Gov. Bill Haslam's gas tax proposal — which is the most significant piece of his legislative agenda this year — cleared an early hurdle Wednesday when the House Transportation Subcommittee voted in favor of the governor's plan.
The results of the committee's action are, however, a bit murky, after the panel amended the legislation to remove significant portions of Haslam's plan while adding the components of a competing proposal.
The move comes a week after the subcommittee abruptly ended a meeting when Haslam's gas tax bill, which calls for a 7 cent per gallon hike on gasoline and is accompanied by a series of tax cuts, wasn't even discussed.
Wednesday's moves assures that Haslam's plan, which can be altered at any point, advances. Had the committee approved a competing bill, the governor's plan would have faced an uphill battle.
Although there were more than a dozen amendments, some of which were withdrawn, to Haslam's gas tax bill, only two were successful.
One, advanced by Rep. David Alexander, is based off an alternative proposal from Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville.
Hawk's proposal seeks to use a portion of existing revenue generated through sales tax to pay for the state's transportation needs instead of a gas tax.
Alexander's amendment eliminates any increases to gas and diesel taxes but retains tax cuts that were included in Haslam's proposal while also adding on Hawk's revenue generator.
The other amendment by Alexander removes a portion related to indexing.
The amendments were necessary because Haslam's bill was a caption – legislation that is written broadly enough to allow for changes.
After some discussion and confusion on the bill, the subcommittee voted 5-4, with Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson serving as the tie breaking vote, in favor of the amended Haslam proposal.
Because the Haslam bill was given approval in the subcommittee, it can be changed at any time, including in the full House Transportation Committee.
The amendments that were added to the Haslam bill could easily be removed and replaced with the entirety of Haslam's plan.
Hawk's own transportation bill was later killed by the committee with a 5 to 3 vote.
Among those to vote against the Hawk bill were Alexander, who said he voted against Hawk’s legislation because he didn’t think it was necessary to have multiple efforts to address the state’s transportation needs.
“We need to have one that everybody can get behind,” Alexander said.
Hawk said he was disappointed but not surprised by the subcommittee's moves.
"I hoped to pass my bill forward we'd have two ideas that could move froward in conjunction," he said. "The other bill now has control of the issue and we'll see what happens."
In advance of the meeting, dozens of people wearing bright green and red Americans for Prosperity T-shirts packed the committee room. The group, led by Andy Ogles, the state chapter director, and former conservative talk radio show host Steve Gill, took pictures with a mascot dubbed "Gas Tax Man."
Ogles estimated over 100 people against the gas tax were inside Legislative Plaza in advance of the committee's action.
After the committee's took up the transportation bills, he said the newly amended proposal is essentially “a Trojan horse” that will likely revert to Haslam’s plan.
“What it will reveal is that (House Speaker) Beth Harwell just helped the governor raise the gas tax,” said Ogles.
Kara Owen, a spokeswoman for Harwell, said the speaker has frequently said all transportation proposals would get a fair hearing, which is what occurred Wednesday."There are still many more hurdles ahead, and we anticipate the bill will continue to change throughout the process. She looks forward to continuing the discussion regarding transportation and infrastructure funding," Owen said.
The AFP director said he was disappointed that Hawk’s bill was killed by the committee, specifically pointing to Alexander, who Ogles said has “an integrity issue.”
Addressing the potential for his amendments to the governor’s bill being removed at some point, Alexander said, “I expect our democratic process to take place. It’s an anything can happen environment.”
Alexander said he will continue to fight “very hard” to keep the amendments on the governor’s bill.
Ogles, who said he felt lawmakers would pull some parliamentarian tricks on Wednesday, vowed to continue fighting the gas tax hike by holding town hall forums, organizing activists and making phone calls to the General Assembly.
A spokeswoman Haslam did not immediately respond to requests for comment.