One day after Gov. Kay Ivey unveiled her 10-cent gas tax plan to improve infrastructure, the Coastal Alabama Partnership (CAP) hosted about 65 members of the Legislature in Mobile to promote what may be one of the plan’s most controversial selling points.
If passed, the new tax is expected to generate around $300 million for transportation improvement projects statewide, but Ivey is calling for a separate portion to be diverted for a $100 million bond issue to finance improvements to the ship channel serving the Alabama State Docks.
By expanding the port’s accessibility and services through widening and deepening the channel, local leaders have long suggested the project will benefit business and industry across the state. But the perception is legislators who oppose the tax altogether, plus those from rural areas who may not see as much of a local return, would possibly move to block a bill that does not include equitable investment in their districts.
State Rep. Bill Poole is expected to release the draft bill tomorrow. Rumor circulated among the legislators in attendance that Gov. Ivey may table the gas tax bill for a special session, where it would only require a simple majority to pass rather than the three-fifths necessary during a regular session.
The port project is expected to cost $400 million overall and Sens. Richard Shelby and Doug Jones have indicated they can secure federal funds for the other 75 percent. But in order to do so, the state must fund the 25 percent match.
Welcoming the delegation to the GulfQuest Maritime Museum this morning for CAP’s Regional Economic Summit, Mobile County Commissioner and U.S. House candidate Jerry Carl asked the legislators to consider how the port may affect their districts.
“We ship coal, chicken, cotton, lumber — any resource you can come up with passes through this port … It’s not just important to Mobile and Baldwin counties but the entire state of Alabama.”
Literature was distributed highlighting the port’s support of 153,278 jobs statewide, $568 million in tax revenue and $25.1 billion in economic value, representing 12 percent of the state gross domestic product. Afterward, the lawmakers boarded the Perdido Queen for a cruise around the Mobile River.
House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter said he was pleased with the summit.
“To see [the port] first-hand I think it’s positive … what we’ve seen today is pretty impressive,” he said, noting his native Dekalb County is the state’s leading producer of poultry and already heavily relies upon the port for international exports.
“Of course the automotive industry has become strong in my part of the state, and to see what is happening with these roll-on roll-off facilities the manufacturers are using I think could be huge … so it certainly can be a partnership the whole state can benefit from.”
Ledbetter said his district suffers from “severe” road neglect, where school bus drivers opted to take more than 30,000 miles in detours last year rather than cross defective bridges.
“It’s a safety issue when you have to keep a kid on a bus for an extended period of time just to go around bad roads and bridges,” he said. “Everybody sees a need, it’s just a question of how we get there. I feel good about [the bill] and doing something positive for the state and investing in the next generation.”
State Sen. Clyde Chambliss was similarly impressed by the port’s facilities and said he understands the benefits of additional investment, but he’s also hoping to get more details before committing a favorable vote.
“I’ve asked for some information about what Alabama goods come and go from here; I know a lot comes down [Interstate] 65 and I have some automotive manufacturers in my district and understand they are going to expand the [facilities] so they can actually ship cars out of here, and that’s a big deal.”
Yet, he admitted his constituents have mixed feelings about the possibility of paying more at the gas pump.
“They don’t want to pay more taxes, I don’t want to pay more taxes, but if you look at it from an objective point of view, we paid 6.5 percent of our income in state taxes in 2011 and now it’s down to 4.5 percent of our income, so there are times when we have to adjust rates especially on something like the gas tax, which is not a percentage and does not grow over time,” he said.
“I explain that the gas tax has remained stable in revenue dollars, but the buying power has gone down because of the increase in construction costs … what we could buy in 1992 when we last [raised the gas tax], we can only buy about 60 percent with the same funds today.”
Chambliss said a priority transportation project in his district is widening portions of Highway 82 between Prattville and Tuscaloosa, currently a two-lane road linking the state capital to its “flagship” university. There, traffic and accidents have increased significantly over the years, he said, causing many preventable injuries and deaths.
Ivey actually unveiled her infrastructure plan in Maplesville yesterday, the halfway point on Highway 82 between Prattville and Tuscaloosa. Tomorrow, she is expected to hold a press conference on the steps of the State Capitol with Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and others to unveil a study by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama entitled “The Cost of Doing Nothing.”
“The average Alabamian will only pay about $55 extra per year with this gas tax, and that’s a small price to pay for such a real safety issue to me,” Chambliss said.
Others were more reserved. While acknowledging his District 54 has major infrastructure problems, Freshman House Rep. Neil Rafferty expressed hesitation about committing to the port funding.
“With the proposed gas tax, my main concern is making sure my constituents — Jefferson County and the city of Birmingham — get what they need,” he said. “For us, it’s roads, roads, roads — plus money for public transit — and we have a lot of potholes that need to be patched.”
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth was also on board — not just the Perdido Queen, but with Ivey’s infrastructure plan.
“This is Alabama’s port, it’s not just Mobile’s,” he said. “[This project] is critical for not only continuing to grow the local economy but the entire state.”
Ainsworth said a key part of the legislation will be the reform of the Joint Transportation Committee to add oversight and accountability over the Alabama Department of Transportation.
“If the tax passes, people need to know how the money is being spent … in an efficient way and also in a need-based way instead of based on politics,” he said.
Aside from the gas tax, Ainsworth said he expect the Legislature to pass a pay raise for school teachers using $300 million to $400 million in additional revenue in the Education Trust Fund. Other priorities for those in attendance included expanded Pre-K, school safety, workforce development and rural broadband initiatives.
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