Gas tax vote left House leaders trying to herd cats

Robert Houk • May 21, 2017 at 12:00 AM

How a state lawmaker votes in Nashville has consequences in his or her district. That’s what former Lt. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, told reporters in Blountville last week.

That’s not a surprising statement. The fact Ramsey needs to explain that to some of his former colleagues who voted against the 6-cent gas tax hike earlier this month is a bit puzzling.

You’d think a 12-year veteran like state Rep Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, would already know that. Unfortunately, his critics say Boss Hill is still learning his craft on Capitol Hill. Count Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge among those who are not impressed with Hill’s legislative skills.

Eldridge told Press staff writer Zach Vance earlier this month that he believes the “no” votes cast on Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act by Hill and state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, has cost Washington County much-needed road funding.

“Our legislative delegation in Nashville has consequences, and we’re paying the price for their votes,” Eldridge said.

To which the eloquent Hill responded: ”I get a kick out of the ‘Negative Nellys’ out there.”

Negative Nelly? What decade are we in?

“Geez, Wally, that’s really a strong thing to say about the Beaver.”

Meanwhile, state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, was reassuring local officials last week that the 3rd Senate District (Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties) will be seeing a combined $161 million in new money for transportation projects. Crowe, who voted for the IMPROVE Act, said the measure was a little confusing because it does so many things. In addition to hiking the state’s gas tax for the first time in nearly three decades, it also lowers the state’s sales tax on food and gives new tax breaks to veterans and senior citizens.

Crowe, who with 27 years of service in Nashville is the dean of the Northeast Tennessee’s delegation in the General Assembly, said he doubts the votes of his House colleagues directly resulted in no projects in Washington County being included on the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s latest three-year road plan.

Even so, Crowe admitted the House leadership is more prone than that of the Senate to dole out punishment at budget time to members who don’t fall in line. That retribution usually comes in the form of no funding for pet projects.

Crowe said he respects the reasons his colleagues in the House have given for not voting to increase the fuel tax. He said he was in a similar situation 17 years ago when he refused to support Republican Gov. Don Sundquist’s push for a state income tax. Crowe believes that stand cost him his job at East Tennessee State University.

Debate on the IMPROVE Act in the House got a bit strange, with some Republican members and House leaders appearing to be be on very different pages. 

“They (House members) seemed to be pulling in very different directions,” Crowe told me. “It was like herding cats.”

Crowe also told me last week he plans to seek re-election next year. He said he received an “outpouring of support” following a recent column in which I speculated on his political future.

“It got my energy up to see support coming from so many points,” he said.

I’m glad I could help.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at [email protected]



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