The state gas tax increased another 1 cent per gallon today, thanks to the IMPROVE Act passed by Democrats and “moderate” Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam in May 2017.
The controversial law raised state gas taxes by 6 cents per gallon and diesel taxes by 10 cents per gallon. The gas tax increases were phased in over three years. The first 4 cents per gallon increase went into effect on July 1, 2017. An additional 1 cent per gallon gas tax increase goes into effect today, and the final 1 cent per gallon gas tax increase goes into effect July 1, 2018.
The law was deemed necessary to fund road construction by Haslam and his allies despite the fact the state of Tennessee had a $2 billion surplus at the time it was passed and signed into law.
One under reported element of the law at the time was a provision that allowed the twelve largest counties in the state to hold local referendums to increase local taxes to fund transportation projects.
It was this provision upon which former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry relied when she introduced her $9 billion transit plan for Nashville/Davidson County in October 2017.
Prominent among those supporting former Mayor Barry at that announcement was State Rep. Barry “Boss” Doss (R-Leoma), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee who rammed the IMPROVE Act through his committee by breaking the Tennessee House of Representatives rules, despite protests from the conservative Republican members of the committee.
Also prominently supporting former Mayor Barry and her $9 billion transit plan and local tax increase proposal that day were Gov. Bill Haslam, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who is currently the leading Democratic candidate for governor.
Voters resoundingly rejected that proposal by a 64 percent to 36 percent margin on May 1.
The four candidate vying for the Republican nomination for governor have different positions on a potential repeal of the IMPROVE Act.
Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, an ally and former member of Gov. Haslam’s cabinet, has stated he firmly supports the IMPROVE Act and its associated gas tax increases, though he is quoted in a Tennessean article posted on his campaign website as emphasizing the benefits of the tax cuts given to a few manufacturers in the bill.
“We provided some incredibly significant tax relief for existing manufacturing businesses that’s going to be a windfall to bring new businesses into our state as part of the IMPROVE Act,” Boyd said.
Williamson County businessman Bill Lee kicked off his campaign for governor last April saying that the IMPROVE Act was “water under the bridge now,” and that he would not call for its repeal, as The Tennessee Star reported at the time:
“I’m opposed to raising taxes,” he told the media Monday morning at the Nashville Farmers’ Market, but he did not offer a definitive opinion on the gas tax increase. He said he might have handled it differently, but noted that the IMPROVE Act also included tax cuts and said the bill is “water under the bridge now.” When pressed, he said that because he wasn’t privy to all the legislative discussions surrounding the bill, he didn’t want to comment further.
Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06) has said that if the Tennessee General Assembly passes a bill repealing the IMPROVE Act she will sign it. She has not, however, said she will introduce and champion such a bill.
Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) was criticized by conservatives for the role she played in the passage of the IMPROVE Act, as The Star reported at the time:
Before its first meeting, the deck was stacked in the House Transportation Committee when gas tax proponent Rep. Barry Doss (R-Leoma) was appointed as Chair by Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). Doss had never served on the Transportation Committee prior nor had he ever been appointed as Chair of any Committee. Harwell appointed Doss to replace the previous Transportation Committee Chair, Rep. Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir City), who Harwell narrowly defeated in Matlock’s challenge to her as Speaker. Doss’s one qualification for chairing the Transportation Committee is that he owns Doss Brothers, Inc., a construction and paving company.
Further demonstrating the highly unusual nature of the change, the Transportation Committee Chair was the only one to change of the 15 full Committees (vs Subcommittees), except two brought about because the previous Chair was no longer a member of the House.
The IMPROVE Act passed the Tennessee House of Representatives in April 2017 by a 60 to 37 vote, and, as The Star reported at the time “Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) was among the Republicans who voted yes.”