NASHVILLE — As Republican Gov. Bill Haslam works to build public momentum for new transportation funding, some GOP leaders are divided on whether now is the time to put the pedal to the metal on a gas tax increase.
Haslam said Thursday that a growing population, increased transportation needs, a $6 billion project backlog and higher-fuel-mileage vehicles — all coupled with stagnant gas tax revenues and federal inaction — necessitate action.
While some GOP lawmakers, such as Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, say new funding is needed, others, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, are trying to apply the brakes.
After the Nashville stop on Haslam's 15-city roads tour, Harwell cast doubt on whether the governor will even propose a gas tax increase and other new revenue next year. The gas tax hasn't risen since 1989.
"This is a tax on the middle class and working poor," Harwell told reporters. "It really is. In some ways we have to be careful that it's needed, that we can justify it and that long-term we need [it for] economic growth for our state."
Meanwhile, Ramsey rejected assertions by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, that GOP "leadership" was against raising taxes.
"I still think it's something we need to address and not just kick the can down the road," Ramsey said.
He wants a comprehensive look at funding, taking into account electric and natural gas-fueled vehicles. And he said a gas tax was likely to be part of any proposal developed by Haslam.
"If there's a basic function of government, it is to build infrastructure," he said. " I hope we can find a way to address it this year," meaning the 2016 session that begins in January."
Other Republicans have weighed in, too. Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, recent wrote in an opinion article that "it's still too early for the panic button and way too early for a gas tax increase."
Ramsey said the issue may be getting tangled up some lawmakers' gubernatorial ambitions, but he named no names. Harwell and Green are among lawmakers looking at 2018 races to succeed Haslam.
Ramsey said he hadn't seen Green's article but added, "there are a lot of politics that play into this."
"There's several people running for governor who are reluctant [to talk about tax increases], he said. "And I'd like to think that even I was [running] I'd be willing to address this issue."
Harwell said support and opposition in the House breaks down on local needs.
"There are some members who have roads in their districts that they desperately want and could probably be supportive," she said. "There are others who are probably a little more leery."
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats on Thursday called on Republicans to let whatever transportation plan Haslam offers at least get to the chamber's floor for a vote.
Sens. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, met with Times Free Press editors and reporters in Chattanooga. They likened Haslam's road funding push to the disastrous reception fellow Republicans gave to his proposed Medicaid expansion plan, Insure Tennessee, last session. His market-driven plan crashed and burned twice in committees and never got a debate or vote in either chamber.
Both Democrats questioned whether some Republicans hope to delay discussion about infrastructure needs in 2016 for fear of their next primary elections.
"We'll have one big proposal from the governor on roads and infrastructure, and we won't get to vote on it," said Harris, the Senate minority leader. "It was unprecedented last session that they opted for inaction and it appears they are going to double down on that."
"It's a really odd thing to have a supermajority that thinks of itself as an opposition party," Yarbro said. " We have to figure out how we are going to develop the infrastructure and if we are not going to take care of the revenue stream that's going down, we have to make some decisions about what to cut."
Reporter Louie Brogdon contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.