Battle over road signs reflects Fleischmann’s budget priorities

If you want to understand Rep. Chuck Fleischmann’s (R-Tenn.) approach to his job, just ask him about highway signs.

In June, he introduced H.R. 2257, a bill to loosen a mandate from the Federal Highway Administration implementing certain reflectivity standards for state road signs.

“It would have required local jurisdictions to replace their signs with new ones by a certain date,” he recently told The Hill. “States are under very, very tight budgetary constraints right now. I just asked: ‘Why not let a sign go through its normal life-cycle?’ ”

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He does not object to the reflectivity standard itself, Fleischmann said — just that it came in the form of an “unfunded mandate.”

In August, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood heeded the call and eliminated the implementation deadlines, calling the original rule “burdensome.”

Fleischmann estimated the change saved Tennessee $50 million and California $500 million.

“I still have county commissioners come up to me and say: ‘You saved half our budget’ or ‘our whole budget,’ ” he said. “This is just common-sense stuff.”

Fleischmann introduced the bill with his GOP colleague Rep. Scott DesJarlais, another freshman whose Tennessee district borders Fleischmann’s Chattanooga-based seat on the west.

Their state’s congressional delegation was among the most changed by the 2010 wave election: of its nine House members, four are Republican freshmen.

The loss of seniority does not, however, worry Fleischmann.

“We freshmen have really changed the way the House does business,” he said.

Only two Democrats — Reps. Steve Cohen of Memphis and Jim Cooper of Nashville — now represent Tennessee in Congress.

“Like a lot of regions in the South, there was a considerable number of old Blue Dog Democrats representing Tennessee,” Fleischmann said. “They would go home, talk conservative, and, in fact, live conservative, but come to D.C. and vote with their party.

“I think Tennessee and a lot of other states have really caught up with the fact that the Republican Party is the party of conservatives.”

Of the four Tennessee freshmen, Fleischmann and DesJarlais were the only two to vote against the final debt-ceiling deal during the summer.

“Leadership understands that we are all congressmen … I have always been a team player, but I represent the people of district 3 first,” he said of the vote.

Recalling conversations with fellow Republicans, Fleischmann said some have mixed feelings about their choices to support the deal.

“Some have said they wished they had voted no,” he said, “because of the failure of the supercommittee.”

Fleischmann did vote for Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) proposal ahead of the final deal, he said, once he felt that leadership was committed to a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

The state of Tennessee does not levy an income tax, but still balances its budget as required by its constitution, he noted.

“That’s the kind of logic I ran on: taking Tennessee practices to Washington,” he said.

Tennessee’s approach to taxes made national headlines this year during a long-running dispute with online retailer Amazon over tax breaks in exchange for new jobs in the state.

In the final deal, announced in October, Amazon will not be required to collect sales taxes for two years in Tennessee. It is expected in exchange to create about 3,500 full-time jobs in the state, some of which will be located in Fleischmann’s southeastern Tennessee district.

A new Volkswagen plant was another boon to the district this year. It had already produced 10,000 vehicles in September, and according to the Nashville Business Journal, anticipates producing 150,000 total per year — equaling work for 2,000 employees.

“Fortunately, our district has done exceedingly well, even in recessionary times,” Fleischmann said. “You have to make sure you work very, very hard to cherish [new business in the state].”

Amazon announced in late November that it now supports federal legislation allowing states to collect sales tax from online purchases.

Fleischmann said the question of tax breaks is tricky, especially now that he is in Congress.

“I would rather have the states have the freedom to deal with these things,” he said. “If they come to us for help, then we need to work and try to come up with equitable solutions. But I’ve always said that the best government is the government closest to the people.”

Fleischmann practiced law for 24 years before running for Congress. He traces his interest in law to a very early interest in politics.

“I was a political junkie when I was a little kid,” he said. “I can remember, literally, 1968 when [Richard] Nixon was running against [Hubert] Humphrey. I was 6 years old then — I was in kindergarten.”

He is likely to see a tough primary next year to keep his seat. Weston Wamp, the son of Fleischmann’s predecessor, longtime Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), has declared he will  run.

But Fleischmann is off to a respectable  fundraising start. According to Federal Election Commission records, he had $352,288 cash on hand, with $250,000 in debt as of Sept. 30.

For the same period, Wamp — said to be a very strong fundraiser — reported having $0.