By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama drivers will see a 10-cent per gallon increase in the state gas tax to fund road and bridge construction, under legislation signed into law Tuesday by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.
Calling it a historic day for the state of Alabama, Ivey signed the bill, and related measures into law, shortly after they won final approval in the Alabama Legislature. Ivey said lawmakers made a “bold statement that they are all in when it comes to investing in Alabama’s future.”
“What the members of the Alabama Legislature have done today is to improve Alabama’s infrastructure for generations to come,” Ivey said in a bill-signing ceremony at the Alabama Capitol.
The swift legislative approval was a political victory for Ivey, who called lawmakers into special session to consider the tax increase, and for Republican legislative leaders who also threw their support behind the bill.
The 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase will be phased in over three years, beginning with an increase of six cents later this year. The state tax would then be adjusted up or down with the National Highway Construction Cost Index and could increase up to a penny every two years. The proposal would also place an annual $200 fee on electric vehicles and a $100 annual fee on hybrid vehicles.
The bill also sets aside $11.7 million of the revenue to be used for a bond issue for improvements at the Port of Mobile.
The Republican governor found broad support in the GOP-dominated legislature for raising the motor fuel tax to fund road and bridge construction. State senators approved the tax increase on a 28-6 vote. The state House of Representatives approved the bill, 83-20.
Supporters said Alabama’s current 18-cent gas tax has been unchanged since 1992, leaving the state without adequate funds to replace aging bridges and improve congested and dangerous roads.
“We addressed this because it’s the responsible thing to do. It’s been 27 years since we had an increase in revenue. We had to do something,” Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, said after the vote.
A Democratic senator who voted against the bill said the tax increase would be a burden on low-income drivers in a state where politicians have rejected Medicaid expansion, minimum wage increases and tax reform efforts.
“I cannot with a clear conscience vote yes on this bill because of what it does to low-income people and people under the poverty level,” said Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, a Democrat from Mobile.
Senators tabled a proposed change by Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, that would have created a $40 million pool for tax rebates for low-income motorists. Roberts also proposed to end any automatic increases through indexing in 2039.
Roberts said he wanted to revisit the idea in the regular session.
Despite the broad legislative support, the proposed gas tax increase has divided Republicans. The Alabama Republican Party Executive Committee approved a resolution opposing the measure. However, the Republican governor had the backing of GOP legislative leaders.
Road building companies, county commissions, chambers of commerce and cities mounted a push for the legislation.
Ivey made the infrastructure proposal one of her first initiatives after winning a full term in office in November. The governor called lawmakers into a special session that began Wednesday to consider the gas tax increase. The proposal went before a Legislature with a large number of freshmen in a body that has often been resistant to tax increases.
Marsh said he had cautioned legislative candidates that he met with, telling them infrastructure would be a “something we had to deal with.”
Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said Tuesday’s vote was a “major step” for the state.
“This plan will dramatically improve the safety of Alabama’s roads and bridges. In 2016, Alabama had the second highest rate of traffic fatalities in the nation. One in six Alabamians cross a structurally-deficient bridge on their daily commute — and that’s unacceptable, especially when 375,000 school kids are on a bus every day,” Reed said. “Gov.Ivey’s proposal will help us rebuild Alabama’s infrastructure and make travel safer for school buses, truck drivers, and families.”
Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, voted in favor, pointing to improved safety and the economic benefits of keeping the next generation in Alabama.
“This was a vote to have safe highways and bridges, to attract new industry, and to encourage our children and grandchildren to stay here – and we’ve got to do that,” Reed said. “Nobody wants to pay more in taxes, but it’s what we have to do if we want to have safe highways and if we want to be competitive for industry.”
Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Gasden, voted in favor of the increase because of the benefits it would bring for his district.
“In the end, I was convinced that this bill would benefit my district,” Jones said. “I was able to meet with the governor about projects that are important to my constituents, and those are the I-759 eastern connector, expansion of Highway 411 and the Southside bridge. I’m confident this bill will help us get some of those projects going in the future.”
Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he still had some concerns about the increase, including the index. But he voted yes because of the needs around the state.
“We’re going to be the No. 2 automobile producing state in the U.S. after Toyota-Mazda gets going, and an expanded port will be able to ship them,” Melson said about the bill’s nearly $12 million a year dedicated to improvements at the Port of Mobile. “And there’s an assurance that we’re going to come back and look at in inland ports, which I have in my district in Florence, plus Decatur and other areas. There’s going to be some work to expanding those as well.
“You know, nobody wants a tax. I get it. I don’t want a tax. But we need the infrastructure and we need the improvements. We’re way behind on that and we need to catch up.”
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, was the only senator to propose an amendment, but it was tabled. He voted against the bill.
He wanted the entire 10-cent tax increase be introduced all at once instead of over three years, creating a $40 million fund to assist low-income individuals who would want to apply for that tax rebate. The amendment also proposed stopping the tax index in 2039. He said he’ll sponsor legislation in the regular session, which resumes next week.
“I am pleased with the process of offering up amendments and going through the necessary steps to hear the concerns of the people, but I would have liked to have seen the amendment pass today,” Roberts said. “The leadership did seem willing to talk about what needs to be done in the future on this so that we can help those in Alabama who can least afford this tax increase.”
Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, spoke on the Senate floor about the impact of the tax on low-income families. He supported Roberts’ amendment, which was defeated in a voice vote.
Gudger’s district, which includes most of Lawrence County, is known for hard workers, he said, but some are trying to get back on their feet. Ultimately, Gudger voted for the increase but said Senate leadership pledged to look again at the index issue in the regular legislative session that resumes next week.
“The best thing we did get today was a commitment out of leadership that they would work with us in regular session,” Gudger said.
Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, voted no Tuesday because of the nearly 12 million a year going toward for improvements at the Port of Mobile.
“Probably what bothers me the most is people putting gas in their car and paying a premium to dig out the channel in Mobile,” McClendon said. “There’s no question the port is important to the state of Alabama, but to have the gas tax pay for it just doesn’t compute.”
McLendon said he was filing his next week legislation to create a statewide lottery and allow Alabamians to purchase tickets for drawings like PowerBall and Mega Millions.
How they voted
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore
Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa
Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton
Sen. David Burkette, D-Montgomery
Sen. Tom Butler, R-Huntsville
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville
Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva
Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham
Sen. Chris Elliot, R-Daphne
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville
Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman
Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba
Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Gadsden
Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston
Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur
Sen. Randy Price, R-Opelika
Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper
Sen. Malika Sanders-Fortier, D-Selma
Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville
Sen. David Sessions, R-Mobile
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro
Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster
Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn
Sen. Jack Williams, R-Mobile
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham
Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery
Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile
Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook
Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia
Sen. Priscilla Dunn, D-Birmingham
Alabama Daily News staff contributed to this report