The Little Guys in the House Are a ‘Gas’ to Watch

I don’t usually comment on Tennessee political issues that are outside the focus of the organization for which I work. But what is going on with the gas tax is just too interesting to let slide.

To appreciate what’s going on, you need to understand that the state House has always had a top-down management style.

It works sort of like this. The Speakers typically give the rank-and-file Representatives (hereafter, the “Little Guys”) the freedom to represent their folks back home, so long as their views on something important don’t conflict with that of the Speaker or the Governor, to whom the Speakers for some reason seem to always take some kind of fealty oath. But when there is a conflict, the Speaker uses the loyalty of his or her committee and subcommittee chairs, engendered by their being given a position of “importance,” to bring down the hammer and get the “preferred” agenda rammed through.

For example, two years ago, the Governor’s Common Core education program had to be protected at all cost. So the word came down from somewhere on high that legislation to repeal Common Core had to die.

The Chair of the House Education Subcommittee shunted the legislation off to his subcommittee’s last meeting for the year. That almost ensured the legislation’s demise, because the Legislature would most likely adjourn before the legislation could move through the legislative committee labyrinth.

Well, the Little Guys back then, hearing from their constituents back home that they didn’t care one little bit that the Governor liked Common Core, rose up. They stuck an amendment that would repeal Common Core onto a bill that was already on the House floor, thereby forcing their concerns to be heard.

It was ugly for Speaker Harwell and the Governor. On the floor, the Little Guys ate their lunch. Eighty something legislators voted for the amendment and then for the amended bill.

Now we come to the present, what one might call “Common Core 2.0,” otherwise known as the Governor’s IMPROVE Act. The Governor quite naturally wants his bill passed, and, apparently, that means that the House Speaker has to carry out his orders. So, in recent weeks, the bill got rammed through a couple of committees by the Speaker’s henchmen, and it now sits in the House’s Finance Committee. A favorable vote there and the bill goes to the House floor.

But the Little Guys just won’t shut up and go along.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Jerry Sexton from tiny Bean Station went on record in one of the committees as saying (and I paraphrase), “Republicans sure like to talk about smaller government and lower taxes during elections, but when we get elected and come down to Nashville, something seems to change; we Republicans just have to raise taxes to fix our roads, even though the state has more money than it can spend, praise Jesus.”

The video of his comments went viral—30,000 views in a week! I think people were shocked to see a Republican courageous enough to call out Republicans for their efforts to massage an increase in the gas tax and publicly buck the Speaker and the Governor.

Then came a press conference on Monday. This time Rep. Sexton was flanked by about 16 of his colleagues. And there were more who I know would have been standing there had they been able to attend. They demanded that the IMPROVE Act be sent back to the original committee and that the process be started all over, but without all the ramming and cramming this time.

I could see a huge fight on the House floor coming. The IMPROVE Act may be rammed through Finance to the House floor in the days ahead, but then all the Little Guys may just try to “common core” the Speaker and Governor on the floor.

Now, maybe it’s just coincidence, but by week’s end Speaker Beth Harwell was coming up with a plan that does not raise the gas tax. Then, again, maybe she really does have her eye on a gubernatorial race, and maybe she got to thinking how she’d look on the campaign trail with two black eyes, one from Common Core and the other from the IMPROVE Act.

To be honest, I’m not as much interested in how we wind up paying for our roads as I am interested in seeing the Little Guys rise up. They may not “win,” but I appreciate someone standing up for us, the proverbial little guys among the citizenry. Too many of us feel like too often we have too little voice in what happens. So I say, “Little Guys, may your tribe increase! The process has got to change.”


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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