- Associated Press - Monday, June 5, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - While Gov. Bill Haslam travels the state to tout his signature road funding program, the latest entrant into the race to succeed the term-limited governor is making a repeal of the state’s first gas tax hike in nearly three decades a top campaign pledge.

The bill called the Improve Act was officially signed into law by the governor within days of its passage in April. That didn’t keep Haslam from holding ceremonial bill signings Monday near the sites of major road projects that will be funded through the measure in Chattanooga, Nashville and Union City.

The law includes a 6-cent hike in tax on each gallon of gasoline over the next three years, and a 10-cent increase on diesel over the same period. The law also made cuts to taxes on groceries, manufacturers, and income from stocks and bonds that supporters argue will more than offset the fuel tax increases.

Although the bill passed 25-6 in the Senate and 67-21 in the House, opponents have been vocal about their displeasure about a tax increase while the state enjoys a healthy budget surplus.

“For too long, you have been overtaxed by billions of dollars because taxes have been raised. No more!” state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, said during her gubernatorial campaign kickoff Saturday. “I am committed to rolling back these immoral taxes and restoring fiscal responsibility in our budget.”

Beavers joined businessmen Randy Boyd of Knoxville and Bill Lee of Franklin in the field seeking the Republican nomination. Others who have expressed interest in running include U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin, state House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris.

Norris was a major proponent of the road funding bill after making changes to the measure to ensure that the tax cuts outweighed the increases. Harwell favored ultimately unsuccessful alternatives to the gas tax hike but ended up voting for the bill. State Sen. Mark Green, a vocal opponent to the gas tax increase, withdrew from the race last week.

Haslam acknowledged that opposing an increase in the gas tax might make political sense but argued that his plan presents the best approach to addressing Tennessee’s more than $10 billion backlog of road and bridge projects.

“If you want to repeal that, then how are you going to pay for road improvements? And are you going to take the tax cuts that we’ve made off the table, too?” Haslam said.

“It’s easy to say I’m going to do this or do that, but at the end of the day, the math has to work,” he said. “One of the charges of leadership - whether you’re a legislator or a governor - is to say, ‘I’ve got to make this budget work.’”

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