Legislature Approves Seat Belt Fine Increase

Tennesseans should remember to click it, or they’ll face an even bigger ticket.

On Wednesday the General Assembly approved a measure to increase the state’s fines for driving without a seat belt.

At $10 for a first offense, Tennessee places one of the lowest burdens on its drivers who have little concern for their own safety — and that’s a problem for some state Republicans looking to protect Tennesseans from themselves.

According to Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron, around 50 percent of Tennessee’s roadway fatalities that occurred between 2010 and 2013, were the result of individuals not wearing seat belts.

The Volunteer state has “one of the lowest fines in the country,” with no court costs, and “little punitive effect” for repeat offenders, said Ketron, chairman of the Senate GOP Caucus.

Ketron emphasized the legislation, which had the support of AAA and the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, “is not about raising revenue, it’s about saving lives in our state.”

Ketron’s measure raises the fee for a first offense to $25, as well as increases the fine for repeat offenses from $20 to $50, and the fine for juvenile drivers from $20 to $25 for all offenses. An offense of driving without a seat belt would still carry no court costs, and wouldn’t assess any points against a drivers license.

“Studies show higher fines increase seat belt usage and lower fatalities,” Ketron said. He added every $10 increase results in 7.4 percent seat belt usage increase — especially when enforcement is publicized.

Currently, Ketron said the state’s seat belt usage rate was “about 89 percent,” and the goal is to get that to the mid-90s. He pointed out that Oregon and Washington have some of the highest fines in the state at $100 for a first offense, and their usage rates are between 95 and 98. “So there is a direct correlation on the amount of the fine and seat belt usage,” he said.

However, Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell of Riceville questioned whether those statistics truly applied to Tennessee.

Bell pointed out that Oregon’s fine is 10-times higher than Tennessee’s, but seatbelt use by drivers still isn’t at 100 percent. He suggested there would be a “diminishing return” on the number of people the fine encourages to abide by the law.

But the measure passed the Senate Wednesday morning on a vote of 23 to 10.

The House took up the same proposal shortly thereafter.

House sponsor Jimmy Matlock, a Lenoir City Republican, also emphasized the measure was more about “saving lives” than revenue.

But that’s just why Morristown Republican Tilman Goins said he opposed the measure. “Many of my constituents feel that’s the problem with government: government is trying to get too much into our personal lives.

Goins added that although he is a “seat belt wearer,” the Legislature is not there “to try to keep us safe from ourselves.”

However, the measure had support from Rep. David Alexander, a House Finance Committee vice chairman, who announced on the floor that he “really like(s) this bill.”

Alexander added that not wearing a seat belt was “a choice that people make,” and urged passage of the bill.

It passed the House 69 to 22, with seven members not voting.

Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons took to Facebook to thank the Legislature for approving the fee hike, which “will save lives in Tennessee!”

The measure now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

Womick Questions Funding for New State Museum

Rep. Rick Womick has another gripe to add to his litany of complaints about Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration: Why fund a new state museum instead of raises for teachers or highway patrol officers?

“I have good news for all of us,” the Rockvale Republican exclaimed during personal orders on the House floor Wednesday morning. “Tax revenues are up, there is extra money. The good news is — actually it’s the bad news: our state troopers have not had a pay raise in three years, our teachers need a pay raise and the Tennessee Military Department is facing 6-8 percent budget cuts.”

“I would propose to our governor that we forget the Tennessee State Museum and put that money where it belongs, to those who support our Tennessee state government,” he continued.

Haslam’s office released their budget amendment on Tuesday, which includes $120 million in funding for a new Tennessee State Museum.  The overall project is estimated to cost $160 million, $40 million of which will be raised from private funds.

According to the governor’s office, the excess funding is made possible “due to Franchise and Excise tax collections that exceeded estimates last month as a result of an unusual one-time event, along with other revenue collections and program savings, there are nearly $300 million more than anticipated in non-recurring funds.”

The state museum, originally established in 1937, has been located in the basement of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center for the past 30 years.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

TN House Votes to ‘Stand with Rand’ (and Babs)

The Tennessee House has passed a resolution in support of a joint proposal by U.S. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to reinvest in the Highway Trust Fund “at no additional costs to taxpayers.”

Sponsored by Dresden Republican Andy Holt, HJR0094 encourages Congress to “Stand with Rand: Invest in Transportation.” It passed Wednesday on an 86-3 vote.

Paul and Boxer are pushing federal legislation to allow companies to voluntarily repatriate their earnings held in foreign banks at a tax rate of 6.5 percent, and funnel that revenue to the highway fund.  The adjusted tax rate would only apply to funds that are in excess of the company’s recent average repatriations, and only to money “earned in 2015 or earlier,” according to a press release. The companies would have five years to take advantage of the proposal.

Holt said Tennessee could see over $100 billion in transportation infrastructure revenue, should the legislation pass.

The possibility of raising the gas tax — both federally and at the state level — has been floated recently as ways to continue road improvements and shore up the trust fund.

Rep. Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson, D-Memphis, questioned if “Stand with Rand” was Sen. Paul’s campaign slogan. Holt replied that he wasn’t sure, but said the purpose of the resolution is to show support for the transportation funding action taken by the Kentucky senator at the federal level.

Parkinson voted against the measure, joined by fellow Democrats G.A. Hardaway of Memphis and Bo Mitchell of Nashville.

If no congressional action is taken, the Highway Trust Fund is projected to go insolvent by May 31.

Support for federal land transfer more partisan

The House passed another Holt-sponsored resolution as well Wednesday, but mostly without support from Democrats. That measure, House Joint Resolution 92, passed 64-25 with 3 abstentions.  It calls on the federal government to cede federally controlled public lands in the western United States back to the states in which they are situated.

The resolution declares that “limiting the ability of western states to access and utilize the public lands’ natural resources within their borders is having a negative impact upon the economy of those western states and therefore the economy of the entire United States.”

Three Republicans — Ryan Haynes and Eddie Smith of Knoxville, and Cameron Sexton of Crossville — joined the majority of Democrats to vote against the resolution. GOP Reps. Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain and Pat Marsh of Shelbyville, and Memphis Democrat Johnnie Turner, indicated they were present but not voting.

Livingston Rep. John Mark Windle was the only Democrat to vote yes on the resolution.

Holt explained that while the resolution calls on the federal government to transfer public lands to the states they occur within, it also requests the states return to the U.S. government any land designated as being a part of the National Park System, the National Wilderness system or belonging to the military.

Holt got pushback on the floor from Rep. Jason Powell, a Nashville Democrat, who said “we must protect America’s backyard, the American West.”

The House Democratic Caucus issued a press release following the House session condemning the resolution as a vote against hunters and others who enjoy outdoor recreation in the nation’s parks.

The South Carolina Assembly passed a similarly worded resolution in 2013.

According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, since Utah passed legislation in 2012 calling for the transfer of public lands to the state, several other states have passed legislation along the same lines, including Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico.

Both the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Republican National Committee have issued “model resolutions” in support of the concept, but both are worded differently from Holt’s resolution.

Contact Alex Harris at alex@tnreport.com.

Haslam Plan to Scrap ‘Longevity’ Pay Regarded Skeptically by Lawmakers

Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget for the coming fiscal year includes further changes in the way state employees are paid, but he’s already facing bipartisan opposition to the plan from members of the Legislature.

In his state-of-the-state address Feb. 9, Haslam proposed directing a little more than $47 million toward state employee pay raises and market adjustments. “That amounts to a three percent pool, but unlike in years past, those won’t be across the board,” the governor said.

Instead, he wants to tie the raises to performance. “We have worked hard to bring employee salaries up to be competitive with the private sector,” Haslam said. “After nearly two years of implementing performance evaluations, it makes sense to take the next step to move toward rewarding employees like the private sector does — on their performance and results, not just on seniority.”

The administration is proposing to roll back a bonus system that’s currently in place that awards state workers yearly bonuses of $100 a year for every year they’ve worked for the state. Instead, half of the $31.5 million that’d otherwise go to longevity payouts would fund base salaries. The other half will help fund merit-pay bonuses.

Finance Commissioner Larry Martin told lawmakers last week that the longevity bonuses are “not necessarily consistent” with the goals laid out in 2012’s Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management Act, which overhauled the state employee hiring and retention system.

“Moving away from across-the-board salary adjustments for our employees” and instead putting more emphasis on performance-based pay is “consistent with best practices and consistent with the private sector,” Martin said.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville, said Haslam’s shift away from longevity pay is going to be “a tough sell” in the General Assembly, at least with respect to applying it to veteran state employees, to whom it’ll look a lot like “a pay cut.”

“It’s hard to change the rules in the middle of the stream,” Ramsey, the speaker of the Senate, told reporters at a press conference Thursday.

Similar concerns were expressed in House Finance Committee hearing last week after Commissioner Martin laid out the plan. Martin said the governor’s overarching strategy is “to reward and retain employees” who’re doing exemplary work.

Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, is amenable to the vision. “I don’t probably overall disagree with what you are trying to do,” he said. But like Ramsey, Sargent is uneasy about how longevity-pay reductions would affect long-tenured employees, especially those approaching retirement.

“Have we looked at phasing this in, and is there a way to phase this in?” ask Sargent. He predicted that a new system viewed as financially injurious to the aging populations of the state government’s workforce will be “a big concern to the members of this committee and the members of the entire General Assembly.”

Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter told Sargent the administration is open to considering different ways of implementing the new pay structure.

David Hawk, a Republican from Greenville said ending longevity pay “is going to be very difficult for us to take home.”

“There’s no way to sugar coat that,” Hawk said.

He also worried that of the new “pools” of funding for compensation that the Haslam administration is proposing to spread around, some state employees will get left high and dry.

“My fear is not everybody is going to get wet in these pools, so I have got some concerns there,” Hawk said.

Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives, fretted that Haslam’s longevity-bonus reductions will fall especially hard on subpar workers, who would in fact see pay reductions.

Martin, however, said the administration isn’t too concerned about offending employees whose performance reviews tend to show them as “marginal” and “unacceptable.” He suggested they in fact need a wake-up call. “I hope that they would then take seriously their performance level and do their best to do a better job and move up and they would not experience (pay cuts),” he said.

Fitzhugh said telling a worker that “if you don’t do a better job then we are just going to cut your pay” doesn’t sound like a very progressive approach to labor relations.

Henry: No Plans to Privatize Woodland Hills

The state isn’t looking to privatize the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville, despite media reports saying otherwise, Jim Henry told members of the Tennessee Senate Finance Committee Tuesday.

The Tennessean reported late Monday that Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget for next year — unveiled during his State of the State address that night — included a plan to privatize operations of the troubled juvenile detention center.

Henry explained to lawmakers he thinks the confusion about privatization arose from the governor’s budget calling for millions of dollars in cuts and a reduction of 131 positions from the development centers as a result of the ongoing restructuring.

“That is not what is happening here. There are dollars that are going toward what will be private residential services, but Woodland Hills would still be operated by DCS — albeit, fewer people will be served in those centers,” the Department of Children’s Services commissioner told lawmakers.

Currently, there are only 52 offenders held at Woodland Hills and 267 system-wide, but the YDCs were still being funded as if they held 144 persons each, Henry said.

Henry said the only ones they want kept at YDCs are “the very difficult of the difficult.”

According to Finance & Administration Commissioner Larry Martin, who presented the budget to the committee, Haslam’s budget includes a cost increase of $1.9 million and a decrease of $7.7 million, related to the restructuring of YDC services.

Martin said moving juvenile offenders to community care is becoming a national best practice, improves the care and treatment of offenders and is “more cost efficient.”

Henry agreed that community-based care provides “better therapeutic services” and allow offenders to be “closer to their families.”

And residential services are also more “cost-effective” for the state, because “two-thirds of those dollars are paid for by the federal government, and we pick up all the dollars for the YDCs in state dollars,” he added.

In September 2014, residents of Woodland Hills staged three separate escape attempts, leading DCS to send several of the repeat offenders to Texas while the agency restructured its program.

During his department’s November budget hearing, Henry said he was planning on changing the way DCS handled its juvenile offender program. With a goal of “changing the culture,” the DCS head said he wanted to move away from the traditional punitive model, to “provide more trauma-informed and therapeutic services.”

Henry also told Haslam during the budget talks that his department was maximizing the amount of federal funding it receives, and he was going to work to bring in more.

In other Woodland Hills news, the facility’s new security manager, Michael Gordon, announced his resignation in a letter to the facility superintendent earlier this month.  Gordon, who has a law enforcement background, said in the letter that investigative work was a cornerstone of “past successful employment,” and he hoped to return to similar work.

In his letter, Gordon also alluded to personnel issues, and problems with employees who were unwilling “to accept the culture change required to keep the WHYDC a positive change-agent.”

Good Things Happening in TN, Haslam Tells Lawmakers

Last week was a rough one for Bill Haslam — maybe his roughest since becoming Tennessee’s governor four years ago.

But in his budget-presentation address for the new fiscal year, Haslam seemed upbeat and optimistic Monday evening, both about Tennessee and his own prospects for political success in his second term at the helm of state government.

“The state of our state is enviable in many ways,” the governor told a joint session of the Legislature. “There are a lot of good things happening in Tennessee, and they’re being recognized in significant ways across the country.”

Haslam touted recognition the state’s received for being a leader in economic development, including adding “nearly 225,000 new private sector jobs” since he took office in 2011.

On the education front, the state’s become a national pacesetter in K-12 student improvement, he noted.

Haslam added that Tennessee is the first state government to offer to finance two years of community college or technical school for any graduating senior. That’s a point on which his administration was lauded by President Obama just three weeks ago in his State of the Union speech. Haslam said that of the state’s 65,000 high school seniors, 58,000 have applied for the program, which is called Tennessee Promise.

And Haslam didn’t abstain from addressing that big dose of bad news the Legislature administered to his administration last week. Just five days ago the governor’s plan to launch a “market-based” federally funded health insurance “pilot program” through the Affordable Care Act was abruptly derailed by Obamacare-abhoring state lawmakers.

But Haslam said he neither regrets presenting his “Insure Tennessee” plan to the General Assembly, nor believes the special session was a waste of time. He repeated his assessment that “too many Tennesseans are still not getting health coverage they need in the right way, in the right place, at the right time.”

Problems associated with the health care system aren’t going away, and neither, he hopes, is the conversation about reform. “Though the special session has ended, I hope we can find a way to work together to address those problems,” said the governor.

Haslam said he’s hopeful partisanship and personal agendas won’t get in the way of reform discussions going forward — like he said tends to happen in the nation’s capital. “To me the work we do here shouldn’t just be about winning or losing,” he said. “That’s what’s wrong with Washington.”

He lauded the state’s spirit of pragmatism and prudence, especially with respect to handling taxpayer money. “We have the lowest debt per capita of any state and among the lowest tax rates,” Haslam said.

“We are going to have to continue to look for ways to cut costs and reallocate resources,” he said. “One of the things that we like the best about Tennessee is our low tax structure, but that also means that we have limited revenues to fund the programs and services that Tennessee taxpayers rely on.”

All in all, Tennessee has “built a track record of fiscal restraint,” said the governor. And that’s going to be important on the road ahead because over the coming years the state “will face the same budget challenges that we have faced in the past four years.”

“Every year we have a limited amount of new money that is available from our revenue growth,” Haslam said. “That new money rarely keeps pace with our budget obligations and growing costs for education and health care.”

However, the governor’s theme wasn’t all about anticipating austerity. Indeed, his $33.3 billion budget contains about $700 million more in spending than last year. He said, though, that since taking office, his administration has “redirected more than $450 million so that we can keep funding our state’s needs while we are balancing our budget.”

Gov. Haslam pledged to state employees and teachers that, as long as revenue collections hold with with projections, they can expect raises in the coming year.

For state workers, Haslam is proposing pay raises and adjustments, which he said “amounts to a three percent pool.” However, those pay bumps won’t go across the board, but will rather “be tied to employee performance in addition to ongoing market adjustments.”

“We have worked hard to bring employee salaries up to be competitive with the private sector,” said Haslam. “After nearly two years of implementing performance evaluations, it makes sense to take the next step to move toward rewarding employees like the private sector does on their performance and results, not just on seniority.”

As for teachers, who last year were told they’d get raises that never actually materialized, the governor is holding out the prospect of setting aside about $100 million to kick down to local districts to inject into their payrolls.

Haslam said he’s trying to make good on his promise last year to try to make the state “the fastest improving state in teacher compensation.”

“We will continue doing all we can to work with educators and support them as professionals who are shaping the future of our children and our state,” said the governor.

As for higher ed, Haslam’s budget also calls for “fully funding” the Complete College Act at $25 million, with an additional $10 million for need-based scholarships for students. Another $285 million is included for campus building projects, facilities upgrades and tech improvements at colleges and universities around the state.

“The reason we continue to make these investments in education is we want Tennesseans to have the education, training and skills necessary to have a good paying, high-quality job,” said Haslam.

Of the total spending amount in Haslam’s budget proposal, $15.1 billion is state tax-revenue appropriations and $12.8 billion is federal. The remaining $5.4 billion would come from fees and bonds and other state government revenue sources.

Haslam’s budget also includes $36.5 million infusion into the so-called “rainy day fund,” bringing the total to $528 million.

The governor’s policy agenda for the regular legislative session is expected to be announced Tuesday.

Niceley Proposes Sales-Tax Holiday for Guns, Ammo

In light of rising hunting-license fees and soaring ammunition costs, a rural East Tennessee state senator wants to give hunters a break on their supplies similar to what families get each year on back-to-school goods.

“I just thought maybe the sportsmen need a break, let’s see what it’s going to cost,” state Sen. Frank Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican and farmer, told TNReport last week.

Niceley pointed to the sales tax holiday the state currently grants to families of students on the first weekend in August each year, and said his proposal is “just a little something to jump-start the sports world.”

He added similar proposals in Louisiana and Mississippi have worked well and are “very popular.”

Niceley said he wanted to give Volunteer State sportsmen a break due to rising ammunition costs and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s recently proposed increase in what he thinks are already expensive hunting licenses.

In mid-January the state Fish & Wildlife Commission approved a 22 percent increase in licensing fees, raising the Type 1 resident hunting and fishing license from $27 to $33, and the annual sportsman license from $135 to $165. The new fees will go into effect on July 1.

Under the legislation, SB0206, purchases of firearms, ammunition and “hunting supplies” — defined as “archery equipment, firearm and archery cases, firearm and archery accessories, hearing protection, holsters, belts and slings” — would be exempt from having sales tax levied on it. “The Second Amendment Sales Tax Holiday” would take place the first weekend of September.

The proposal also requires the state to reimburse local governments for any losses incurred as a result of the exemptions.

Niceley framed his legislation as another in a line of tax cuts since the GOP took control of the General Assembly several years back, such as the reducing the grocery tax and Hall Income Tax, as well as abolishing the state’s inheritance and gift taxes. “That’s what Republicans do. Republicans cut taxes,” he said.

However, Niceley also admitted if the bill has “too big a fiscal note” then he “obviously won’t be able to get it passed.”

The bill currently has no House sponsor.

TN Congressional Delegation Responses to Obama Budget Proposal

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama submitted a nearly $4 trillion budget to Congress, calling for an end to the across-the-board cuts in federal spending brought about by the sequestration agreed to by Congress in 2011.

Instead, Obama suggested a 7 percent budget increase over the agreed-upon sequester levels for domestic and defense spending.

“I’m not going to accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward. It would be bad for our security and bad for our growth,” Obama said in a speech at the Department of Homeland Security offices Monday.

The U.S. national debt exceeded $18 trillion for the first time in mid-December 2014, just about 14 months after it exceeded $17 trillion in mid-October 2013.

Republican members of Congress have indicated the budget proposal is “dead on arrival.”

Responses from Tennessee’s congressional delegation to the president’s proposed budget follow:

Press release from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn; February 2, 2015:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2015 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today released the following statement on President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016:

“We need to address Washington’s spending problem and fix the federal government’s $18 trillion debt, and the way to do it is by reducing the growth of out-of-control entitlement spending. I plan to work with our Republican majority – and, I hope, the president – to make tough choices so we can pass a real plan to fix the debt while supporting other priorities like national defense and national labs and medical research.”

Alexander noted that mandatory spending – which includes out-of-control entitlement spending that is driving the growth in the federal debt – makes up about 60 percent of overall federal spending each year. Discretionary spending – the part of the budget that is already subject to spending caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the Bipartisan Budget Act – makes up about 34 percent of federal spending each year and funds national defense, national labs, national parks and other federal priorities.

Press release from U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; February 2, 2015:

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Budget Committee, released the following statement today regarding President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal.

“Our inability to get our nation’s fiscal house in order continues to be one of the most critical national security threats our country faces. The president’s budget makes little effort to solve that problem and is not a serious proposal,” said Corker. “The spending limits put in place in 2011 have generated the only real fiscal progress our nation has made in decades, yet the president wants to not only break the promise we all made to the American people, but also revert back to the bad habits that created our massive deficits in the first place. I hope Congress will show courage and finally address the largest drivers of our deficits so we can generate economic growth and create more opportunities for Tennesseans.”

Corker, also a member of the Senate Banking Committee, commented on the president’s renewed commitment to work with Congress to pass comprehensive housing finance reform.

“On the other hand, I am pleased the administration has renewed its commitment to working with Congress to pass comprehensive legislation to wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” said Corker. “The biggest issue this year for the Senate Banking Committee, and the last major unfinished business from the 2008 financial crisis, is finally addressing this tremendous taxpayer liability and ending the failed model of private gains and public losses.”

The president’s budget says bipartisan housing finance legislation passed last year by the Senate Banking Committee was a “meaningful step” in the right direction. The bill, the Housing Finance Reform and Taxpayer Protection Act of 2014 (S.1217), passed the committee in May 2014 by a vote of 13 to 9 and was first introduced by Corker and Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) in June 2013.

Press release from U.S. Rep. John Duncan, Jr., R-Tenn. 02; February 2, 2015:

WASHINGTON – Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr. released the following statement Monday in response to President Obama’s 2016 budget:

This budget would result in a nearly half-trillion dollar deficit next year alone, and our deficits and interest payments on the National debt would continue to go way up every year.

The most wasteful, least efficient way to spend money is to turn it over to the federal government.  The best way to create more good jobs and keep the cost-of-living low is to decrease federal spending and leave more money in the hands of American families.

I strongly support tax cuts for the middle class.  The president claims he is trying to help the middle class, but during his years in office, the gap between the wealthy and the middle class has grown faster than ever, primarily because of big government policies that help only big federal contractors and the federal bureaucracy.

Like all presidential budgets, it will undergo significant changes.

Press release from U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischman, R-Tenn. 03; February 2, 2015:

WASHINGTON− Rep. Chuck Fleischmann released the following statement in response to President Obama’s proposed budget for FY2016.

“Much like in his State of the Union speech, the President has taken an opportunity to work with Congress and turned it into a partisan game. This budget would increase spending by $2.4 trillion, never balances and simply isn’t a real option. As Tennessee’s sole House Appropriator, I will use my oversight responsibility to comb through the President’s request and ultimately make sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and responsibly.”

Press release from U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. 05; February 2, 2015:

Nashville’s federal courthouse is Judiciary’s top priority

NASHVILLE – U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (TN-05) announced today that President Barack Obama’s newly released budget for FY 2016 includes funding for construction of a new federal courthouse building in Nashville.

“Nashville is #1 in the nation on the list of priorities for courthouse construction. This announcement is a critical next step in getting the courthouse built, but we’re not done yet,” Cooper said. “We still need Congress to appropriate the funds, and I hope that happens this year.”

Nashville has been waiting for a new courthouse since 1992, when the Estes Kefauver Federal Courthouse was first deemed “inadequate.”

In 2002, the federal government selected the downtown property on Church Street as the site of the new building and purchased the parcels making up the site from 2002-2005. Since then, further studies and an economic downturn have delayed construction on any new federal courthouse. Neither the President’s budget nor Congressional appropriations has included funding for courthouses in four of the last five years, with the exception of the Mobile, Ala., courthouse in FY 2014.

Federal courthouse funding is supposed to follow the Judicial Conference’s five-year plan that contains a priority list of proposed courthouses ranked by need. But for many years, the Judicial Conference’s priorities were routinely ignored in favor of political favoritism and earmarks, a process Cooper opposes.

Cooper has pushed for a transparent, fair funding process and has led bipartisan efforts to award projects based on priority, not politics. Cooper was a founding member of the Congressional Courthouse Caucus, which was formed to address the urgent need for functional, secure courthouses around the country. Cooper has written to President Obama and Members of the House Appropriations Committee several times asking them to prioritize courthouse funding. Cooper has also met with the General Services Administration regarding the public safety hazard that sits atop the site designated for Nashville’s new courthouse, urging its immediate demolition.

Press release from U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. 06; February 2, 2015:

Washington, D.C. – Today Congressman Diane Black (R-TN-06), member of the House Budget Committee, released the following statement on President Obama’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2016:

“I had hoped to congratulate President Obama on finally delivering a budget to Congress by the legal deadline for the first time in five years, but this proposal isn’t really a budget at all – it is a messaging piece. This so-called budget ignores both the reality of our already crippling $18 trillion national debt and of a new Republican majority in Washington that will not allow this laughable tax-and-spend proposal to pass.” said Congressman Diane Black.

Congressman Black added, “The President promised in his State of the Union address to present ‘a budget filled with ideas that are practical, not partisan.’ Sadly, he has done just the opposite. This budget is not practical, it is political. By adding nearly $8.5 trillion to our debt over the budget window, the President’s plan prioritizes the next election over the next generation – which would be forced to foot the bill for his costly agenda. This budget does nothing to address the strain of our mandatory spending programs and never achieves balance. I look forward to working with my Republican colleagues on the House Budget Committee to craft a responsible, timely budget that offers a substantive alternative to the President’s reckless proposal.”

Additional information:

  • The President’s budget calls for $2.1 trillion in new tax increases, on top of $1.7 trillion in tax hikes already imposed by the AdministrationThis budget would grow total federal spending by $259 billion next year alone
  • Under this plan, interest on our debt would rise to $785 billion by 2025
  • The President’s budget increases annually-appropriated spending for next year by $74 billion over current law
  • Under the President’s budget, gross debt would climb to $26.3 trillion in 2025

(Source: House Budget Committee)

Press release from U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.07; February 2, 2015:

Congressman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who is a member of the House Budget Committee, issued the following statement regarding President Obama’s proposed Budget for Fiscal Year 2016.

“President Obama has declared that the time for ‘mindless austerity’ is over, but there is nothing ‘mindless’ about creating a responsible budget and spending within one’s means. The President’s $4 trillion budget proposal will increase taxes and add to our $18 trillion national debt. At a time when our economy is still trying to get back on track, it isn’t prudent to raise taxes and stifle small business as a way of paying for wasteful government spending.

“The President’s budget is simply out of sync with the concerns of the American people – even 55% of Democrats believe that reducing the federal deficit is a ‘top priority.’ While I appreciate the President’s efforts to propose a budget on time, it would be more productive if he took our unprecedented level of national debt seriously. We need to stop spending money on failed policies from the past and instead craft a budget that will improve our country’s fiscal health and put more money back in the pockets of hard-working Americans.”

Press release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; February 2, 2015:

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) today issued the following statement regarding President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposal:

“President Obama’s budget is a positive vision for our nation’s future that will put us on a sustainable fiscal path. It will spur further economic growth by making critical investments to improve our roads and bridges—creating jobs in Memphis and around the country—and boost take-home pay for the middle-class while closing tax loopholes that allow the wealthiest one percent to avoid paying their fair share.”

“The President’s budget also gives middle-class families better access to higher education by making college more affordable and helps young adults climb out from under a mountain of student debt by capping monthly payments. And it will also help them find jobs by doing more to develop the high-paying, private-sector jobs that will keep our country competitive in the 21st century.”

“And by reversing mindless sequestration cuts, this budget proposal will reinvest in the National Institutes of Health, which is another U.S. department of defense that protects us from deadly diseases and illnesses—because Americans are far more likely to be stricken by Alzheimer’s, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, stroke, cancer, or Parkinson’s than by a terrorist attack. President Obama’s budget will help make our economy work for all Americans instead of just the wealthiest among us, and it is a step in the right direction.”

Congress Puttering Forward with Federal Gas Tax Discussion

As the average national cost of gas descends to $2 per gallon, a congressional discussion has reignited over the possibility of raising the federal fuel tax to meet shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee’s junior Republican senator, announced a bipartisan proposal in June to increase the federal gas tax by 12 cents over two years, and index it to inflation so “it remains viable into the future.”

The legislation, co-sponsored by Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, “would provide enough funding to offset current MAP-21 spending levels over the next 10 years,” as well as replace “the buying power” the tax has lost since last raised to 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993.

Corker’s plan also calls for tax relief to offset the burden for Americans. Corker wasn’t specific about what the relief will look like, but a press release indicates it could include “permanently extending” tax breaks included in the “tax extenders” bill, or “another bipartisan proposal” to cut taxes over the next decade by “at least the amount of revenue” the fuel tax raises.

Over the past several years, Congress has approved several short-term fixes to the fund — transferring $54 billion from the Treasury Department’s general fund since 2008 — and the fund will face another shortfall in 2015.

“Growing up in Tennessee as a conservative,” Corker said in the release, he learned something important enough to have was important enough to pay for. “If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it.”

However, the two-term senator also said whether or not Congress’s solution amounts to a tax increase, he’d like to see a permanent fix to the highway trust fund by May.

Although the proposal was met with lukewarm response last Summer when gas was around $3.50 a gallon, the recent sharp decline in fuel costs — influenced in part by the U.S. oil boom and OPEC’s refusal to cut production — has emboldened the former Chattanooga Mayor to again take up the issue.

Other senators — including Republicans John Thune of South Dakota and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairmen of the Senate committees on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Environment and Public Works, respectively — have recently said they won’t rule out a fuel tax hike. Similarly, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said last week “It’s a small price to pay for the best highway system in the world.”

However, the proposal has been met with more skepticism in the U.S. House.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican in his third term as speaker, said that while a new highway funding bill is a priority for this year, he isn’t hot on the idea of raising taxes.

And Marsha Blackburn, a Republican representing Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District, said on Fox Business this week that while raising taxes may be “a quick fix,” it’s “the wrong step to take.” Instead she suggested legislators look at the structure of the trust fund, and fix the root of the problem.

Talk of Fuel Tax Filling Air in TN Prior to 2015 Legislative Session

Nationwide, gas prices are averaging some of the lowest prices in recent memory, with many Tennesseans seeing sub-$2 per gallon gas for the first time in at least five years.

So Republican politicians like Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey are reasoning that there’s no time like the present to talk about raising the state’s per-gallon gas tax, which has been set at 21.4 cents a gallon since the late 1980s.

The governor has put out the word to lawmakers to start prepping their constituents for the prospect that he’s going to ask the GOP supermajority-controlled Tennessee General Assembly to approve some kind of tax hike to pay for state Department of Transportation road projects and agency operations.

At a Bradley County Chamber of Commerce meeting this month covered by the Cleveland Banner, freshman state Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, told those in attendance that he’s under the impression that Haslam’s proposal “will probably get to the floor” of the House.

Todd Gardenhire, a Republican senator from Chattanooga, said at the meeting that lower fuel prices could result in a temporary increase in the state’s gas tax collections themselves because people may drive more. However, he added if those prices don’t stay down and people cut back on how much they’re driving again, “then we’ve kicked the can down the road.”

The steady drop in fuel prices has been caused in part by the North American oil boom, as well as Saudi Arabia’s decision to not cut production in the face of already falling prices.

Following a budget hearing for the Tennessee Department of Transportation where Commissioner John Schroer worried about how the uncertainty of federal funds would affect the state’s $8 billion backlog in transportation projects, Haslam told reporters that a fuel tax increase seemed inevitable, though he couldn’t say when it would come. “There’s no way the state can continue on the path we’re on now. The math just doesn’t work,” he said.

Likewise, Lt. Gov. Ramsey earlier this month told reporters he also sees the need to raise the fuel tax so the state can “build good roads.” Ramsey said while he can’t be certain about when they may have that legislative discussion, now would be good time for it with fuel prices so low.

Additionally, the Tennessee Farm Bureau has recently removed opposition to a gas tax increase from its legislative priorities.

But increasing the state’s fuel tax seems like a harder sell among House Republican leadership.

“I would say that the advocates of a gas tax, the burden of proof falls on them to prove that we need one,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told TNReport this week. He added the state’s infrastructure was generally a lot better than that of many other states. “I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand, but it will take some convincing to get me to support a gas tax,” he said.

Similarly, House GOP Caucus Chairman, Glen Casada said he thinks “we’ve got to explore every avenue before we increase taxes on the people of Tennessee.” The Franklin Republican questioned whether the state should take “more money from Tennesseans’ family budgets” in the tough economic times.

Both Casada and McCormick also agreed it would likely take a lot of convincing for the members of the GOP caucus to support raising the state’s gas tax.

Speaker Beth Harwell has not taken a public position on raising the tax, but has said the job of the Legislature will be to “give that plan a fair hearing, along with a thorough discussion and debate.”

The state fuel tax consists of a 20 cent gasoline tax and a 1.4 cent special petroleum fee. According to TDOT, it brings in $657.8 million a year, $242.1 million of which goes to local governments, $22.3 million to the state general fund and $393.4 million to TDOT. The last time the state gas tax was adjusted was in 1990. Tennessee has the 39th lowest gas tax. New York has the highest at 50.25 cents a gallon, and Alaska has the lowest at 12.4 cents.

Whether or not to increase the state’s gas tax rate has been an ongoing discussion among state-level government officials for years. An attempt to change how the tax is calculated failed in 2009, and discussion of raising the tax was sidelined in 2011 due to high fuel costs.

Many reasons have been cited for why the tax should be raised, including the increase in fuel efficient vehicles on the road, the rise in inflation and continued uncertainty in federal highway funds.

Schroer has in the past suggested moving away from a fuel tax system altogether, instead following a usage fee system based on miles driven and the weight of the vehicle.

And it isn’t just at the state level that Tennessee Republican politicians want to address uncertain highway funding with a tax increase.

In 2011, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander told several West Tennessee government officials federal transportation funds may become uncertain in the future and state and local governments will have to decide if they want to raise their gasoline taxes.

Additionally, this past summer, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker proposed increasing the federal fuel tax by 12 cents over the next two years. The current federal fuel tax rate is 18.4 cents a gallon and was last updated in 1993.

However, Corker’s proposal was met with lukewarm reception, and didn’t advance far.

Tennessee’s senior senator, Lamar Alexander, even side-stepped questions about whether he supported Corker’s plan, saying before he could support any tax increase he would have have to see a “road proposal.” He pointed out that’s what he did when he requested his 3 cent tax increase as governor in 1988.

Voices agitating in favor of a higher gas tax have been growing louder in tandem with gas prices getting lower. However, the prospect of paying more in taxes on fuel doesn’t appear to be as popular among the average consumer. Multiple polls consistently have found about two-thirds of Americans oppose raising the fuel tax.

And this November, 53 percent of Massachusetts residents voted to repeal the automatic gas tax increase passed the year before by the state’s Legislature.