Clemmons pushing alternative gas tax plan: Democratic lawmaker plan would fund transit, too

Nashville Post, Dec. 29, 2016

By: Cari Wade Gervin

Although Gov. Bill Haslam has yet to release details of his proposed gas tax plan, Democratic state Rep. John Ray Clemmons thinks he already has a better plan.

After the General Assembly convenes next month, Clemmons plans to file legislation that not only includes an increase in the gas tax to fund a backlog of transportation projects but also includes a dedicated revenue stream to fund mass transit projects and other alternative sources of transportation.

"I'm trying to avoid rural versus urban antagonism," Clemmons says. "With a separate funding stream for transit in cities that doesn't compete in any way with funding projects for roads, bridges or tunnels in other parts of the state, it's a win-win for all sides."

Clemmons says his proposal is similar to funding models being used in states like North Carolina, Georgia and Texas — states with Republican-controlled legislatures, lots of rural counties with real road problems, and similarly booming cities with massive traffic issues. And if the only increase in transportation funding comes from an increase in the gas tax, it will only be a stop-gap measure that won't address the actual challenges facing Tennessee, Clemmons says.

"The current 'pay as you go' system, heavily reliant on fuel taxes, is antiquated and cannot possibly bear the burden of our backlogged transportation infrastructure system AND simultaneously provide the resources necessary to build out the forward thinking, comprehensive transportation systems required in our urban regions. The latter projects are too expensive and too long-term to fit within our current funding model," Clemmons writes in an email.

The legislator doesn't have numbers yet set in stone, but the plan as he has drafted it it so far looks something like this. The current "pay as you go" system that funds the Tennessee Department of Transportation remains in place, with around a 10 cent increase in the gas tax and an increase in the diesel gas tax to 23.95 cents, up from 18.40 cents. (The diesel increase equals the median rate of the seven contiguous states surrounding Tennessee. These increases would be indexed to account for population growth and inflation, meaning that in future years they would automatically increase or decrease as the numbers dictated — i.e., never again would the state be in the situation it is in, in which the taxes haven't been increased in almost 30 years — and never again would the Legislature have to vote to raise the gas taxes.

The second arm of the program would create a new account within TDOT with funds dedicated to funding alternative forms of transportation (i.e., mass transit). Once the state hits a certain point in sales tax revenue, a certain number of dollars would automatically be directed into the fund. Similarly, all motor vehicle sales tax revenue over a certain amount would go to the fund.

"Urban areas generate the bulk of the sales tax revenue in the state," Clemmons says, commenting that it makes sense to keep some of that revenue to address transit and traffic needs.

So far, Clemmons has not met with Haslam's office to discuss the plan, nor has Nashville Mayor Megan Barry's staff been presented with the proposal, but he hopes to make that happen after the holidays, when a few more numbers are firmed up.

"I'm fully aware this is an uphill battle, but if they will take the time to let me walk them through it, they will see there is no solid argument against the plan as I've drawn it up," Clemmons says.

A similar funding plan passed a statewide referendum in Texas with 84 percent of the vote, although Clemmons says he'd prefer to just get the plan approved now, instead of waiting until 2018.

"I intend for the state to show a little leadership and step up and do it. It simply requires a collective decision by the state legislature and the Governor to make transportation a funding priority for x years, along with public education and healthcare. This, of course, requires a collective acknowledgment that the regions of our state creating the bulk of our sales tax revenues, from which everyone in the state is benefiting, deserve and require the benefit of a portion of their own growth so as to be able to foster the growth for the continued benefit of everyone," Clemmons says.