JACKSON, Ga. — President Donald Trump pitched his economic agenda as a win for truckers, but so far, some drivers say they haven't seen proof that the president is with them for the long haul.
"America first means putting American truckers first," the president said at an October 2017 event in Pennsylvania, where he touted the Republican tax bill ahead of its passage. Earlier that year, he climbed into the cab of a big rig on the White House lawn and sounded the horn.
But a number of truck drivers, in interviews with NBC News, said that same tax bill is hurting their wallets. Before the new tax law went into effect, truckers were able to deduct daily expenses like food and lodging from their taxable income. Now, many have lost that ability, thanks to the bill's elimination of a category of deductions that allowed employees of a company to deduct work expenses that the company did not reimburse.
“I've seen an $8,000 increase in my taxes this year,” trucker Richard Robinson said in a recent interview with NBC News. "I have a young family at home and we didn't meet the threshold to pay anything with our earning income credits and all. And with our per diem, they took the per diem out. The government says we can't have per diem anymore. That made an $8,000 difference in my taxes.”
Robinson is part of a group called “Black Smoke Matters,” a loose coalition of long-haul truckers hoping to get the White House's attention on issues that pertain to truckers. Including Robinson, NBC News spoke to eight members of the group at a barbecue stand popular with drivers here.
Named for the color of the exhaust that used to come out of big rigs, the group formed in response to a range of policies they say favor big fleets over independent drivers. Although the name is a play on Black Lives Matter — the activist movement that ignited following the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri — the group leaders say it's not meant as a critique of that movement.
For many, the tax law changes compound problems that date back to well before the Trump administration, including issues like state fuel taxes, hours-of-service requirements and new rules that require electronic logging device of their miles and hours driven.
"Last year I owned 10 trucks, 10 trailers. This year I own one truck, one trailer because of all the taxation, the over-regulation," long-haul trucker Greg Anderson said. “I'm actually considering getting out of trucking, period.”
Billy Bogar has been a long-haul trucker for nearly 20 years. He says that he’s a conservative who was glad when Trump won, but that he believes the president is listening to the wrong people.
“I'm a die-hard Republican. I always have been. I liked the approach that he had to Washington. I liked the approach of going and fire everybody and start over,” Bogar said.
The problem, as he sees it, is with large fleet owners represented by groups like the American Trucking Associations, which he feels is pushing out independent truckers like him. For Bogar, the president’s moment with an 18-wheeler on the White House lawn struck a less than positive note.
“The fact that he comes out and honks the horn for ATA and not the American truck drivers — boots on the ground right in front of you — that’s a little disturbing for sure,” he said.
A senior Trump administration official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly told NBC News that rate cuts, a higher standard deduction and other provisions eliminated the need for the tax deductions drivers say they are missing. Still, the White House says they’re ready to work with Congress to help any truck drivers affected.
But for drivers who are struggling to make a living, the promise rings hollow.
"Mr. Trump run on the platform of doing away with Obama bad regulations," Anderson said. “That was one of his platforms. For every so many regulations, he'd do away with this many regulations. ...
"But us blue-collar Americans, we've got regulations that we have when Obama was in office. And I would like to ask him, why didn't he do away with the bad regulations for us and the independent owner/operator?”