In Downtown Columbia, Fierce Opposition To Governor Haslam's Gas Tax Plan

Feb 10, 2017

On a good day, it takes about an hour to drive the 50 miles from downtown Nashville to the courthouse square in Columbia, Tenn.

That's far enough to get a different perspective on the potholes, bottlenecks and traffic jams many Middle Tennesseans complain about.

"I've lived in seven different states," says Tricia Stickel, president of the Maury County Tea Party. "I think we have excellent roads."

Governor Bill Haslam is barnstorming the state this week to sell Tennesseans on his plan to pay for roads by increasing the gas tax. Many state legislators agree roads are in desperate need of repairs and upgrades.

But passage is uncertain. And a visit to Columbia offers clues as to why.

On this night, Stickel is helping to organize resistance to Governor Haslam's road-funding proposal. About 30 people have packed into a downtown Columbia storefront called the Reagan Building — as in the former president.

There are some road problems in this community. Two bridges have been closed, and the traffic near the General Motors plant in Spring Hill is horrendous, everyone agrees.

But it's hard to find any here who thinks raising the gas tax is a good idea. Tennesseans won't just be hurt at the pump, says Stickel. The hike will filter through to everything else.

"Consider all the food in your grocery store," she says. "This is a double whammy. … Every good in that store will be increased, and they'll get the tax on that."

It's not especially surprising that conservative activists would be opposed to a tax plan. That is what the tea party is all about.

But these are the foot soldiers being mustered to fight Haslam's transportation plan.

The governor has proposed raising the state's gas tax by seven cents a gallon. It would be the first hike in nearly three decades.

Haslam knows this is a bitter pill for many Tennesseans to swallow.

"I just think that's just the reality," the governor says. "We live in a state that is very conservative about how we spend money and how we do taxes."

So Haslam has sugarcoated the proposal. He's offered cuts to the state's sales tax, its tax on investments and its taxes on manufacturers.

"And in the bargain, you get billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure."

The governor's office estimates the gas tax increase will bring in $344 million a year, helping the state make significant progress to the more than $10 billion in highway upgrades that Haslam says Tennessee needs. Plus, the hike will generate additional money for cities and counties to patch up local roads.

Polls suggest most Tennesseans are willing to go along with the governor. A survey taken by Vanderbilt University found that 55 percent of likely voters would support an increase of as much as eight cents — one more cent than the governor has proposed.

Andy Ogles of Americans for Prosperity's Tennessee chapter explains his group's opposition to the gas tax proposal.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

The timing's good. Gas prices are relatively low, and for the first time in seemingly forever, there's not an election immediately on the horizon. It may be well into the next decade, Haslam says, before the political stars again line up to make a debate over a gas tax increase possible.

But there's also a complication: The state is running a $1 billion budget surplus. That money should be tapped into first, says Andy Ogles of the small government group Americans for Prosperity. He's also been traveling the state.

"This is a fight," he tells the Maury County Tea Party meeting. "It's not going to be won easily. … Let's make sure our voices are heard."

AFP's involvement is significant. The organization helped to sink Haslam's last big initiative, to expand Medicaid.

Ogles tells the crowd in Columbia to gear up for something similar.