s recommended gas and diesel tax increases to fund it.

The Senate version of the Republican governor’s proposed IMPROVE Act also doesn’t include Haslam’s recommended cuts in non-highway taxes that are intended to have an overall revenue-neutral impact on the state’s budget.

What senators did approve were just the 962 highway, interstate and bridge projects listed in the actual bill Haslam said are needed to tackle an estimated $10.5 billion backlog of projects.

Note: It’s SB1221/HB534

Senate panel votes verticle driver’s license for those under 21

News release from Senate Republican Caucus

NASHVILLE — The Senate Transportation and Safety Committee approved legislation today (Wednesday) requiring all new driver’s licenses issued to persons under the age of 21 in Tennessee be printed in vertical format to help businesses easily identify those who cannot drink alcohol. Senate Bill 384 would give the driver the option to change their license to horizontal upon turning age 21 for the reduced cost of a duplicate license.

Presently, a tiny red bar along the side of the photo on the license indicates a person is under the age of 21.

“What this really addresses is underage drinking,” said Senator Massey. “Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths nationwide among underage youths each year. Servers have found the small red bar presently on Tennessee licenses is hard to read, especially in high volume hours when a clerk or waiter is very busy. This legislation will make it much quicker and easier to identify a person who is under the age of 21 to curb any unintentional mistakes that might otherwise occur.”

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House sub adjourns rather than vote on road funding

The House Transportation Subcommittee voted to adjourn Wednesday rather than take a vote on a bill by Rep. David Hawk that was offered as an alternative to Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax plans. Abrupt approval of the adjournment motion, made by Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston, leaves both the Hawk bill and the Haslam bill sitting in the sub for at least another week.

From the Times-Free Press:

Haslam later told reporters he thinks it shows representatives remain undecided on how to address what he says is a $10.5 billion backlog of nearly 1,000 highway and bridge projects across Tennessee.

“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 this at all.”

… After hearing from trucking industry officials who favor Haslam’s plan, (Subcommittee Chair Rep. Terri Lynn) Weaver called up Hawk’s bill out of order from the calendar of measures to be considered.

“We’re going to go a little bit out of order here and keep you guys at the tip of your seats,” Weaver said.

(Windle then proposed an amendment to Hawk’s bill, which calls for diverting money from the state’s general fund to road construction without a tax increase, that would exempt baby formula from the state sales tax. Subcommittee Chair Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver ruled that motion out of order and Windle then made his adjournment motion, approved 5-3.)

…Windle was unapologetic.

…”Why should I apologize for representing people who get up and go to work every day? Why should it be people who are at the top of the food chain? Why shouldn’t somebody who actually has children going to work every day get a tax cut?”

…Weaver, who voted against the adjournment motion, later called Windle’s maneuver a “surprise.”

Asked why she’d called up Hawk’s bill out of order, Weaver said, “I do that a lot. Sometimes — I’m the chair, I can steer it anywhere I want to. I was looking for Jason Zachary, I couldn’t find him. He had a bill on there too.” 

Zachary, R-Knoxville, had yet another road funding proposal.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Barry Doss, R-Lawrenceburg, who is carrying Haslam’s bill, said, “We were about to get the governor’s bill out today. But evidently there were some people who were uncomfortable, maybe, with the Hawk plan. And they weren’t ready to vote on the Hawk plan.”

Doss said he believes “there’s a lot of people uncomfortable” with Hawk’s bill. “We come back next week and I think more people are comfortable with the governor’s plan.

Haslam expands options for local governments raising transportation revenue

Gov. Bill Haslam has expanded a provision in his gas tax package that would let local governments raise extra revenue for transportation with voter approval in their own jurisdictions, reports The Tennessean.

As part of his IMPROVE Act, Haslam had originally allowed an increase on local sales tax rates as the lone transit funding mechanism that could be decided via local public referendums.

But in an amendment to his transportation bill filed Tuesday, the governor has quietly proposed allowing referendums on surcharges to other existing local taxes as possibilities to pay for public transit projects. The new options are local property tax, business tax, motor vehicle tax, local rental car tax, tourist accommodation tax, residential development tax and local tourist development zone business tax.

The greater taxing authority would be extended to all county governments in Tennessee as well as the state’s four biggest cities: Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville. All surcharges would need to be separate charges in addition to the existing taxes.

“After discussions with stakeholders over the past several weeks, this gives local governments more flexibility on how to fund public transit projects, if approved by local voters through referendum,” Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said in an emailed statement.

Note: Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, says the governor has basically adopted part of a Democratic alternative plan. Press release below.

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TDOT gives IMPROVE a SPOT online

In promoting Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax plan to IMPROVE Tennessee roads, the Department of Transportation’s website has a new feature – an interactive map of all projects that could be funded with more money. And, of course, it has a new acronym: SPOT (Statewide Project Overview Tracker).

It’s HERE. The welcoming message reads;

Welcome to the SPOT website. This website is designed to provide you with an interactive tool to navigate priority transportation projects across the State of Tennessee. This application is a project overview tracker of county, TDOT region, and legislative districts for you to view basic details for transportation infrastructure, safety and economic development in locations that are important to you.

The projects are also categorized by their program type describing the primary benefit they offer the public of the State of Tennessee.

Note: ICYMI, IMPROVE stands for Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy. TDOT is the Tennessee Department of Transportation (pronounced tee-dot).

Can Haslam succeed with ‘pass the bottle’ ban where others failed?

Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to ban open containers of alcoholic beverages in vehicles has been filed and is the subject of several media reports questioning whether it can pass with the governor’s backing after years of failure in past sessions.

The bill is HB532, part of the governor’s package of legislation aimed at increasing highway fund revenue.

From WPLN:

(Sen. Jon) Lundberg, R-Bristol, has tried five times to extend the state’s ban on open containers to include passengers. Each time, it has failed. Conventional wisdom is that tailgaters would like to have a nip (or two, going to or from) from the game.

Lundberg says that’s not just bad policy. It’s been costing the state money.

The federal government penalizes states that don’t have across-the-board open container bans by withholding some funding. The Haslam administration puts those loses at $18 million a year.

“This is a big chunk of money,” Lundberg says. “(When) people talk about raising the gas tax, they want to know you are squeezing every other drop of money that we’ve got to take care of this, right?”

With the governor pushing for more money for roads, he’s made getting rid of the pass-the-bottle loophole one of his priorities for the year. That’s served to elevate the issue.

Other stories: The Associated Press report, WSMV-TV, WRCB-TV.

DUI enforcement cut by governor’s ‘open container’ proposal

As proposed, Gov. Bill Haslam’s transportation funding package would eliminate 57 positions dedicated to enforcing drunken driving laws by district attorneys general staff across the state. The Times-Free Press reports the governor is open to address the resulting concerns of prosecutors.

The provision in question in the governor’s legislation, which would also raise fuel taxes, would outlaw open containers of alcoholic beverages in cars on the road. Because Tennessee doesn’t already have an open container prohibition, $18 million in federal highway funds cannot be used for road construction and maintenance and instead goes to other programs – including $6.5 million now used for special DUI prosecutors, training and police overtime for DUI enforcement. With passage of the governor’s plan, all $18 million would be shifted to road construction.

“We’re aware of that,” the governor said last week. “We fund some DUI [enforcement], DAs through that. We’re willing to look at other ways to make sure that function gets paid for. We realize that’s critical.”

…Jerry Estes, former 10th Judicial District attorney general and now executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, recently said DAs in 25 of the state’s 31 judicial districts rely on the funding. He said prosecutors are hoping to work something out.

“Our concern is 57 positions that would be lost if they’re not funded another way,” Estes said. “And what those 57 positions do, they’re very involved, of course, in prosecuting DUIs and vehicular homicides.”

Moreover, Estes said, the money also helps train sheriffs, police departments, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and other enforcement agencies to combat DUI and impaired driving.

“Tennessee’s DUI deaths on the highways have gone down greatly since these programs have been in place,” said Estes, who called them “very crucial” to that success.

…Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, a former prosecutor, said the $18 million, including the $6.5 million that now goes to prosecutors, needs to be replaced.

“If we can take $18 million out of the general fund and allocate that towards safety, specifically toward 57 positions in the district attorneys’ offices, officer overtime, roadblocks and advertising to combat intoxicated driving, I think that’s a great solution,” Lamberth said.


Haslam said “not having the open container law has meant that the federal government’s telling us how we can spend that $18 million.”


“I think we should choose how we spend that and then to decide do we want to fund DUI, DAs another way,” the governor said. “But in the meantime, money that should be going to roads should be going to roads.”

Ramsey signs up to advise coalition pushing gas tax hike

Recently retired Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is joining the newly created Advisory Council of the Transportation Coalition of Tennessee, reports the Nashville Post — presumably to help the promotion of Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, which includes a gas tax hike.

Rumors have been swirling that Ramsey would be working as a “consultant” on occasion during session, possibly in advance of setting up shop as a registered lobbyist next year, after the one-year cooling off period has ended. And now he’s advising a group pushing for an increase in the state’s transportation funding — some with very vested interests in seeing more new roads built.

The Transportation Coalition press release is below.

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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