Tennessee's speaker is warming to the idea of Haslam's gas tax hike after stiff opposition

House Speaker Beth Harwell is greeted by representative of a National Federation of Independent Business after her speech to the group on Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, March 1, 2011. The Nashville Republican said her chamber plans to take up Gov. Bill Haslam’s education agenda before delving into a bill aiming to strip teachers of collective bargaining rights. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE - House Speaker Beth Harwell, who has backed a so-far-unsuccessful effort to remove fuel tax increases from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's transportation bill, now says she is "leaning" toward voting for the governor's plan.

"I'm trying to decide that," said Harwell, a Republican, in a brief conversation with reporters following Thursday's House session. "I'm leaning that way."

The speaker recently caught some members of her own caucus, as well as Haslam and GOP Senate leaders, flatfooted when it was revealed Harwell was working with top House Republicans on an alternative funding plan.

It sought to avoid Haslam's proposed 6-cent-per-gallon gas tax and 10-cent-per-gallon diesel tax increases by using existing sales tax revenue from car and truck sales.

Republican senators said it was a non-starter for them.

Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, was prepared this week to offer the sales tax amendment in the House Finance Committee but withdrew it instead when it became clear it lacked sufficient support to put it on Haslam's legislation.

But Hawk warned the administration and others the amendment would likely resurface on the floor, where the bill is now scheduled to be heard on Wednesday.

Asked whether she believes there is enough support on the floor for the alternative, Harwell said, "I can't see that. No."

Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen later elaborated on the speaker's remarks about leaning toward backing Haslam's plan, saying, "She said she's just keeping an open mind because this is such an important issue."

In addition to the fuel tax increases, Haslam's plan calls for boosting several related fees such as a vehicle registration fee that would add $5 for car owners and more for larger vehicles. He says it's needed to tackle a list of 962 road and bridge projects estimated at $10.5 billion.

At the same time, Haslam has nodded to demands by fellow Republicans who control the General Assembly to cut more than the $350 million his plan would raise for roads. The governor and supporters are cutting several taxes in the state's general fund, which has a surplus.

But Haslam could face problems on another front in the House with minority Democrats. And Democrats, who have 25 of the 99 House seats, could prove critical to Haslam's IMPROVE Act's success.

A "straw poll" among the 73-member House Republican Caucus showed 37 GOP representatives opposed to the bill, while just 30 supported it. Another two were present but did not vote and four simply left.

"I'll just speak for myself, but my sense is that there are not 20 [Democrats'] votes as we stand here today," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville, who voted against the bill, as did several other Democrats earlier Thursday when it flew through the House Calendar and Rules Committee.

Stewart said he "felt it wasn't ready. From my standpoint, we still need to look at the overall mix in that bill."

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