Gov. Bill Haslam tells the Times-Free Press that he plans to travel the state “sometime in late summer or early fall” to talk about options for funding of state highway construction and maintenance, hoping to convince voters of the need for a tax increase.
“It won’t just be a listening tour,” Haslam said. “We want to show some things you could do in each community.”
Haslam, whose Insure Tennessee plan to provide health insurance to 280,000 low-income state residents was killed by his fellow Republicans earlier this year, concedes he could face a similar uphill battle if he pushes for a gas tax hike. But he said he will have more time to make the case for a gas tax increase than he had for his Medicaid expansion plan.
“The reality is that we’re going to have to do something and I think we’re going to have to do something while I’m still in office,” he said.
Tennessee last raised its gas tax in 1988, to 21.4 cents per gallon. The last diesel tax increase was in 1989, to 18.4 cents per gallon. The federal government imposes another 18.4 cents per gallon. Inflation has cut the value of a 1989 tax dollar to the equivalent of just 52.4 cents today.
In March, the Georgia Legislature boosted that state’s gas tax and raised other fees to generate nearly $1 billion more for road projects. In April, the South Carolina Legislature approved the equivalent of a 10-cents-per-gallon increase to generate another $400 million a year for highways. Gas taxes in both states are now about a nickel a gallon more than in Tennessee.
State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he’ll hit the road in September for the same reason as Haslam.
He believes Tennessee roads and highways are in better shape than in most states. Tennessee is a “pay as you go” state, meaning it doesn’t borrow for road projects. But convincing motorists to pay more taxes when they fill up their vehicles is a tough sell, Tracy said.
“We know that good roads are key to economic development, so we hope to meet with local leaders and talk about their transportation needs before we determine what may be the best course,” Tracy said.
But another voice will also take to the highways this summer with an opposing message.
Andrew Ogles, director of Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, is expected next week to unveil plans for 60 or more visits across Tennessee to rally the public against higher taxes or fees of any kind.
“Raising the gas tax is hurting the people who need the tax relief the most,” Ogles said last week in an interview, especially low-wage workers or those who face long commutes because of a lack of jobs in their rural communities.
He acknowledged that funding issues will have to be addressed, but said state government “needs to tighten its belt and look for ways to save before looking for ways to spend.”
“That’s the approach [officials] typically take: spend, spend, spend, raise taxes,” Ogles said. “I think we should cut until it hurts. We’re going to fight tooth and nail to stop them.”