Norris aims dart at Harwell in Tennessee transportation bill dispute

Norris aims dart at Harwell in Tennessee transportation bill dispute

April 6th, 2017 by Andy Sher in Breaking News

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris speaks about the conclusion of the legislative session at a news conference at the state Capitol in Nashville on April 23, 2015.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — A top Tennessee Senate Republican made it clear Thursday that he's not happy with news that House Republican Speaker Beth Harwell has been working behind the scenes on an alternative road funding plan that avoids the fuel tax increase in both chambers' legislation.

"There's a fine line between indecision and deception," Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, told reporters when asked about Wednesday's development. "Next question."

Asked to elaborate what deception he was referring to, Norris replied, "it's hard to tell."

The state Capitol tizzy began Wednesday when House Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, told Budget Subcommittee members that he, Harwell and others were working on an alternative funding mechanism for Haslam's IMPROVE Act.

A Harwell spokeswoman later said in response to Hawk's remarks that the speaker, Hawk and two other House leaders were seeking to "develop an alternative that does not include a gas tax increase."

That caught Republican Senate Speaker Randy McNally as well as Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and others, including Budget Subcommitee Chairman Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who had just voted for the bill in his panel, by surprise.

The governor's proposal calls for increasing fuel taxes and several fees to boost the state's dedicated highway fund which Haslam says is unable to address a $10.5 billion, 962-project backlog on any sort of timely basis. 

As amended by the House and Senate, it now calls for the gas tax to rise six cents and diesel by 10 cents over the next three years.

At the same time, the plan cuts three major taxes in the state's general fund, which pays for functions ranging from education to housing prisons, which has a surplus. One cut is to the state's 5 percent sales tax on groceries. It would drop to 4 percent.

Senators had been on track to hear the IMPROVE Act in the Finance Committee next week. Now, there's Senate talk about a potential recess that could extend lawmakers' annual session well into May.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, posted a video to twitter saying his panel is expecting to hear the IMPROVE Act next week. He, McCormick and others now call the IMPROVE Act "The 2017 Tax Reduction Act" based on there being a greater tax reduction dollar-wise than fuel tax increases.

If the bill passes out of the Senate committee, Watson said, there would be debate April 20 on the Senate floor. If it passes, then Haslam would bring his customary amendment making various changes in the budget based on legislative action to Watson's committee on April 24.

"Now," Watson cautioned, "budgets are fluid documents and anything can happen."

If lawmakers can't come to a budget agreement on April 20, then the Senate would go into recess the week of April 24, Watson said.

"But's let's be optimistic," said Watson said, noting that if everything goes to plan, lawmakers would be ready to adjourn their annual session the week of May 8.

It was unclear when Watson shot the video. Thursday morning, Norris filed a resolution that would allow the Senate to adjourn temporarily the final week of April.