Gas tax plan could get final approval Tuesday

Gas tax plan could get final approval Tuesday

By CAROLINE BECK and WILL WHATLEY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey’s gas tax and infrastructure proposal could get to her desk Tuesday if it clears the Alabama Senate.

Senate leadership said there is a growing comfort level with the bill in the 35-member chamber. The bill would gradually raise the state’s tax on gasoline and diesel fuel by 10 cents a gallon over three years, with possible penny increases every other year after that depending on inflation.

Revenue from the increase would pay for improving roads and bridges throughout the state. Alabama last raised its gas tax in 1992, and Ivey and other state leaders argue those collections long ago stopped keeping pace with infrastructure needs.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he wasn’t aware of any proposed amendments that “have legs.”

“So I think the bill will pass close to where we see it now,” Marsh said Monday.

If any changes are made in the Senate Tuesday, the bill would have to go back to the House, where it was approved easily on a 84-20 vote last week.

“I think what you saw in the (Finance and Energy Committee Monday) was that the committee in general is very comfortable with where we are with the legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said. The bill received unanimous support in a voice vote Monday. The committee’s two Democratic members were not in attendance.

“That doesn’t mean when we get on the floor there’s not going to be vigorous debate about the topic,” Reed said.

The bill, which proponents say would generate  about $320 million a year dedicated to infrastructure improvements, would increase the gas tax by six cents this year, two cents in 2020 and two cents in 2021.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said that he would vote in favor of the bill as it is and any changes made now would probably not be worth the struggle it would likely then face in the House.

“You will always come up with better ways in your mind to address some additional problems, but I think to alter this bill to the extreme would create a serious problem when it goes back to the House,” Smitherman said.

“So now you have to ask, are those changes worth it to then possibly kill the whole initiative? I don’t see this body willing to do that. I think there are other ways those issues can be addressed.”

Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, said he had not decided on his vote yet.

”I’ve got some things that I think could improve it, but now it’s a question of when should I introduce it so that it is the most effective,” said Roberts, who is on the committee that approved the bill Monday.

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, said that she would be voting yes for the bill and that it is about time that infrastructure needs are addressed.

“It is definitely necessary at this particular point, if you look at our roads or bridges. That is one complaint I get whether it’s Republican or Democrats or whether it’s rural or urban areas, but particularly in urbanized areas, we are just fighting to get roads paved,” Coleman-Madison said. ”Birmingham alone put $5 million into just resurfacing their streets, but this bill allows the flexibility or cities working together with inner cities and working together with counties that would allow us to pull our funds together.

“Other than the fact that no one likes new taxes, we understand in state government that that’s what runs our cities and the whole state, people say you pay for what you get.  In Alabama we always brag we have the lowest taxes, but we also have problems with our schools, with our infrastructure.”

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said it’s a good bill, but he’s concerned about some possible amendments that could be offered today, including one to make the entire 10-cent increase effective this year.

“I have some issues with that,” Singleton said. “The agreement was a 6-2-2 and I’m okay with that, I just think that piling that on citizens right then would have a detrimental financial effect on a lot of families in this state.”

Sen. Andrew Jones, R- Gadsden, said he is confident in the bill’s passage and in an emailed statement said he thinks it will benefit his district.

“On Friday, I was pleased to co-sponsor and help pass a strong oversight bill out of the Senate which holds the Alabama Department of Transportation more accountable,” Jones said.  “Additionally, I was able to successfully amend this bill (Senate Bill 2) to allow the Legislature to review highway plans for ‘priority to projects which provide a county with its first four-lane access to an interstate.’”

“It is my hope that this language may someday assist with securing funding to widen U.S. Highway 411 between Etowah and Cherokee counties.”

In 2023 and after, the tax could rise or fall 1 cent every two years, based on construction costs. That indexing of the tax gives some senators pause.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, said last week the indexing is a dealbreaker for him. As of Monday, Stutts, who represents portions of the Shoals and Lawrence County, hadn’t changed his mind. 

The legislation puts a $200-a-year fee on electric vehicles and a $125-a-year fee on plug-in hybrid vehicles. Last year, there were 1,170 electric vehicles in the state, according to the Alabama Department of Revenue. Part of the fees would be dedicated to electric vehicle infrastructure around the state.

The bill dedicates about $11.7 million a year in gas tax revenue to improvements and expansions at the Port of Mobile. The state money would be used to match federal dollars.

Under House Bill 2, the gas tax increase bill, municipalities would receive an additional $26 million, bringing their total to $48.7 million. Counties would receive an additional $80 million, bringing their total to $256.4 million.

Mary Sell contributed to this report.