NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Republican Gov. Bill Haslam gave his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly on Monday, outlining his gas tax proposal and a proposal to expand his community college tuition program to all Tennessee adults.
Gas tax proposal
Haslam’s top legislative priority this year is to boost state funding to begin tackling a more than $10 billion backlog in road and bridge projects in the state. The governor wants to raise $278 million a year in new transportation funding, largely paid for by a tax increase on gasoline of 7 cents.
Haslam discussed concerns about why the state’s budget surplus can’t cover the transportation needs, saying $277 million is earmarked for transportation, but the surplus will be going to a variety of other things too like teacher raises and rising TennCare costs, particularly pharmaceutical needs.
Haslam is also proposing raising the diesel tax by 12 cents.
“The big heavy trucks are what do a lot of the damage to our roads, but what if you are someone that just has a regular car that runs diesel? You are going to be hit particularly hard. There are some phone calls in our office on that and then also the indexing of the gas tax has caused some controversy as well,” said State Senator Richard Briggs.
In exchange for that hike, Haslam is proposing tax cuts totaling $270 million on groceries, income from stocks and bonds and for manufacturing locating in the state. He says Tennesseans would save $55 million annually on their grocery bills.
Expanding higher education
Haslam also announced the Tennessee Reconnect Act, a proposal to expand the Tennessee Promise program to all adults in the state, not just new graduates, to give them tuition free access to two-year community colleges. If approved, Tennessee would be the first state in the nation to offer all citizens the chance to earn a degree or certificate without tuition or fees.
Tennessee adults can already attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology tuition-free under the Reconnect Program, but this would add community colleges to the program.
He then proposed the Tennessee Strong Act, which would provide tuition reimbursement for men and women serving in the Tennessee National Guard toward a first-time bachelor’s degree.
Teacher pay raises and other budget proposals
Haslam spoke about spending more money on education and increasing teacher salaries. His budget proposal includes $200 million to fund the Basic Education Program (BEP) including $100 million for teacher salaries and $22 for English Language Learners.
Haslam is proposing $77 million for state employee pay raises, $132 million for the state’s Rainy Day Fund, $655 million for maintenance and new buildings across general government and higher education, $78 million for higher education and the Complete College Act, $15 million for career and technology education equipment, $21 million to fund recommendations from the Rural Task Force, $11.6 million to fund 700 additional slots in the Employment and Community First CHOICES program, and $9.5 million to expand substance abuse and crisis intervention treatment services and supports.
The governor has also announced a $45 million program to boost access to broadband internet services in rural parts of the state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.