Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Proposed gas tax among difficult issues facing Legislature


By Bayne Hughes Staff Writer

Despite being optimistic about the election of a new president, the Morgan County legislative delegation faces daunting issues — including a proposed gas tax, Medicaid cost increases and a prison overhaul — when the 2017 legislative session begins Feb. 7.

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and state Reps. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, and Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, gave a session preview Tuesday morning in the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the State breakfast at Sykes Place on Bank.

State Reps. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, and Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, were absent. Henry spoke briefly and then left the meeting, so he did not participate in the question-and-answer session.

In December, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama proposed a 3-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline and diesel tax to support a $1.2 billion bond issue for local road and bridge projects.

Alabama’s gas tax is 39.27 cents per gallon, which includes the federal tax. That ranks among the lowest in the nation, according to the state commission association.

Henry said he believes there will be a fight in the Legislature over a gas and diesel fuel tax increase. He was emphatic in his opposition to a gas tax or any other tax increase. He said tax increases create reasons for government to grow when it’s already too big.

“I have yet to hear a single individual out in the world — the people I actually represent — tell me, ‘I wish you would make me pay more taxes because I believe 100 percent of that is going to be used for something good,’ ” Henry said.

Henry said there’s talk that President-elect Donald Trump will make infrastructure changes.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Henry said. “But you’re going to hear public broadcasts coming out of Montgomery saying that, if we do not raise gas taxes, then we’re not going to be able to take advantage of these building projects that the Trump administration is putting forward.”

Henry said this talk is “speculation and an attempt to get an emotional decision that makes legislators feel like, if they do not raise taxes they’re going to miss the boat.

“It’s not true. Don’t believe it. If we hold the line, we can stop the growth of government. We can make them be responsible. It’s going to be painful,” he said.

Collins said she’s not ruling out supporting a proposed gas tax and wants more input from her constituents.

“Unlike Ed Henry, I’m hearing from my constituents that there is some support for a gas tax,” Collins said. “Our roads have to be in great shape to recruit industries to our state that provide jobs, and those jobs reduce the number of people on Medicaid.”

Following the chamber breakfast, the Morgan County Commission passed a resolution in support of the gas tax at its monthly meeting. Morgan County would receive $23.3 million from a state bond issue that would be supported by the tax.

Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long said the state gasoline tax has not been increased since 1992. He said the cost of asphalt and other costs to improve local roads and bridges have increased greatly since 1992.

“We can’t live with what we’re getting now,” he said. “You can’t live on what you made in 1992.”

The county would be able to pave an additional 200 miles of county roads if the Legislature adopts the proposal, Long said.

“I know our commissioners would like to have the extra money to get out and work on their roads like they did in 1992,” Long said.

Morgan County Commissioner Jeff Clark said it was much easier when he took office in 1998 to stay within the budget to keep roads safe.

“This wouldn’t be a tax for no reason,” he said. “It would be used to improve safety.”

Morgan County Commissioner Randy Vest said road improvements paid for by the proposed bond issue would last long after the bonds are repaid in 12 years.

The proposal calls for the 3-cent tax to be removed when the bonds are repaid, Vest said.

Limestone County Commissioner Jason Black said his commission hasn’t considered a resolution, but he supports the gas tax. He said he has roads that need paving, but he likely won’t have the needed funds for at least two years.

“We’ve got to have more money,” Black said. “I’m not for any tax, but something has got to change or we’ll be turning paved roads to gravel roads like some counties in south Alabama are.”

Local municipalities would receive 20 percent of the counties’ allotment from the bond issue. This money would be divided up based on population.

New Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling said the condition of the city’s roads was a major campaign issue during the municipal elections.

The city’s Engineering Department continues to add roads to a list that has added up to more than $3.1 million in paving needs last spring. The list includes $2.3 million in “high-priority” streets.

Decatur budgets about $450,000 annually for paving from gas and oil tax revenues. That paid for the five roads on the 2016 paving list, but without an influx of funding, the number of roads getting paved this year likely won’t increase, city officials said.

“When I was knocking on doors, the complaint I heard from most residents was about the condition of the roads,” Bowling said.

Bowling said Dothan residents decided they wanted their roads paved, so they supported a gas tax increase. He said Decatur residents also must decide whether they want to support an increase.

“I need to get a feeling from residents about how they feel about this (proposed) tax,” Bowling said. “Most want better roads, but getting them paved is costly.”

Orr said the state commission association’s proposal isn’t the only one under discussion. One alternative is a local option that allows counties to hold a referendum on a temporary gas tax to fund specific projects. The tax would expire when the chosen projects are paid off, Orr said.

If lawmakers can get the General Fund budget straight, Orr said $63 million that’s funding the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency could be transferred back to the Alabama Department of Transportation for road projects.

Orr said he needs to study all of the proposals before taking a position. He also wants to make sure projects for interstates 459 and 10 “don’t eat up all of the money.” The estimated cost is about $1 billion for each.