Not long after seeing fellow Republicans in the Legislature reject his effort to expand Medicaid, Gov. Bill Haslam toured Tennessee to pitch another politically difficult proposal: a transportation plan that would end up including the state’s first gas tax hike in nearly 30 years.
In the early months after the Insure Tennessee defeat in 2015, Haslam struck a defiant tone toward opponents trying to squash the new measure, telling them to “Have at it.”
He then applied lessons he learned from the earlier failure to build support for the transportation plan over time. His efforts succeeded and he scored a major victory earlier this week when lawmakers passed the transportation package.
The Legislature on Monday gave final approval to the measure that includes a 6-cent hike in tax on each gallon of gasoline and 10 cents on diesel. The bill, dubbed the Improve Act, also included a raft of tax cuts to offset the increases on fuel.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Haslam reflected on how he bounced back from the Insure Tennessee failure to gain passage of the Improve Act.
One of the mistakes he made with the Medicaid expansion, he said, was that he lost of focus of the political implications while negotiating a special deal with the administration of then-President Barack Obama.
“I had been working on it for a year and thinking about it and trying to figure out what could get done that was different than traditional Medicaid,” he said. “I didn’t take into account that the Legislature had not really been focused on that, so to them this was ‘Obamacare.’
“So that was my mistake for not realizing that,” he said.
When it came time to try to tackle transportation funding, Haslam said he was more aware of the political pitfalls, and his administration waited to introduce the measure until after the 2016 elections.
“It had the same sort of political difficulty — people in our Legislature are not too prone to vote for anything that has a tax increase, even if it had a net tax decrease like this one did,” he said.
“We knew from the beginning there were certain just no’s, it didn’t matter what you do,” he said.
Haslam said he took his time to build a strong coalition of lawmakers who agreed on the need to increase funding for infrastructure and who were willing and able to withstand political pressure from opponents.
Through his chief lobbyist, Warren Wells, the governor set about identifying lawmakers with an interest in seeing the bill pass. They included urban lawmakers who supported a provision to allow local tax referendums to pay for transit projects; former city and county officials who worried that doing nothing would likely lead to property tax increases at home; and lawmakers from across the state concerned about worsening traffic congestion and crumbling roads and bridges.
“We had the advantage that there were a lot of reasons to vote for this,” he said.
The biggest hurdle came in the shape of the smallest committee to consider the bill: The House Transportation Subcommittee. Haslam said he knew half of the eight members were strongly opposed and that it “wasn’t a piece of cake” to get the remaining four on board. And even then it took a tiebreaking vote from House Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson, a Republican from Clarksville.
“It’s like being dealt a hand of cards, you pick them and go: ‘OK, we’ve got to draw to flush here,” he said.
Haslam said the state had a “once-in-a-generation” chance to boost road funding while also cutting more in terms of the taxes on groceries, manufacturers and earnings from stocks and bonds.
“Sitting in the chair I sit in, it just felt like if we don’t do this, we’re wasting a big opportunity,” he said.