GOP game of ‘bumper cars’ jeopardizing road funding legislation?

House and Senate Republican leaders “are playing bumper cars” with conflicting notions of how to increase funding for Tennessee transportation projects, suggests the Times-Free Press, and that could dim chances of any legislation passing the General Assembly.

Earlier, Gov. Bill Haslam proposed raising fuel taxes to provide more money. House Republicans on Wednesday proposed to instead divert sales tax money to roads, suggesting Haslam’s proposal could be killed in committee. On Thursday, Senate Republicans spurned the House plan.

(Lt.Gov. Randy) McNally, who has seen the impact of recessions on Tennessee finances in 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2008, warned the economy is cyclical and sales taxes take a nose dive when a downturn strikes. It’s been nine years since the last recession, he noted.

“Our economy runs in cycles,” the Oak Ridge lawmaker said. “I’m hopeful with the new president we can extend our run, but nine years is a long time to have growth in the economy.”

Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, a former Transportation Committee chairman, argued that relying on the sales tax for a set amount of revenue in a state that has a pay-as-you-go policy on road construction and maintenance is too risky.

And Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, questioned why House proponents didn’t come speak to him. He said he can’t tell at this point whether Hawk’s proposal will be one of several debated to change Haslam’s yet-to-be-introduced bill or as a separate measure.

“It’s better to work together toward a common end,” Norris said. “If the game is to divide and conquer, then the game is over. If it dies in the House, it dies.”

… Haslam, meanwhile, told reporters Thursday his bill will put gas tax increases and tax cuts in other areas in one package. Describing gas taxes as “user fees,” the governor argued it’s the fairest way to fund transportation needs.

“I don’t like the idea that somebody that barely drives has money go to subsidize a road for somebody from California that’s driving down I-40,” Haslam said. “That just doesn’t seem fair.”

Further from an Associated Press report:

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, wants to earmark $200 million from the general fund each year for the next decade to pay for infrastructure projects.

Andrew Ogles, director of the group’s state chapter, argued during a news conference Thursday that he doesn’t think there is any urgent reason to act, especially when the state is flush with a more than $1 billion surplus, and is projecting revenue growth of nearly the same amount.

“When you have a billion-dollar surplus in recurring revenue being paid by hardworking families, you don’t raise taxes,” Ogles said. “That is nonsensical, that is disingenuous, and quite frankly, I would call it theft.”

Democrats compared the GOP response to Haslam’s gas tax proposal to the Republicans’ rejection of the governor’s Medicaid expansion proposal in 2015.

“It’s Groundhog Day, and here we are four days into the session and the supermajority has sabotaged the governor’s key initiative,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro.

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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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