- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2017

JACKSON, Tenn. (AP) - With just over three weeks remaining until he presents his annual Tennessee spending plan to lawmakers, Gov. Bill Haslam is still trying to find what he calls a comfort level with lawmakers on his efforts to boost transportation funding.

Haslam argues that Tennessee doesn’t bring in enough money to meet its road building and maintenance needs through its 21.4-cent gas tax. The governor says there’s a $6 billion backlog in state road projects awaiting funding.

A study by state Comptroller Justin Wilson has found Tennessee’s fuel tax collections have remained essentially flat since 2000 amid improving fuel efficiency and decreasing miles driven.

The purchasing power of the state’s gas tax collections has fallen by about half since the last time the tax was increased in 1989, according to the report.

But lawmakers are wary about voting for hiking the gas tax, despite arguments that paying the tax at the pump is akin to a fee for using state roads.

“We obviously have to do something that can get passed,” Haslam said. “I think everybody agrees we have to do something. The question now is what.”

Haslam, who’s expected to deliver his budget address Jan. 30, declined to say how much the gas tax would have to increase to become the backbone of a new road program.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press this week quoted Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron as saying that the Haslam admiration has “kicked around” a 9-cent increase in the tax on gasoline and a 12-cent hike on diesel to bring in about $400 million in new revenue a year.

Several lawmakers have argued that any gas tax increase should be offset by decreases in other taxes, such as the sales tax on groceries or franchise and excise taxes charged to businesses. Haslam said his administration is “looking at everything,” but cautioned that he doesn’t want to undercut the state’s revenues in poor economic times.

The governor said he is trying to establish a “comfort level that we’re proposing the right thing for the state to do and also something that we think there’s enough buy-in from the legislators and helps our communities enough.”

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