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Environment and Natural Resources Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

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.

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Business and Economy NewsTracker Tax and Budget

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.

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Press Releases

Corker Calls House Highway Fund Plan ‘Generational Theft’

Press release from the Office of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker; July 8, 2014:

U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) today blasted the House Ways and Means Committee’s legislation to temporarily patch the Highway Trust Fund, which funds improvements to roads, bridges and transit systems, by transferring nearly $10 billion from the general fund. The $10 billion transfer is spent within a few months but paid for over 10 years using budget gimmicks.

“This disgraceful practice of borrowing money to cover a few months of spending and paying for it over a decade is nothing more than generational theft,” said Corker. “If Congress believes these transportation projects are important, then Congress should have the courage to pay for it in the same timeframe the money is being spent rather than cowardly throw future generations under the bus. It’s shameful for a nation of our greatness to be handling infrastructure funding the way that we are.”

The federal Highway Trust Fund provides half of the country’s spending on transportation projects and will run dry in August, likely halting the construction of any new transportation projects without action from Congress. This will result in a 50 percent reduction in Tennessee’s transportation budget in 2015 and create a $160 billion hole in state budgets nationwide over the next decade at a time when they can least afford it.

Last month, Corker and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) announced a bipartisan proposal that would create a long-term, stable funding mechanism for the Highway Trust Fund. For more information on this proposal, click here.