NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam has yet to say whether he will propose a gas-tax increase to keep Tennessee's highway program going, but a hike already is a political dead end among many of his fellow Republicans in the GOP-run Legislature.
He can count the No. 2 House Republican, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, among them.
"I went to the governor's 'road show' on what they billed as not being about the gas tax, and [they] kept saying it's only about the problem and not about solutions," McCormick said of Haslam's meeting with local business leaders last week during a Chattanooga stop on the governor's 15-city tour. "Then they basically narrowed it down to where the only solution is the gas tax.
"I'm against imposing the gas tax," McCormick declared. "I think it's a last resort, and they can count me as a 'no' vote."
Haslam and Transportation Commissioner John Schroer have been saying for months that Tennessee has a $6 billion backlog of projects with upwards of a billion dollars or more of it in Chattanooga and other parts of Southeast Tennessee alone. More money is necessary to keep up the pace of maintenance and new construction, they say. But Haslam has yet to specify a remedy, saying he wanted first to demonstrate the need.
On Friday, a day after his tour ended, Haslam was asked by reporters in Nashville what his "backup plan" is if lawmakers won't go along with an increase in Tennessee's 21.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax, last boosted in 1989.
"Let me be real clear," Haslam said. "We haven't proposed anything yet, so everybody who's saying they're for something or against something, we don't have a proposal out there yet. The point I'm making is, we can't keep going like we are now. It's real simple. Vehicles get about twice as good mileage now as they did the last time we addressed this 26 years ago. Yet maintaining and paving roads costs three times as much.
"Well," Haslam added, "that doesn't work forever."
Haslam's tour ended Thursday. In the governor's hometown of Knoxville, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett told Haslam that "what we're talking about, eventually, is a gas tax," the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. "Everybody knows that. It's the gorilla in the room that nobody is addressing, and the fact is, those eight [lawmakers] in the room will get hammered by their voting public to support something like that."
Burchett said the Haslam administration first needed to convince the public that without a tax increase Tennessee will struggle to maintain existing infrastructure let alone make progress on previously planned projects to address everything from congestion to safety and economic development.
"You got to get more to the grass roots, past the chambers of commerce," Burchett lectured Haslam. "I know that's difficult to do, but you can send your folks out, let them get beat on, and then you can come in and smooth it over."
Haslam said "there are a lot of different alternatives. Some people talk about toll roads, a vehicle miles-traveled tax. There are a lot of different solutions, but at the end of the day, we're not going to pull anything out of the air that's going to magically produce free roads for us."
In the meantime, it appears the political concrete is hardening among a good many members of the GOP legislative majority. Fifteen out of the 28 Republican senators in the 33-member chamber have already told the Americans For Prosperity-Tennessee, they oppose raising the gas tax next year. In the House, 40 of 99-members are listed as opposing it.
Among them is House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. Harwell has already called on the state to repay some $250 million taken largely by the previous Bredesen administration from the transportation fund. Use it for roads, she says.
Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said the public is entitled "to hear a full conversation about" both needs and money "and help us come to a conclusion about how we want to move forward."
Regarding officials' talk of a $6 billion backlog, Watson asked, "How much of those are really viable? How many of those are wish list? I don't know the answer to that question. Let's really scrub the data."
Meanwhile, McCormick again said the state should depart from past practice and begin issuing road debt in the form of bonds. Tennessee has long prided itself on not issuing bonds to fund transportation needs. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who says some type of funding is necessary, has specifically opposed the use of bonds. Haslam also opposes it.
But McCormick said given the state's bond rating and historically low interest rates, they make sense. Meanwhile, he said, that while Haslam and Schroer "have been careful to say they've not proposed" a tax, they also seemed set on ruling out virtually everything but a gas tax increase as evidenced by material presented during the Chattanooga presentation.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.