USA - A bill to provide property tax relief to victims of the Gatlinburg wildfires easily cleared a House committee Tuesday, but East Tennessee lawmakers are still hoping Gov. Bill Haslam revises his plan for the $1 billion in state surplus money to include at least $25 million in relief funding.
The bill was never expected to meet much resistance considering the focus of the legislation the Senate version cleared that chamber’s finance committee unanimously last week but the use of state surplus money is still a question.
Haslam has said much of it is already targeted for key initiatives like the state’s rainy day fund, raises for teachers and a tax cut he’s including as part of his broad plan to address the state’s backlog of road projects.
Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, said Tuesday after the House Local Government Committee that the state has contributed more than $2 million in state grant money to go toward infrastructure, but have a round $25 million figure in mind to get from the state’s budget surplus.
He said Haslam has suggested contributing 12.5 percent of whatever the state doesn’t recover from Federal Emergency Management Agency relief. FEMA will cover 75 percent of damages specifically related to fire, but won’t cover damaged deemed wind-related.
“We threw out the number of $25 million, but who knows what we’ll get,” Carr said.
There is another state statute that still exists that lawmakers passed after the 2010 floods in Middle Tennessee that offers sales tax refunds for homeowners in a federally declared disaster area, so long as it’s the homeowner’s primary residence and they receive FEMA assistance. There is a $2,500 individual cap, according to David Gerregano, state revenue commissioner.
Gerregano said there is a $250,000 annual state budget appropriation to support those claims, which he thinks can be carried over.
Carr said about $900,000 in advertisements are planned for the Atlanta area and elsewhere to draw tourists back to the popular tourist destination.
In a separate meeting Tuesday, Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, said he and others are trying to stress that Gatlinburg is “still open for business.”
Overbey and Carr both met with several administration officials three weeks ago to push Haslam for more from the surplus. Haslam was not in that meeting.
At that time, they were waiting on firm figures from local agencies to get a better idea of what they hoped Haslam would kick in.
Carr said the administration and lawmakers are meeting weekly to discuss relief efforts.