Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled his first piece of legislative agenda on Wednesday.
The governor is pushing a 7-cent hike in the state's gas tax, new fees on electric vehicles and rental cars and an end to being able to have an open container of alcohol in a car as part of an overall package aimed at tackling a $10 billion backlog of road projects that have been waiting for funding.
The plan calls for the first gas tax increase since 1989.
10News anchor John Becker interviewed Haslam on Wednesday afternoon to discuss plans for the state's 110th General Assembly. Below is a transcription of their interview.
Becker: Let’s start with your remarks (Wednesday) in some context for people in East Tennessee, what is the impact on roads like Alcoa and Chapman highway of your plan?
Haslam: Well thanks. You know Knoxville and East Tennessee are great examples of why we need to do something. We have (a) $6 billion backlog of projects in Tennessee.
A project like Alcoa Highway takes about $300 million, and that’s a critical we’ve been talking about for 20 years, heck for longer than that in the state. We’re not going to get done until 2030 if we stay on the current path we’re on, and that’s why we had to do something different to make certain we could pass onto our children and grandchildren as good of an infrastructure network in Tennessee as we got from our parents and grandparents.
Becker: And how quickly will that timeline happen? Are those projects in the pipeline or can you say if this is approved, we’ll see some action at this point?
Haslam: Sure, so we have about, like I said, $6 billion worth of projects that are approved and somewhere in the pipeline, but the timing on that all depends on what we…on passing something, what we actually get passed.
So, one of the other things we’ve proposed to do is take $120 million from our general fund, put that into transportation so we could kickstart some projects that we all know that are long overdue happening.
Becker: In the overall picture, $18 million is a small chunk of change, but it is meaningful and it has to do with the open container law in the state. You’d like to see that changed. Explain why.
Haslam: Tennessee is one only a handful of states that have a law that allows an open container of alcohol as long as it’s not the driver’s in a vehicle.
When you do that, the federal government penalizes you one cent per gallon. Basically, they say you cannot use for roads, and you have to use for other educational opportunities.
We would rather have the flexibility to use that for roads. So, we propose, again, passing a law that would outlaw having an open container in a vehicle, and that would allow us to use that additional $18 million for road improvements as well.
Becker: Governor if you could just explain a little bit more on the local options side of your proposal for local municipalities. What’s the design of that and what do you hope it does?
Haslam: Sure, well there’s a lot of municipalities in Tennessee, obviously the bigger cities that are, long term, hopeful of having some sort of mass transit plan.
The issue is it’s a lot harder to get federal funding for that than it used to be. In state dollars, like I said, we have a $6 billion backlog of our own.
We can help a little, but not much, and so the idea is to give the local municipalities that want it the ability to have their own referendum to have their own citizens say, “Yes, we would like to fund a mass-transit project in this way.”
The immediate demand for that is from Nashville because of Nashville’s growth, but there’s been some interest from other cities as well. The intent is just to enable them to have that referendum if they want to, and if their citizens want to vote for that.
Becker: Governor let’s move to education. A lot of other governors in the country, as well as the president of the United States, picking up on the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Achieves. That money goes, as you know, to local community colleges and as well as technical institutes for free tuition. Have you ever given consideration to expanding that to four-year institutions like some governors are now proposing?
Haslam: Well, we’ve looked at that. We’ve actually looked at how do we expand it in general?
Tennessee Promise has been an incredible success. You know we have more students now who fill out the financial aid form. The number of students going onto higher education has increased to about 20 percent.
What we want to do is let’s get what’s been a huge jump in our college attendance, see how it works, see how many of those students retain, and then let’s look and see what are other things we can do to make certain that we reach our Drive to 55, the effort to make certain that 55 percent of our population has a degree or certificate by the year 2025. We’re in the middle of some talks about that now.
Becker: Lastly, governor Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd told us earlier this week that he’s considering a run for governor. Are you encouraging him to do so?
Haslam: You know Randy has been great. Randy has been a great economic development commissioner for two years. Prior to that, he spent a year as a special advisor on higher education. He’s obviously a highly capable person.
It’s awfully early in the race. I’ve told Randy what I told others that being governor is the greatest job in America, and if you’re interested in it, you should pursue it, but I’ve said the same thing to other folks.
It does matter that we have really good people to run, and I felt like my job at this point is whoever is elected next to hand them the baton in the very best position that I can.
Becker: Gov. Haslam we appreciate your time from Nashville (Wednesday). Thanks very much, and hope to see you and talk to you again soon.
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