Tennessee gas tax expected to sputter in 2016

Haslam undecided on pursuing levy; Hamilton County lawmakers divided

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

State gasoline tax prices

Tennessee and surrounding states' gas and diesel fuel per gallon:› Tennessee: Gas - 21.4 cents; Diesel - 18.4 cents› Alabama: Gas - 20.87 cents; Diesel - 21.85 cents› Arkansas: Gas - 21.8 cents; Diesel - 22.80 cents› Georgia: Gas - 32.62 cents; Diesel - 36.18 cents› Kentucky: Gas - 26 cents; Diesel - 23 cents› Mississippi: Gas - 18.79 cents; Diesel - 18.4› Missouri: Gas - 17.3 cents; Diesel - 17.3 cents› North Carolina: Gas - 36.25 cents; Diesel - 36.25 cents› Virginia: Gas - 22.33 cents; Diesel - 26.03 centsSource: American Petroleum Institute based on October figures

photo Todd Gardenhire
photo Gerald McCormick
photo Bo Watson
photo Tennessee State Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, left, and Marc Gravitt laugh during a meeting at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
photo State Rep. JoAnne Favors, right, participates in a news conference on Sept. 15 in Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE - With many of his fellow Republicans hesitating, Gov. Bill Haslam says he hasn't determined whether to propose a gas-tax increase this year.

"We're still in the middle of those conversations," the governor told reporters earlier this week as state lawmakers prepare to return to Nashville next Tuesday to begin their annual session.

Haslam said, "there's a lot of sentiment out there that folks say we need to do a better job of explaining to citizens around the state why we need to do something different than we are now."

While Haslam said there is no immediate crisis for Tennessee transportation, he does believe the state needs to move soon to protect what is considered by some as the nation's third best state road system, which is funded on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Tennessee's current tax per gallon of gas is 21.4 cents while diesel is 18.4 cents per gallon. The state has not raised the price per gallon on gas or diesel since 1989.

Haslam and a transportation advocacy coalition argue Tennessee has an estimated $6 billion statewide backlog of previously approved transportation projects, including projects affecting Interstates 24 and 75 in and around Chattanooga that run into the hundreds of millions.

With the current revenue stream, it will take decades to do the work, the governor said, and billions more in would-be projects to handle congestion and other problems can't get off the drawing board for lack of funding.

Hamilton County legislators are divided on the issue.

"I'm opposed to it is the first thing," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, following a delegation meeting with Times Free Press reporters and editors on Tuesday. "I'm not certain that we need it right now."

McCormick said he thinks "the burden of proof ought to be on those who want to spend this money. I also think it's very difficult to look at raising taxes" when the state has a budget surplus.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said with both I-24 and I-75 running through his district, the current situation is "just a fiasco right now."

Dozens of bridges need replacement and lanes need widening. And that doesn't include widening I-24 around Lookout Mountain. Add it all up and it comes to about $750 million, Gardenhire said.

"I would not be doing my district and my constituents a favor by saying a hard no," Gardenhire said, adding he will examine what is feasible and ensuring there are safeguards on how money is spent.

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, R-Hixson, predicted nothing will pass this year.

"I just don't think there's a collective will to do anything with the gas tax this session."

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said she could consider an increase, noting "in my district alone there are millions of dollars worth of road work that people consider a necessity, not a luxury," she said.

But she said it shouldn't be a large increase, and needs to be part of "a comprehensive plan" that addresses issues like vehicles getting higher gas mileage as well as road damages caused by heavy trucks.

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she's not terribly excited about a fuel increase "because I feel it's not a tax that has equity" and people making minimum wage would be hurt.

"I feel there should be some other way to increase" transportation funding, she said.

Faced with higher costs for maintenance and new construction, greater vehicle efficiency and other problems, several states, including Georgia, have already moved to increase fuel and other taxes while others, including Tennessee, continue to weigh action.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and the GOP-controlled legislature enacted a package of fuel and other increases that added some $900 million to the state's annual transportation funding.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.