Ramsey, Harwell weigh in on road funding (well, sort of)

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — While Gov. Bill Haslam is traveling the state seeking to draw attention to transportation funding needs facing Tennessee, top legislative Republicans are at odds about whether to even consider a gas tax hike in 2016.

Haslam argues that dwindling funds from the federal government, better fuel efficiency among vehicles on state roads and the rising cost of road construction and maintenance are putting a $6 billion squeeze on the state’s ability to meet its transportation needs.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said Thursday that she doesn’t believe there is an appetite in the General Assembly to enact the first gas tax hike in 25 years, and that she doesn’t expect Haslam to propose one.

“This is a tax on the middle class and working poor,” she said. “It really is.”

But Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said the state shouldn’t “kick the can down the road” on road funding issues, and that a gas tax will likely be part of a proposal before lawmakers next session.

“If there’s a basic function of government, it is to build infrastructure,” Ramsey said. “I hope we can find a way to address it this year.”

Ramsey said the issue is clouded by political considerations of potential gubernatorial candidates. Harwell and Republican state Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville, who wrote an opinion piece in The Tennessean newspaper opposing a gas tax hike, are among those considering a bid.

“There’s several people running for governor who are reluctant,” Ramsey said. “And I’d like to think that even if I was I’d be willing to address this issue.”

Ramsey said it’s too soon to rule anything out, and that recent comments by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, casting doubt on support for a gas tax don’t necessarily reflect the will of the entire chamber.

“I do think it’s sellable,” Ramsey said. “We’re not into kicking problems down the road; we’re into solving problems.”

Harwell said House support or opposition to a gas tax is based on the transportation needs of individual lawmakers’ home districts.

“There are some members who have roads in their districts that they desperately want and could probably be supportive,” she said. “There are others who are probably a little more leery.”

Haslam is waiting until the end of his 15-stop tour to make a specific funding proposal. But he said it would be a short-term fix to move to restore about $280 million in gas tax money that was re-routed for general fund spending purposes during the terms of former Govs. Phil Bredesen and Don Sundquist.

“We can do that,” Haslam said. “But I don’t want anybody to mislead themselves into thinking that’s going to solve the problem.”

The governor noted that most of that money would be used up by one of the state’s biggest pending transportation projects, Lamar Avenue in Memphis, which is estimated to cost $270 million.

“You’re pushing the problem a little bit further down the road,” he said. “But not much.”