Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam continued on Thursday to avoid endorsing presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. But in a speech to the Rotary Club of Chattanooga at the Chattanooga Convention Center, he didn't avoid other difficult topics, including raising the state's gas tax and expanding TennCare, the state's Medicaid program.
Haslam and five other Republican governors met with Trump on Tuesday in New York. When asked what he talked about with Trump, he joked, "When you are with five governors and Donald Trump, the chances to share are pretty limited. That sort of defines the definition of limited air time."
But he added that he and the other governors discussed with Trump the way they would like to see the federal government deal with state governments in several key areas, such as health care and education, by giving states the power to modify federal programs to better meet their needs.
As to an endorsement, Haslam repeated what he said earlier this week: "The reality is, he is going to win Tennessee and my endorsement is not going to be a big deal one way or another."
Haslam talked for about 10 minutes about the state's accomplishments during the five years he has been in office, including keeping taxes low while building up a sizable budget surplus, and earning Tennessee's state-issued bonds a Triple A rating on Wall Street. He also touted his success in winning legislative approval to provide two years of free college or technical education to Tennessee high school graduates, and putting significantly more money — some $730 million— into the budget for education.
The governor indicated Thursday he will push next year for an increase in the state gasoline tax, which funds road and bridge improvement projects. The amount of money the current tax raises is not sufficient to meet the state's needs, he said, which he estimated at about $10 billion in improvements and repairs.
"The problem is that as your car or truck gets better mileage, which is a good thing, you are paying less and the cost of building roads gets three times as expensive," he said.
Using the current budget surplus is not the way to fund roads, Haslam said, because there is no guarantee the state will have a surplus in the future, and road-building plans need to be developed over a period of many years.
"You have to know what your cash flow is going to be to plan a project that long in advance," he said.
Haslam said next year is probably his best chance of getting a tax hike adopted. He noted that next year is not an election year, while the following year is, and the year following that a new governor will take office, and a tax hike is not normally something an incoming administration wants to push.
The governor said he still wants to expand Tennessee's Medicaid program, known as TennCare, which the legislature rejected in the past. He noted that many Tennesseans don't make enough money to qualify for Obamacare's federal subsidies, but don't qualify for Medicaid either.
"Unless you are a pregnant female, disabled, or a child, you don't qualify for Medicaid in Tennessee, with few exceptions," Haslam said.
The federal government's promise to pay 90 percent of the cost while leaving the state to pick up only the remaining 10 percent makes the program attractive, the governor said. He said he thought state lawmakers might be more willing to reconsider expanding the program after this year's elections.
"Either Hillary will win, and everyone will realize that the Affordable Care Act is not going to go away, and maybe we need to sit down and revisit the situation," he said. "Or Trump wins and maybe we have somebody there who gives us more flexibility, which gives our legislators more confidence that we can be sure the program won't get out of control."
In response to a question about what companies considering moving here find most attractive about Tennessee, he cited the low cost of doing business, as well as the standard of living. He said the state's natural resources and its affordable and accessible cities were also important.
Haslam told the story of successfully wooing a particular company to the state and having dinner that evening to celebrate with the CEO of the firm. "I asked him, 'At the end of the day, what was the reason you picked us?' And he said, 'Because my wife wanted to live here,'" the governor said.