Sonny Brasfield: Building local support for gas tax hike to fund roads, bridges key takeaway from ACCA’s pre-2019 legislative session conference
MONTGOMERY — Around lunchtime on Thursday, the attendees of this year’s Association of County Commissions of Alabama’s annual legislative conference were departing the Renaissance Hotel on Tallapoosa Street and headed back to home counties.
Upon their departures, most of those county commissioners seemed to be walking away with an agreement that acquiring additional revenue for infrastructure by an increase in the state’s gas tax was imperative for next year’s legislative session.
In a sit-down interview with Yellowhammer News immediately after the close of the conference, ACCA executive chairman Sonny Brasfield explained how the takeaways from this conference on infrastructure and other issues would serve as a table-setter for the 2019 session of the state legislature.
Brasfield echoed Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville), who a day earlier at the two-day event called for attendees to grow local support for more road and bridge funding from a gas tax, which hasn’t been altered since 1992.
“We got three months, so there’s still some work to be done,” Brasfield said. “Our folks left with a charge from us to get back to work at the local level. In some ways, we were unsuccessful in 2017. But in other ways, we have moved the issue to the point that I think there’s pretty consistent agreement that it is time to do something on roads and bridges. What is that? How do we do it? We got three months to get that ready. I think our folks – what we need to be doing between now and then is building support at the local level. And that’s the charge I left them with this morning is go back and communicate with the opinion leaders in their communities about what we can do if we have additional revenue, and what happens if we don’t.”
Proponents have been reluctant to offer a specific percentage or dollar amount for a hike, the dollar amount required to get back on the so-called 15-year cycle, which is the lifespan of the asphalt typically used for Alabama’s road projects comes to about $390 million.
For now, Brasfield argues that number was less important than making a case for the need of the revenue and earning the public’s trust that it would be appropriately used.
“Rather than talking about what the number needs to be, where our people are is that we believe if we communicate to the public is what we’ll do with the money, however much it is – that’s how we build support,” he said.
Brasfield said his organization has been consistent with its position that language written for this new stream of additional revenue needed to be separated from the other gas tax revenue and used solely for roads and not salaries, equipment, or other types of construction like buildings for offices.
“It can’t be used for anything except asphalt and concrete,” Brasfield about the stipulations for the possible increase in the fuel tax.
“A great scenario for us is we get everybody on that position,” he added.
According to the ACCA executive director, one component required to win over public support might include a reporting mechanism that shows precisely what the money is being used for on a project-by-project basis.
“If we do those things, then the public is going to support us having money to fix the roads,” he said. “I don’t think the public will support us having money to just do what we’ve always done.”
The key he argued was building the public’s confidence by following through on the initial justification for the tax increase.
“When you talk to people, they will all say the same thing; If you fix my roads with the money, I’ll pay for it,” he added. “I don’t know that over the years there has been a great deal of confidence that the money would go only there.”
Headed into March’s legislative session, a potential hangup is how the revenue would be distributed to all 67 of Alabama’s counties. Although it is likely a matter of months before an actual proposal explaining those specifics is laid out for the public, Brasfield said his members were in favor the current distribution structure, which was a hybrid of an even-split and a split based on population.
“What our members said at this meeting is that we support additional revenue with these constraints with the money distributed using the traditional distribution formula,” he said.
Brasfield explained that initially with former Gov. “Big” Jim Folsom’s Farm-to-Market road program, gas tax revenue was split 67 ways and each of the counties getting an equal share. In the mid-1970s, the formula was changed with 55 percent of the revenue given to counties based on population, and the other 45 percent split equally.
Coming out of the conference, Brasfield said there seemed to be a consensus from ACCA members on their support for something to be done by the legislature on roads and bridge, noting that for a lot of county commissions, roads and bridges are a primary focus given they are a significant constituent concern.
For Brasfield, another area of concern for this upcoming legislative session includes the Alabama Simplified Sellers Use Tax, specifically how revenue is collected from the internet is collected in the wake of this year’s South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. U.S. Supreme Court decision.
In addition to that, there was solidifying Gov. Kay Ivey’s executive order through legislation regarding the handling of jail food money by county sheriff’s departments and plotting a course that would allow public employees to opt in the Retirement Systems of Alabama “Tier 1,” which is much more lucrative than the “Tier 2” plan created for employees hired on or after January 1, 2013.
Brasfield indicated he didn’t see his organization getting involved in the hot-button statewide issues like the lottery or Medicaid expansion. But he said given county commissions were legislative bodies, the state’s current ethics laws were a significant concern.
“I think at this point, we would like a little more clarity in the ethics law,” Brasfield said. “I have a real difficult time – people asking me questions, ‘Can you do this or that?’ If it is a complicated question, the answer is ‘maybe.’”