- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Bill Haslam has a defiant message for groups lining up to oppose him on efforts to raise Tennessee’s gas tax for the first time in 25 years: “Have at it.”

Haslam told The Associated Press after a grant announcement Tuesday in Bedford County that he is gearing up for a statewide tour to talk about the “declining trajectory” of Tennessee’s transportation funding.

“Everybody is basically paying 33 percent less tax now than they were 10 years ago, because they’re getting 33 percent better mileage,” Haslam said. “Everybody is driving on our roads for a lot less than they used to.”

That funding crunch combined with less money from the federal government has put Tennessee behind on numerous important transportation projects, the governor said.

The Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity - the political advocacy group for Charles and David Koch, billionaire brothers who spend millions on conservative causes - is readying its own statewide tour to oppose any increase in the tax. The group was also a major player in torpedoing Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal to extend health coverage to a projected 280,000 low-income people.

“We’re going to fight for free market principles,” said Andrew Ogles, the group’s state director. “We’re going to fight against Obamacare, against any tax increases in the state.”

Ogles noted that while Haslam is mulling a state gas tax increase, fellow Tennessee Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker has proposed raising the federal levy.

“Those two policies do not align with Tennesseans,” Ogles said. “We are going to go out there and educate as many people as we can that those policies are being peddled.”

Ogles singled out Haslam’s decision this year to spend $120 million in one-time budget surplus money on a new state museum in Nashville. If the “doomsday projection” on road money was accurate, that money could have been spent on transportation needs, he said.

Haslam appeared undaunted that the group that helped defeat Insure Tennessee is once again lining up against him on the gas tax.

“Have at it,” the governor said. “That’s how democracy works.”

However, Haslam acknowledged that promoting a gas tax increase won’t be easy, and that it could be a multi-year effort.

“Anytime you’re trying to sell the idea that the state is going to need more revenue, it’s a hard sell,” he said.

But Haslam said a significant distinction from the legislative fight over Insure Tennessee is that the gas tax issue won’t be influenced by political concerns over ties to President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“Insure Tennessee obviously had all the issues around its link to the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “That made it a lot more difficult.”

Tennessee’s combined state and federal funding for highway spending was $337 per person in 2013, the sixth-lowest rate in the country. By contrast, 26 states spent more than $500 per person on highways that year.

Adjusted for inflation, the total state and federal highway spending in Tennessee increased by just 4 percent between 2003 and 2013.

Haslam last week appealed to local officials to become more involved in trying to lobby lawmakers to pass legislation that is important to them. The governor said the increased level of direct involvement is needed to help persuade what he called a “changing Legislature” where once-powerful institutions like lobbyists, the media, chambers of commerce and hospitals no longer carry as much sway.

In Shelbyville, Haslam repeated his appeal to local government officials to “jump in” and tell their representatives and senators how increased transportation funding would help their home districts.

“Our local officials can put that in stark terms,” he said.

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