Sunday column: On the gov’s inconsistent message

Gov. Bill Haslam plans a tour of Tennessee in coming months to highlight the need for new funding for state road construction and repairs, acknowledging last week that this will be a “hard sell.”

Indeed, it will, though there are logical arguments for increasing gas taxes. And one part of the governor’s problem is what might be called inconsistent messaging by public relations professionals. For years now – up to and including this summer – the governor has been declaring things are great with the Tennessee budget.

So good, for example, that the governor in 2012 backed a phased-in repeal the state inheritance tax, foregoing more than $100 million in annual revenue. The repeal takes full effect Jan. 1, 2016, meaning Haslam will be at the Legislature asking for more money from all living motorists while eliminating any levy whatsoever on the state’s wealthiest deceased citizens, including those with $1 billion estates.

At the recent Republican Statesmen’s Dinner, Haslam told the crowd: “We have the lowest debt, per person, of any of the 50 states….. We have a budget that keeps getting better.” He credited “a smaller state government than when we came in” with cuts in several areas.

Since that May 30 speech, the governor has been traveling the state to deliver news of great new spending projects in various places. Last week, for example, there was a $597,678 “transportation alternative grant” to Shelbyville for sidewalks and crosswalks, $701,138 for a pedestrian and bicycle facility in Lewisburg and $700,805 for a Morristown greenway project that includes “nearly 6,000 feet of 10-foot wide multimodal asphalt paved path” for hikers – all according to gubernatorial press releases that declared the Department of Transportation has now handed out more than $318 million in such grants.

The governor, meanwhile, joined the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation last week in publicizing “more than $3.1 million to fund energy efficiency projects for local governments and municipalities, utilities and state entities.”

And for months, of course, the governor has been traveling the state to proclaim that the state has money to provide free tuition at community colleges for all high school graduates and, under a separate program, for adults who want to learn new job skills.

All great and good things, naturally. And, yes, I realize that we’re talking about separate pots of money not funded by state gas taxes.
That TDOT grant money, for instance, comes from the federal government. But one piece of the argument for a state gas tax increase is the unreliability of federal funding due to Republican-Democratic gridlock in Washington.

But insofar as overall messaging goes, this is all utterly at odds with saying the state needs more tax money.

This is not lost on critics. As initially reported by the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, Americans for Prosperity is planning a series of statewide events to oppose any sort of gas tax hike at about the same time Haslam will be promoting some sort of tax increase, albeit without any specifics.

“That’s the approach [government officials] typically take: spend, spend, spend, raise taxes,” AFP Tennessee President Andy Ogles told the newspaper. “I think we should cut until it hurts. We’re going to fight tooth and nail to stop them.”

Ogles cited $120 million in the state budget, at Haslam’s request, for a new state museum and an overall revenue surplus in the state budget year that ends June 30. At the other end of the political spectrum, we find House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh observing that the current surplus means the Haslam administration is “just sitting on half-a-billion dollars, doing nothing with it.”

There’s also $165 million in state subsidies for Volkswagen down in Chattanooga. Oh, and in Sullivan County last week, the big news was Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey announcing the new state budget – thanks to an amendment approved by the governor — also includes $2.2 million for a new Agricultural Center in the Senate speaker’s home county.

Ramsey agrees with Haslam that, logically, we need more money in the state highway fund. They note that, unlike the sales tax that rises as sales increase and prices go up, the gas tax is virtually stagnant because it’s based on a 21-cents-per-gallon levy unchanged since 1989 that doesn’t rise with gas prices though the cost of building and maintain roads does. And cars are more fuel efficient today than in 1989. A reasonable adjustment is thus in order, it’s said.

At the Shelbyville grant announcement, the Associated Press reported that Haslam had a “defiant message” when asked about the impending AFP anti-tax tour: “Have at it.”

They will, tooth and nail, doubtless including in a defiant message that things are great with the Tennessee budget, just as the governor has been saying.

There certainly hasn’t been any cutting ’til it hurts. Or so the governor says.