Tennessee Gov. Haslam delays road funding plan as GOP lawmakers seek options

Specter of higher gas tax haunts the discussions

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday he is "very ready to present" his long-awaited transportation-funding recommendations but has delayed them for now at the request of some fellow Republicans in the General Assembly who want to explore their own funding ideas.

"In talking with them, [they] said we want to have time to think through their proposals," the governor said when asked when he expected to announce a new transportation program and a funding proposal. "So we said, sure, we'll spend this month having those discussions and letting you think through alternatives that you might be able to come up with."

Haslam said the unspecified lawmakers "said they'd come back to us some time. We told them the budget process and the timing and hopefully they'll come back with their ideas pretty quickly.

"I think everybody just feels obviously this is a big decision for this state and they wanted a chance to think through it and talk through it with people in their districts before they heard our proposal," the governor added. "At the appropriate time, obviously, we'll come with our proposal."

In mid-2015, Haslam began trying to make the case to the GOP-dominated Legislature that Tennessee needed to shore up funding for roads and other transportation-related needs. He has yet to present a plan and has shied away from stating it would include a recommendation the state approve its first gas tax increase since 1989.

The gas tax is now 21.4 cents per gallon.

It would be difficult if not impossible to raise funds - Haslam said there's a $6 billion backlog now on previously approved projects - without a gas tax increase. During their 2016 legislative session, some Republican leaders ruled out any action during an election year.

The move now comes in the midst of a House Republican leadership change with former GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin stepping into the majority leader position vacated by Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who chose not to seek a fourth term in the No. 2 slot.

Casada, meanwhile, was replaced by Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, as the Republican Caucus chief. Williams has said fellow Republicans want more input earlier on issues such as the state's budget.

Williams earlier this month closed off the usually open GOP Caucus meeting to reporters, citing what he called a need to have what he characterized as a "family discussion" among Republicans that included budget issues.

Casada said while transportation funding is not specifically on the agenda, "I would expect it to [come up], but it's not scheduled to."

Efforts to reach Williams later were unsuccessful. Groups of House members are meeting with Haslam on Wednesday and Thursday.

Tennessee has racked up huge surpluses - $1 billion in the fiscal year that ended last June 30 - and is moving toward another surplus in the current fiscal year. Much of that is one-time money.

In trying to accommodate fellow Republicans, Haslam over the last two years used one-time money from sales taxes paid by most Tennesseans and business taxes to repay the state's transportation fund $260 million. The money was taken from the fund during the previous Bredesen administration.

But Haslam said transportation, which relies on a user tax - i.e. gas and diesel fuel taxes - needs a recurring boost of new funds to attack the $6 billion worth of previously approved projects and perhaps a like amount of projects unable to get into the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Republican President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants to push major infrastructure spending. But according to multiple news accounts, Trump wants to rely on the private sector for the money, presumably with projects such as toll roads.

Tennessee has no toll roads and has long made it a point of pride not to issue government debt to bankroll its road maintenance and improvements, using cash instead.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter at AndySher1.

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