MURFREESBORO -- Gov. Bill Haslam sought to re-energize his drive for more Tennessee transportation funding on Tuesday, urging a statewide coalition of local officials and road builders to help him explain to both the public and reluctant lawmakers about the state's needs.
"I think that's where we are — in the position of defining reality," Haslam told the conference of the Transportation Coalition of Tennessee.
The Republican listed problems that include a $6 billion backlog of state projects. And he warned a temporary one-year fix envisioned by lawmakers — restoring $280 million taken by his two predecessors from the road fund — is no long-term solution.
"What you can do is spread this message out there about how critical the challenge is for us around infrastructure in this state," Haslam told the group. "And why we need to help everybody understand the importance of making certain that we pass along to our kids and grandkids as good of a system of roads and bridges as we got from our parents and grandparents."
Tennessee, he said, has the third-best road system in America while spending the third-least per vehicle mile among states. That's been done without issuing any bonded debt like most states, the governor said.
While people "take great pride in Tennessee being a conservative state, it is not conservative to pass along something that's in worse shape than when you got it," he said, referring to the state's roads.
And the governor even touched on specific funding, which he has been loathe to do in the past.
Noting that, as governor, it's often possible to "avoid the real hard issues and let somebody else do that, here's the reality on the gas tax. Made it through the first term. It was great. While I'm governor, to be honest with you, if we didn't do anything the roads would probably stay in comparatively good shape.
"We'd still be better than our neighbors," Haslam added. "But that's not the right thing to do" because it would lead "toward not having any kind of system we're accustomed to."
Asked about the gas tax later, Haslam said he doesn't know of any alternative that would bring in the revenue needed. Each penny raises $30.7 million per year. Tennessee last raised its gas tax 26 years ago by 4 cents. It is now at 21.4 cents per gallon.
"At some point, you're going to have to address bringing in more revenue," he told reporters. "The path we're on now will not work."
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, agreed something must be done. But Tracy and some other GOP lawmakers recently signed a pledge not to hike the gas tax in 2016.
"I think it's going to take about a year to let the citizens understand where we are and get the legislators to understand where we are," said Tracy, who attended Haslam's speech. "And I think it will take us a year to do that."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, recently said he cannot back a gas tax increase.
"I'm against imposing the gas tax," McCormick told the Times Free Press. "I think it's a last resort, and they can count me as a 'no' vote."
The majority leader normally carries the legislation of governors from the same party. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, is also opposed to a gas tax increase.
While Senate Republican Speaker Ron Ramsey agrees with Haslam that funding is needed and the time to act is next year, Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell has been far more reticent and was among the first to raise the issue of using some of the state's $600 million surplus.
Asked earlier this week about what was on the minds of her GOP members by editors and reporters of The Commercial Appeal during a Memphis visit, Harwell told the newspaper, "well, they're talking about the gas tax, you know whether we're going to vote on it this year (2016) or whether the governor's going to wait a year and I think the leaning is he's not going to bring something forward for this year.
"But it's still up to his call," Harwell said.
Haslam said he is not ruling out seeking funding come January when lawmakers return to Nashville.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or via twitter at AndySher1.