An Intern and Her Bill

SOCM members and our allies have been working on several bills this year. As with any legislative session there have been ups and downs, but there have also been a couple of bright spots. As usual there have been several bills aimed at making it easier for industry to pollute and harder for locally impacted citizens to hold the state and industry accountable for adverse impacts to communities. One bright spot was a bill written by SOCM intern Erica Davis.

Erica came on board and started research on coal severance taxes and how they could be used or changed for economic development in coalfield communities. She collected data on severance taxes and most importantly she went to the communities where coal used to be king and asked questions and got important input from the people living with the legacy of dirty devastating strip mining. Erica learned that with the decline of coal mining the amount of money counties were receiving from coal severance taxes, money that is desperately needed for road maintenance and stream reparation, was also dwindling. SOCM members and local residents told Erica that their roads were in horrible condition and the county said it had no money to fix them. Community members also told Erica that tankers from the growing gas and oil extraction in the area were outnumbering the coal trucks by a large margin.

So the focus of her research shifted from coal taxes to the severance tax on gas and oil. She learned that Tennessee has a very low tax on gas and oil, 3 percent, compared to other states and all those monies went to the states general fund with none earmarked for the counties where the extraction took place. These are mostly coalfield counties that desperately need money for road maintenance and infrastructure work.

In light of this information and after a lot of input from members, residents, and SOCM staff, Erica proposed a bill that would increase the gas and oil severance tax to 7% and that sent the tax monies to the county where the well head was located.

With all her research and data and the proposed bill language Erica and several Campbell county SOCM members approached the Campbell County Commission asking them to pass a resolution in favor of the bill. The resolution also stated that the commission would ask their state Representative, Dennis Powers, and sate Senator Ken Yager, to introduce the Gas and Oil Severance Tax bill.

On November 16, 2015 the Campbell County Commission unanimously passed the resolution in favor of the bill. Erica, county commissioners, and many of the same folks that helped inform what this bill should be started calling and visiting Powers and Yager asking them to introduce the bill.

On January 19, 2016 Representative Powers introduced the bill(HB1881)into the Tennessee State Legislature. Senator Yager filed the senate version(SB1944)the next day.Both Yager and Powers changed the language of the original bill, they took out the tax increase. Their reasoning was no bill with a tax increase would pass, so get the bill passed then work on raising the tax percentage in the future.

After several lobbying trips by SOCM members, Campbell county commissioners, and Campbell county residents the bill was passed in the House sub-committee but placed behind the budget. It was referred to Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee with negative recommendation. That means it is probably done for this year but it can be re-introduced next year.

This bill may not have passed this year as we had hoped. The work done for this bill started on the local level, getting input from all stakeholders,and listening to people that live in the communities that are dealing with the economic void left as the coal industry declines. It shows that we can work together across party lines, what affects one ultimately affects all, and people working together can affect positive change in their lives and communities.