Local House members vote for gas tax bill

Posted 3/10/19

Area House members from Walker and Winston counties voted for Gov. Kay Ivey's gas tax increase, pointing to severe road needs and the impact that the State Docks has on transporting the area's goods …

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Local House members vote for gas tax bill


Area House members from Walker and Winston counties voted for Gov. Kay Ivey's gas tax increase, pointing to severe road needs and the impact that the State Docks has on transporting the area's goods out. 

State Reps. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, and Tracy Estes, R-Winfield, all voted for the package, which now is expected to be taken up in committee on Monday and possibly see a vote as early as Tuesday. Rowe, who said the first reading of the Senate came late Friday after the 83-20 victory in the House for Ivey. Rowe said two members were absent. 

The package will phase in a gas tax increase of 10 cents over three years, with funds to go to the state, counties and municipalities for road and infrastructure needs, as well as improvements to allow new larger ships to pass through the State Docks. Wadsworth said the first $11 million of the revenue will be dedicated for the needs at the Port of Mobile before the rest of the funds are divided up each year. 

Wadsworth, a staunch conservative known for usually opposing tax increases, noted Saturday morning that it was not going to be a popular decision, but felt he did the right thing. "I did not make my decision until 4:30 the day before the vote," he said, deciding to first meet with Ivey last week. He also met with state transportation officials, as well as constituents. "The consensus in each household was, we want our roads fixed," he said. 

He has constantly heard about rural road needs, while it also takes longer to travel in large cities due to the same problem. Funding shortages have exacerbated the problem.

"I was elected to make a decision. It is not a popular decision. I have voted against every single increases in fees since I've been down here for four and a half years, and I made a decision to support this infrastructure bill because we've got to do something to improve our roads and bridges throughout our area," Wadsworth said. 

He said the formulas to base 75 percent of the municipality funding by population and 25 percent on an equal share will wind up helping many smaller communities. 

"Eldridge was only getting about $1,500 in tax, and now they are going to get about $15,000. Most of your rural areas are going to get double what they were getting" on an annual basis, he said, noting the formulas were designed to help the small towns catch up. 

The county division will be 45 percent equally and 55 percent based on population. Overall, the state will get 66.67 percent of the funding, versus 25 percent for the counties and 8l.33 percent for the municipalities.

Wadsworth said studies have shown the state is getting $100 million less in revenue for roads than in recent years, even though vehicles have increased 46 percent from 1990 to 2015. 

"I pay it just like everybody else. I don't like to pay it, but for the average person it is about $55 (a year)," he said, noting the tax had not been changed since 1992. 

He said support came from the county commissions in Winston and Walker counties, as well as the Jasper City Council, as well as some other mayors. (Rowe also noted endorsements from the Walker County Development Authority and the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County.) 

While the manner for funding the projects was an issue for some people, Wadsworth said constituents wanted infrastructure improvements. "Some of the people who are die hard against (the tax increase) say, 'I want my road fixed.' You can't have it both ways," he said, adding a legislator has to make a decision and live with it when faced with differences of opinion on an issue.

Wadsworth said concrete roads do not exist in the state, as the state is one of three states that do not allow competitive bidding for both concrete and asphalt. "We put an amendment on the floor that would allow bidding to be done based on concrete design and based on asphalt design so the roads would last longer," he said. Legislators have also been looking at ways to upgrade asphalt standards so those type roads would last longer. 

As for the docks, Wadsworth said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has a $300 million line item in the federal budget that requires a $150 million match for the Port of Mobile, which all three local House members toured. Not providing the match would lose the federal money. 

Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed said recently up to $10.2 million annually will be used for the dock improvements, with funds from the state to service bond debt on the project not to exceed $150 million. This will terminate in 2035 or when the debt is repaid, Reed said. AL.com said the total cost of the project is about $400 million and requires a $150 million match. 

Rowe said Shelby supported the bill and called the bill a "one-time opportunity," noting she also was excited about the ability to get federal matching dollars. 

Wadsworth talked about the current problems with the Port of Mobile. 

"Right now, only one container ship can go into Mobile Bay at a time, and the others have to sit out in the Gulf waiting for it to come in and out. What this will allow with the match is for three ships to go into that bay," he said. "All the steel that is exported and imported actually comes through that harbor or that bay. ... All our car distributors get their steel through that port. Nucor Steel in Decatur transport steel coils for export down to that harbor." 

Wadsworth said coal is still shipped down the Warrior to Mobile Bay. "Since navigable waterways are included in the definition of public highways (in the bill), they are eligible for state dollars, which benefits Walker County and the coal industry," he said. 

He said he is pleased with the accountability aspects of the package, so that funds cannot be used for salaries or equipment. "It will be used for the roads and bridges," he said. "That's what the bill is about. It's not fluff." He added Alabama is still the lowest overall taxed state in the nation.

Estes tried to be 'statesman' in decision

Estes, whose District 17 runs into Winston County, said on Facebook Friday, "I cast a vote in favor of the infrastructure bill promoted by Governor Kay Ivey because I believe it is critical to the future of Alabama," adding he made the decision with prayer. "While I wish I had been given the opportunity to share this information in advance with my constituents back home prior to casting my vote such an opportunity was not provided." He said he gathered all the feedback possible from his district. 

He said timing was critical, as there was no guarantee how long Shelby would reamin chairman of appropriations in years to come. "Poultry, timber and many other products from my district are shipped through the state’s only port. This does affect us all," he said, noting a minimum of $11 million would come to his district even before matching funds could bring more federal funds. 

"Alabama now joins almost 30 other states who have also raised fuel taxes in anticipation of major federal dollars to be released by President Trump for infrastructure funds. In short, this plan would allow us to spend 50 cents on projects for every 10 cents raised in the state," he said. 

He said despite rumors, the bill would have no effect on Education Trust Fund monies. 

"I have written many times in the newspaper of the need for more statesmen in Montgomery and fewer politicians. How hypocritical would I be to have failed to live up to what I had called upon others to do?" he said, adding later, "I have attempted to be a statesman today and make a decision in the best long-term interest of Alabama and our children." 

He posted Saturday that he had "informed a prominent business owner last night I will be refunding his campaign contribution, as it is obvious he believes he should own my vote as a result."