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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg August 30, 2018

Attack ad falsely says Bredesen backed gas, sales tax hikes that never happened

In the battle for the U.S. Senate, the Koch family-backed Americans for Prosperity launched a $2 million ad campaign against Tennessee Democrat Phil Bredesen. The group's ad targets Bredesen’s time as governor from 2003 to 2011.

Bredesen will face Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn on the November ballot. 

The ad opens with a shot of a woman, child in her arms, shopping for groceries. Here’s the text:

"When times are tough, we budget for our families. But when our state’s budget was in crisis, Phil Bredesen supported higher taxes on us. Higher gas taxes. Higher sales taxes."

The ad ends with a claim about wasteful spending on rebuilding the governor’s mansion. For this fact-check, we wanted to review the data for gas taxes and sales taxes to see if they went up on Bredesen’s watch.

Key takeaways
  • While the ad suggests that gas and sales taxes rose, they remained the same through Bredesen’s years in office.

  • At times, Bredesen suggested the gas tax might need to go up.

  • The sales tax on food fell from 6 percent to 5.5 percent, but taxes on cigarettes and cell phone plans rose.

  • Bredesen proposed eliminating the cap on a separate tax on big-ticket items such as jewelry and business equipment, but the Legislature rejected it.

Gas tax held steady

Tennessee’s Department of Transportation has a handy table of gas and fuel taxes going back to 1923. It shows no change in the gas tax between 1990 and 2017. It stayed at 21.4 cents/gallon through all the time Bredesen was governor. (The base rate was 20 cents with 1.4 cents in special fees tacked on.)

Americans for Prosperity spokeswoman Gabrielle Braud noted that at various times, in 2003, 2006 and 2007, Bredesen said the gas tax might need to rise a few cents to secure federal highway matching funds and keep pace with rising costs. That is accurate, but Bredesen didn’t press the point. There is no evidence that he advocated for a hike.

And as the recession was building in 2008, Bredesen told reporters that a gas tax increase was off the table, saying it would be a "terrible time" to ask people to pay more in taxes.

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Sales tax did not change

As with the gas tax, the state sales tax held steady. The Tennessee Department of Revenue told us "the general state sales tax rate of 7 percent did not change between 2003 to 2011."

According to the Tax Foundation, a group that tracks state and federal revenues, the rate went from 6 percent to 7 percent right before Bredesen took office and didn’t change on his watch. The Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed those numbers.

Since the ad opens with a mother at a supermarket, we looked into any hike in taxes on food. The tax on groceries actually went down when Bredesen was governor.

Bredesen and lawmakers agreed to trim that levy by half a percentage point from 6 percent to 5.5 percent in 2007. The Presbyterian Church was one of the groups that supported the change and said that it was "the first-ever reduction of the state’s high food tax."

Bredesen made it a point to avoid raising the sales tax but he was quite open to other ways to boost revenues, especially as the state struggled through the recession.

The year the sales tax on groceries went down, the cigarette tax went up, with most of the money targeted to education. The Tax Foundation’s analysis of the tobacco tax hike found that it fell most heavily on lower income households.

In 2010, he, along with the Legislature, raised the fee for a driver’s license from $19.50 for five years to $46 for eight years, and increased the tax on cable and telecommunication services.

Tennessee has a special sales tax on big ticket items such as cars and boats. An additional 2.75 percent charge is tacked on for each dollar between $1,600 and up to $3,200, at which point the tax stops. Braud noted that in 2010 Bredesen wanted to lift the upper limit. He did, but not across the board. His proposal left cars, boats and homes alone.

Bredesen argued that the tax would fall mainly on businesses, not households. Lawmakers rejected the plan.

Our ruling

Americans for Prosperity said that Bredesen supported higher gas and sales taxes. Neither tax changed on his watch.

Both the gas and state sales tax remained the same throughout his time as governor. Food taxes went down and cigarette taxes went up. While he piecemealed additional revenues here and there, he opposed raising the broad-base sales tax.

The ad uses the word "support" in the broadest fashion possible to mislead Tennesseans about their experiences under Bredesen.

We rate this claim False.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
As Tennessee governor, Phil Bredesen "supported higher taxes on us. Higher gas taxes. Higher sales taxes."
In a television ad
Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Our Sources

Americans for Prosperity, Phil Bredesen lived the life, we paid the bill, Aug. 29, 2018

Americans for Prosperity, AFP to Launch Multimillion-Dollar Ad Campaigns in Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Missouri Senate Races, Aug. 29, 2018

Tennessee Department of Transportation, History of Tennessee's Gas/Fuel Tax Rates, accessed Aug. 29. 2018

Federation of Tax Administrators, Motor Fuel Tax Information By State, September 2016

Presbyterian Church USA, First-ever cut in state food tax passes in Tennessee, June 15, 2007

Chattanooga Times Free Press, Proposals To Hike Gas Tax Stuck In Legislature, March 13, 2007 via Nexis

Associated Press, Bredesen: Lift Sales Tax Cap or Cut State Salaries, April 16, 2010

Associated Press, Bredesen: Won't raise gas tax, Nov. 18, 2008 via Nexis

Times Free Press, Bredesen tax legacy may be tough act to follow, Dec. 28, 2010

Times Free Press, Balancing Tennessee’s budget, Feb. 3, 2010 via Nexis

Knoxville News Sentinel, Homestretch Restoration of governor's mansion concludes with final unveiling this week, Sept. 27, 2009

Email interview, Gabrielle Braud, press secretary, Americans for Prosperity, Aug. 29. 2018

Interview, John Buhl, media relations manager, Tax Foundation, Aug. 29, 2018

Interview, Kelly Cortesi, director of communications, Tennessee Department of Revenue, Aug. 29, 2018

Email interview, Abigail Okrent, economist, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Aug. 29, 2018

Email interview, Alyssa Hansen, spokeswoman, Bredesen for Senate, Aug. 29, 2018


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Attack ad falsely says Bredesen backed gas, sales tax hikes that never happened

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