Gov. Haslam restarting engine on Tennessee road funding

In this Feb. 11, 2016, photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam answers questions about his priorities for 2016 during an interview in Nashville.

Per-gallon gas and diesel taxes

Tennessee and surrounding states' per-gallon gas and diesel taxes: › 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 cents Source: American Petroleum Institute

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam hopes to put his transportation funding proposal back on the road, talking with lawmakers about their district priorities and how to fund the improvements, a senior administration official says.

Jim Henry, the Republican governor's chief of staff, revealed the administration's plan Tuesday, taking some House Transportation Committee members by surprise.

After earlier sketching out in broad terms Tennessee's long-term road, bridge and mass transportation needs and stressing the key role transportation plays in areas such as economic development, tourism, safety and more, Henry told the panel, "I just want to hopefully impress upon you the urgency of this."

"We can wait, we can kick the can down the road, but I think the time for dealing with it is now," Henry said. "And we'll try to do that in the next coming weeks, and a few weeks try to come back to you for something specific that we've recommended as far how we get there, how much it's going to cost and who's going to pay for it."

A surprised Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, wanted to be sure he was clear on what Henry was saying.

"So that I understand you, deputy governor, in the next couple of weeks y'all are going to be bringing some proposals to this committee?" Alexander asked.

"Yes," Henry said.

Word of Henry's comments about Haslam restarting his effort on a new road plan buzzed through parts of Legislative Plaza. Some lawmakers voiced concerns about any type of funding increase, which would likely require increases in fuel taxes, during this session.

Asked about Henry's remarks, Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said in an email, "The administration has just finished six weeks of presentations to the transportation committees on the importance of having a safe and high-quality transportation system.

"The next steps in this conversation are over the next several weeks to talk with other members about projects in their area," she said.

But not everyone was aware of the governor's plan. Count Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, among them.

"I would think the governor, since I have been supporting him on this issue, he would say something to me before that happens," Ramsey said. "Right now, I think that's just a rumor unless I hear otherwise."

Ramsey was one of the few top legislative leaders who had publicly agreed with Haslam that Tennessee highways need additional funds to meet increased population, development and other demands including safety.

Tennessee's fuel taxes were last raised in 1989.

Drivers in Tennessee currently pay 21.4 cents per gallon of gas and 18.4 cents per gallon of diesel, which largely impacts truckers.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation's budget is $1.8 billion with about $800 million coming from the state and nearly $1 billion from the federal government.

Haslam twice toured the state last year telling lawmakers and communities that while Tennessee now has one of the nation's best transportation funds, the state has a $6.1 billion backlog of previous projects and billions more in new needs.

But even as lawmakers urged him to specify how he planned to raise the money, Haslam cut a wide detour, arguing he couldn't address how to raise the money until there was agreement on a road package.

Eventually, the governor acknowledged an increase in state gas and diesel fuel taxes had to be part of the mix.

While Ramsey is open to new funding, a number of top Republican leaders, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville balked last year and again in January.

Harwell and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, pointed out the previous Bredesen administration took $260 million from the transportation fund to use in the state's general fund, which funds most other functions of the state. That should be repaid, they argued.

They also said there is a huge general fund surplus.

In his remarks to House Transportation Committee members, Henry pointed out that Tennessee has a general fund, which pays for most expenses like education and TennCare, and a transportation fund which is entirely separate.

In his Feb. 1 State of the State address, Haslam again spoke of Tennessee's transportation needs and announced he was using $130 million from the estimated $700 million surplus of one-time money to repay half the money owed to the transportation fund.

And while he revealed no transportation plan, let alone how he planned to fund one, he did say "tonight I'm asking that we keep this critical conversation going."

Several states, including Georgia, moved last year to increase their fuel taxes. In the case of Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal shepherded passage of not just fuel taxes but various fees including a $5 hotel/motel tax.

It tallied up to about $1 billion for Georgia, a much larger state than Tennessee.

Contact Andy Sher at, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.