Haslam says ‘state of the state’ will focus on surplus funds

Gov. Bill Haslam says his “state of the state” speech Monday will lay out his plans for spending a state revenue surplus and indicated education and the state’s highway fund will be beneficiaries, reports the News Sentinel.

Haslam told newspaper executives at the Tennessee Press Association’s annual winter meeting that “the hardest thing to do in government is hold in the reins when times are good, but if you don’t hold in the reins when times are good, you will get smeared” when times go bad.

“Our object in this budget will be to spend those dollars on places where the state has either underinvested in the past — and I would say education is at the top of that list — or that will be smart investments that will save us money in the long run: taking care of our own buildings and things like that that there is not a lot of sexiness or glamour to,” the governor said.

“It is a unique opportunity to have a budget surplus. Given that, how do we reshape this for the long term. I’ll spent a good bit of time talking about that.”

Haslam’s speech followed an earlier joint discussion on legislative issues by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell. All three top state officials also indicated that college students can expect some relief from the steady, steep state tuition increases of the past two decades.

…Rather than a fuel tax increase to pay for a growing backlog of highway needs cited by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, state lawmakers have focused on the $260 million transferred from the highway fund into the state’s general operating fund in the early 2000s during a revenue shortfall. The governor acknowledged he won’t ask the Legislature to raise gasoline taxes this year, for the first time since 1989, but will next year.

But he said the budget plan will include a plan on repaying the highway fund.

“It’s about $261 million that the general fund owes the transportation fund. We recognize that and we will have a proposal for how to make certain that gets paid back over time,” he said.

“But I don’t want anyone to think that will solve the problem if that whole $260 million is paid back tomorrow. We have one project in Memphis, Lamar Avenue, which is $260 million by itself, and Alcoa Highway near Knoxville is $275 million. I can keep going.”