The State Senate Transportation Committee voted on Monday to approve the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s (TDOT) 2017-18 budget of $2.2 billion, an increase of 15 percent over the 2016-17 budget of $1.9 billion.
Five members of the committee voted in favor of the increased funding, while three passed on the vote.
Senators Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) and Chairman Paul Bailey voted for the budget, while Senators Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) and Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains) passed. Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) did not respond for the roll call vote.
The additional $300 million one year increase in the budget incorporates $278 million in additional funding that comes from the 7 cents per gallon tax increase (and 12 cents per diesel gallon tax increase) included in Gov. Haslam’s controversial IMPROVE Act proposal.
The move sets up a conflict between the current version of Gov. Haslam’s plan, which passed through the House Transportation Subcommittee last week in an unusual legislative maneuver which required the governor’s allies to bring in House Speaker Pro-Tem Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) to break a 4-4 tie in committee.
The bill that passed through the House Transportation Subcommittee temporarily removed the governor’s proposed gas tax increase through an amendment by State Rep. David Alexander (R-Winchester), but that move was widely criticized as a “Trojan Horse” designed to move the bill on to the full House Transportation Committee, where the bill will likely revert to the Governor’s IMPROVE Act.
Appearing on 99.7 FM WWTN’s Nashville’s Morning News with Ralph Bristol on Tuesday morning, Alexander accused opponents of his legislative sleight of hand in proposing the amendment to temporarily remove the unpopular gas tax increase of throwing “a hissy fit.”
The House bill passed by the Transportation Subcommittee last week will be heard by the full House Transportation Committee on Tuesday.
Commissioner John Schroer, presenting the TDOT budget highlights in paper form to the Committee did not make it visible on the overhead screens to the dozens of attendees in the room, and it was not immediately available for review. The presentation was followed by a line of questioning, primarily from Chairman Paul Bailey who mentioned that the presentation did not address questions previously submitted by the committee.
TDOT Deputy Commissioners Paul Degges, Joseph Galbato and Toks Omishakin as well as Finance and Administration Budget Director David Thurman, assisted Commissioner Schroer in answering additional questions Tracy, Bowling, Nicely and Beavers, which revealed the following information:
* Compared to the Governor’s goal to have TDOT save $20 million annually, or approximately 1 percent of the $2 billion budget, the actual savings is approximately $40 million annually.
* Of $700 million in savings listed for this year, $600 million was stated to be non-recurring, as they were not realized cost savings but resulted from revising project cost estimates.
* Of the gas and diesel taxes collected, 2 percent goes to the general fund for the collection and administration of the taxes by the Department of Revenue. After disbursements to cities and counties leaves TDOT with 60.5 percent of the gas tax and 72 percent of the diesel tax, since 2010, an average of 89 to 92 percent of the funding allocated to TDOT goes to roads and bridges.
* A multi-modal access program was established in 2013 in conjunction with recommendations by Metropolitan and Regional Planning Organizations to provide $30 million of state funds over three years primarily for disconnected sidewalks adjacent to state highways, but was cancelled this year.
* As a follow up to legislation passed last year to put a cap of $10 million on aviation fuel tax, which was essentially for FedEx who had been paying as much as $30 million in that tax, a committee chaired by TDOT Commissioners Schroer and Boyd included Senators Tracy and Norris met four or five times last year. One of the recommendations from the committee was the establishment of an aeronautics economic development fund to offset the revenue losses that had been given to general aviation and commercial airports, and the Governor’s budget includes $15 million to come from the general fund. The process for distributing those grants is yet to be determined, but the bill states that the distribution will be at the discretion of the Commissioner.
* After a move of employees from TDOT to the Department of Safety, TDOT has 4,635 positions, of which 3,500 are filled. Of the 1,100 positions that are open, 477 have been vacant prior to January 2016, equating to approximately $25 million which is then utilized elsewhere in the department. Of the approximate 600 positions that are planned to be filled this year, 12 to 15 percent require a college degree.
* Approximately 75 percent of contracted projects are completed on time, and there is a portion of the projects that are not completed on time due to conditions outside the control of the contractor. For about 10 percent of the projects that are not completed on time “without an excuse,” $3.8 million has been collected by the state in penalties from the contractors.
* While there has not been a fuel tax increase since 1989, revenues have flattened and costs have gone up, TDOTs budget has more than doubled since the last fuel tax increase.
After the vote, Chairman Bailey appointed a Transportation Assessment Subcommittee consisting of Senators Massey, Nicely, Yarbro and Bailey, with Senator Tracy serving as Chairman. Senate Bill 1221 by Norris will be referred to the committee.