- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - As Gov. Bill Haslam crisscrosses the state trying to build support for a gas tax increase, a new Vanderbilt University poll finds voters are willing to pay more to improve roads and bridges.

That’s a contrast to a similar poll in May that found only 25 percent of voters supported an unspecified gas tax increase.

For the new survey, conducted in November, pollsters asked about specific increases, finding 66 percent of Tennessee voters were willing to pay 2 cents more per gallon and 54 percent were willing to pay 8 cents more. Only 46 percent said they were willing to pay 15 cents more.

“The public is prepared to support an increase, but they want to know the exact amount,” poll co-director John Geer said at a Friday news conference introducing the poll’s findings.

Haslam had a 65 percent approval rating, with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans viewing him favorably. Despite that wide support, Haslam has sometimes struggled to gain support for his proposals among lawmakers.

Tennessee hasn’t had a gas tax hike since 1989, and the state has a $6.1 billion backlog of projects approved but not funded by the Legislature. Still, most Republican legislative leaders have said they oppose a gas tax increase in an election year.

Also Insure Tennessee, Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income residents, was defeated twice in Senate committees last legislative session, despite 64 percent of polled voters expressing support for the measure.

One measure that seems to have the support of both voters and lawmakers is Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative seeking to dramatically increase the number of college graduates in Tennessee. Ninety-one percent of those polled said it was important.

Voters did not support Haslam’s efforts to privatize many state services, with 63 percent saying they are opposed. Haslam says he has made no decision on privatization but is exploring the possibility.

The poll of 1,013 registered Tennessee voters was conducted for Vanderbilt by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from Nov. 11 to 23. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

Other findings include:

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GUN SALES

The poll found voters support some gun sale restrictions by wide margins and across party lines. Eighty-four percent of respondents favored laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns. An equal percentage of voters favored background checks for private gun sales or sales at gun shows. Sixty-two percent favored a federal database to track all gun sales and just over half said they favored a ban on assault-style weapons.

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IMMIGRATION

Asked about the top priority of state government, just under a third named the economy while about a quarter named education. Also in the double digits were health care at 17 percent and immigration at 13 percent. Immigration was listed as a top priority by only 2 percent of voters just two years ago. The new poll began just two days before the recent Paris attacks and continued for nearly two weeks.

Poll co-director Josh Clinton said it was impossible to tell whether those attacks were responsible for the spike because immigration was already a hot issue in the Republican presidential race.

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PRESIDENTIAL CHOICE

Donald Trump led the Republican presidential pack with 29 percent of Republican voters polled saying they would chose him if the primary were held today. Twenty-five percent said they would choose Ben Carson. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also were in the double digits.

Among potential Trump voters, 46 percent characterized themselves as “angry” at the current state of politics. That was a far higher rate than the supporters of any other candidate with Cruz supporters next at 17 percent.

Among Democratic voters, Hillary Clinton had a wide lead with 48 percent saying they would choose her.

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