Taking the high road home: Harris faces Thayer and wins, carries Gas Tax across session finish line

For The Oldham Era
Published: April 2, 2015

By RAE HODGE

Sen. Maj.Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, gazes at the vote-count board, realizing his defeat.

Sen. Maj.Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, gazes at the vote-count board, realizing his defeat.

Oldham County’s own Sen. Ernie Harris, a Republican from Prospect, has been serving in the state Senate since 1995. In his 20th year in the Capitol, Harris was instrumental in shoring up the state’s fluctuating road fund during the final hours of the Kentucky General Assembly’s 2015 session.

Harris, typically a quiet legislator, reliably voting in step with his party, broke ranks with Senate Republican leadership this year when he sponsored the Gas Tax bill, SB 299.

Roughly 48 percent of the state’s gasoline tax revenues go toward city and county coffers, and SB 299 put a floor on how far the tax could drop, ensuring that county and city governments have enough funds to patch potholes, build bridges, and re-pave roads.

In Oldham County, the fate of major infrastructure work is tied tightly to that revenue.

“We’re in the mix of people expecting it, with $83 million worth of road projects underway in the county,” said Oldham County Judge-Executive David Voegele.

“$12.5 million of it is set to go to the La Grange Parkway,” he said of the half-circle slated to wrap around the southern side of the city. “We’ve got some projects as far as Bridge Hill, and the four-lane road and Oldham Reserve that have construction plans being drawn.”

Between 2009 and 2014, the gas tax — which is tied to the wholesale price of gasoline — gradually increased by 9.3 cents. In Jan. 1, state road fund revenues took a sharp decline when the tax dropped to where it currently sits at 27.6 cents per gallon.

“No one wants to pay more tax. But the public at large may not realize: this is not a tax increase. This is putting a floor on something that’s dropping,” said Voegele. “And Oldham County is already going to be receiving $200,000 to $300,000 less in the next fiscal year at present because of the last drop.”

The tax was slated to drop again on April 1 to 22.5 cents per gallon, accounting for a drastic 9.4 cent-per-gallon drop, one the state Transportation Cabinet said would devastate Kentucky’s six-year road plan. Such a drop would equal a loss of $270 million dollars in road funding.

“If all the sudden the state is $270 million short and people are looking for ways to find it, our money might be a target,” Voegele said.

That’s where Harris comes in. With harried Senators on all sides, Harris paused to speak with the Era just hours before the Senate was to adjourn for another year.

“My part in the Oldham Reserve is getting the overpass done, which as you know is going to be moving much sooner, then getting money for the La Grange Parkway,” he said. “It’s in the budget right now. The only thing that may happen is the $15 million contract not being there in October but could be moved to sometime next year. But I will be talking to the Secretary of Transportation shortly in the next few weeks just to reiterate how important it is for us to do this. Of course, the decision is up to the governor but it’s on track for it to be done.”

But the passage of Harris’ bill during the session’s last day means that the gas tax will only fall to an even 26 cents, with legislators hoping this will stabilize road funding.

Two major buffers were also put in place against wildly fluctuating oil prices.

First, the tax is not allowed to increase or decrease more than 10 percent in a year, no matter how much national oil prices rise or fall. And the tax will now be calculated annually instead of quarterly, delaying major pains at the pump for drivers if oil prices suddenly rise, and slowing the loss of road funds should oil prices take a swift dip.

The next time the gas tax will be able to be adjusted would be July 1, 2016.

Even as he rose to plead the measure before the Senate, Harris’ voice was low and even. He spoke for less than a minute and a half, only explaining the basics and moving along.

Harris’ characteristic reserve brought praise from not only the members of his own party but from that of the opposition as well. The Senate’s top Democrat, Majority Floor Leader Ray Jones, of Pikeville, pointed to Harris’ diplomacy during the chambers’ lengthy negotiations.

“I want to commend the Senator from Oldham because he stood up on the first or second day of the session and spoke about Senate Bill 29 (the first version of the Gas Tax bill) and that would have established a floor substantially higher than where we are right now,” said Jones, adding that Harris had “done a tremendous job as Chair for the Senate Transportation Committee, and he understands the importance of dollars not only for roads but for all other forms of transportation.”

While the bill enjoyed bi-partisan support, there were detractors, mainly Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, whose own district has plans to re-build a road in Scott County to improve driving conditions for those residents commuting to the nearby Toyota factory.

“I hate to have to do this,” began Thayer. The Georgetown Republican rose from his seat to chide the Senator from Oldham and other members in the chamber.

“Everyone acts like potholes won’t be filled, roads won’t be re-surfaced, that new roads won’t be built. That’s ridiculous! I’m sorry that it’s come to this,” he said, indulging in a dramatic pause. “But I urge the members to vote no.”

The moment Thayer sat, a crop of legislators—Democrat and Republican alike—sprung out of theirs seats to return his scold in equal measure.

One by one, they fired off the amount of road money their home counties would lose if the road fund weren’t shored up, each fighting to hold onto their district’s slice of the already-thin budget.

It was Sen. Jared Carpenter, a Republican from Madison, who summed it up best with a brass-tacks speech in his coal-country accent. He warned the Senate not to tempt the ire of their constituents.

“At the end of the day, we know that money is required to take care of roads,” he said. “We’re coming through one of the worst winters we’ve had in recent history and if we don’t provide the money to make sure we can get our roads fixed and taken care of, that’s when you’re really gonna hear from your constituents. You don’t provide the roads for them to get out and get to work, to get out and shop and do the things they have to do, that’s when you’re gonna find trouble.”

When the bill was finally called for a vote, Thayer’s eyes were on the board. The final score was 23-9 when the bill cleared the Senate.

 

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