Gov. Bill Haslam, responding to House Speaker Beth Harwell’s call for spending $400 million in surplus state funds for highway construction and maintenance, within an Andy Sher review of recent developments in a developing push to enhance state fuel tax revenue:
Harwell’s comments are just one sign of resistance to any hike in fuel taxes, which many Republicans fear will go down with constituents about as well as anti-freeze in a gas tank.
Asked about the speaker’s comments, Haslam said, “When you have a surplus everybody has an idea for how to spend that. And so my approach is always you be really thoughtful, you look at the wide variety of needs we have from deferred maintenance on buildings. I can make a really long list of things that might be appropriate. I’d say let’s use the normal budget process.”
Haslam also made a second point.
“[A] one-time fix, a one-time spot of money really doesn’t solve our issue,” Haslam told reporters. “We have a long-term, multi-year, multi-billion dollar problem and we’re going to have to address that at some point in time.”
That’s why, the governor said, he plans to travel the state later this summer and make the case to Tennesseans for more money. The state’s $1.81 billion transportation program, which derives funding from dedicated gas and diesel taxes, is at a virtual standstill when it comes to making progress, he said.
Meanwhile, WPLN reports that Harwell’s idea is gaining support among other Republican legislators.
Other lawmakers have seized onto proposal. They point to a decision by former Gov. Phil Bredesen to divert $300 million from the Highway Fund to other government services. The time has come, they say, to pay that IOU off.
State Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, agrees.
“Number one is repay the money that was diverted, if for no other reason than the symbolic importance of saying this was a dedicated fund,” he said. “It was wrong to take money out of it.”
Johnson says he’s undecided on what to do next, but many conservatives, including members of the tea party, hope these arguments can head off plans to increase Tennessee’s gas tax.