Through a series of political maneuvers, Gov. Haslam’s IMPROVE Act has advanced from the House Transportation Subcommittee to the full House Transportation Committee, thanks to the rare tie-breaking vote cast by Speaker Pro Tem State Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville). Johnson was brought in at the last minute to the House Transportation Subcommittee Wednesday afternoon to break a 4 to 4 tie.
With Johnson’s yes vote, the IMPROVE Act passed on a 5 to 4 vote.
Subcommittee members voting yes on the amended IMPROVE Act bill were State Rep. Barry Doss (R-Leoma), who also serves as chairman of the full House Transportation Committee, State Rep. David Alexander (R-Winchester), State Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin), and State Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis).
Subcommittee members voting no on the amended IMPROVE Act bill were State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster), chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee, State Rep. Courtney Rogers (R-Goodlettsville), State Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station), and State Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston).
The next stop for the IMPROVE ACT is the full House Transportation Committee, chaired by Haslam ally and gas tax advocate Doss.
The version of the IMPROVE ACT that passed was amended to remove the gas tax increase originally proposed by the governor. That amendment, however, is meaningless, since it can be added back to the bill at any time in subsequent votes in the full House Transportation Committee or, if it passes there, in the full House.
“This is a classic Trojan horse move,” former Nashville talk radio host and media and political strategist Steve Gill tells The Tennessee Star.
“The Haslam plan is now disguised as the no tax increase Hawk Plan, but without Rep. Hawk driving the bill. That means that the IMPROVE Act can revert back to the gas tax increase plan at any time. If Rep. Hawk was still controlling the bill, he would have the ability to prevent amendments to his bill. Instead, we have the gas tax advocates now controlling the fake Hawk bill,” Gill adds.
“It’s FAKE NEWS on steroids. And those who’ve concocted the scheme, or are helping it advance, are truly wolves in sheep’s clothing, and taxpayers are on the menu,” Gill concludes.
The day was filled with a dizzying array of amendments and votes, which confused even one member of the subcommittee, State Rep. Cooper, causing a hurried recess and conference among the governor’s aides and allies after she apparently voted against their interests, while intending to vote with them, the first time the amended IMPROVE Act was brought to a vote.
Rep. Alexander first proposed an amendment to the IMPROVE Act to substitute the gas and diesel tax with the “Hawk Plan” of 0.25 percent of the sales tax as the funding mechanism. Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin) ended debate by calling for the question. With a voice vote, the amendment failed. A roll call vote was requested and failed again when Rep. Cooper voted against it.
Rep. Doss then requested a five minute recess, and left through the back door of the committee room.
He was seen conferencing back and forth in the hallway and alcove behind the committee room, with representatives of Gov. Haslam’s office, Stephen Smith, special assistant for Strategy and Political Director, and Warren Wells, director for legislation, House members Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin), Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville), Speaker Harwell’s policy director and former Haslam staffer Leslie Hafner, and an unidentified person.
Immediately before Doss headed back into the committee room, the unidentified person was heard saying to Doss, “We need to make sure Alexander … ”
After the recess, Rep. Alexander again proposed the “Hawk Plan” amendment to the IMPROVE Act. When voting began, Warren Wells, an aide to Gov. Haslam, was observed at the back of the room hand signaling to Rep. Cooper.
The second vote ended in a tie, with Reps. Alexander, Cooper, Whitson and Doss voting for the amendment, and Reps. Courtney Rogers (R-Goodlettsville), Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station), John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) and Weaver voting against.
When a vote ends in a tie, that could kill the bill, unless the Speaker, Beth Harwell, herself comes in to break the tie or designates the Speaker Pro Tem to do so. In this case, Speaker Harwell designated Speaker Pro Tem Johnson, who voted yes.
Rep. David Hawk (R-Greenville), then presented his plan as a separate stand-alone highway funding proposal, and said that the bill should receive unanimous support given the previous vote. The Hawk Plan, however, was defeated and died in the subcommittee.