NASHVILLE — In the latest twist in Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's road-funding journey, the governor said Tuesday he may push for a gas tax increase during this legislative session provided he finds enough support from fellow Republicans.
"If there's enough people who say, 'That's what we want to do,'" Haslam said in response to reporters' questions when asked if he would press for funding this year. "If people say, 'I'm interested in this, but I don't want to do anything at all on addressing fuel tax, then we won't do it.
"But," Haslam added, "that is going to happen eventually. We cannot keep doing what we're doing now."
The governor's latest comments had any number of opponents, including lawmakers, scratching their heads yet again, with some Republicans reacting angrily in private.
Andrew Ogles, president of Americans for Prosperity's Tennessee chapter, which opposes any increase, accused the administration of continuing to send "mixed signals."
After traveling the state twice pressing the need for new funding for Tennessee transportation needs, the governor held off on introducing legislation this year after some top GOP legislative leaders, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said no.
But then last week, remarks by Haslam's top deputy Jim Henry to the House Transportation Committee revealed the administration wanted to put funding back on track to accelerate work on $6.1 billion in previously approved transportation projects.
"I just want to hopefully impress upon you the urgency of this," Henry said as previously reported by the Times Free Press.
Henry later added that "we can wait, we can kick the can down the road, but I think the time for dealing with it is now. And we'll try to do that in the next coming weeks, and in a few weeks try to come back to you for something specific that we've recommended as far how we get there, how much it's going to cost and who's going to pay for it."
Transportation Committee members were shell-shocked. Haslam press secretary Jennifer Donnals later said in an email to the Times Free Press that after top department chiefs had just finished spending six weeks outlining needs, "the next steps in this conversation are over the next several weeks to talk with other members about projects in their area."
Asked if that would include seeking new funding, Donnals later appeared to walk back Henry's comments about fuel tax hikes, telling the Times Free Press that "I wouldn't anticipate that happening. The next steps in this conversation are talking with other members about projects in their area."
But Haslam now says if the votes are there, he's ready to move. Critics say the votes aren't there.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, told reporters last week that although he backs new funding for roads, bridges and public transportation, "it's too late to address" that this session.
With the governor himself now opening the possibility of pushing a gas tax this session, there has been speculation the drive could begin after candidates' qualifying deadline on April 7. Asked about that, Haslam said while he understands there has been such hall talk, he would not begin to press an increase in the last week of the session. Lawmakers are trying to adjourn by April 15.
But the possibility of a push before then drew fire from Ogles, whose group opposes raising the current 21.4 cents per gallon tax on gas and 18.4 cents per gallon tax on diesel.
"Given the deputy governor's comments and the governor's comments from today, we'll be reaching out to our activists and letting them know that this current administration thinks in light of having this billion-dollar surplus that we need to raise taxes," Ogles said. "We think that's reckless and harmful to the working-class people of Tennessee."
Ogles also said his group "has continued to get mixed signals from this administration. At this point, we have choice but to reach out to our activists."
Tennessee's transportation fund doesn't have the huge surplus. But the state's general fund, which derives revenue largely from sales taxes and business levies, does have an estimated $1 billion surplus in one-time and recurring revenues.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via Twitter @AndySher1.
This story was updated March 8 at 11 p.m. with additional information.