By Keel Hunt via The Tennessean
The last Tennessee legislature to raise the gasoline tax was also a super-majority – just the other way around – and the governor was of their same party.
The year was 1989, when the Democrats were in charge. The higher fuel taxes that Gov. Ned McWherter recommended, and the General Assembly approved, completed a grand bargain that had been struck three years earlier in the final year of Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander’s time.
It’s a relevant story for this month. The current super-majority is Republican – the blue state now being red – but the discussion on Capitol Hill about transportation and taxes is reminiscent of the historic “1986 Road Program” that so moved Tennessee forward.
Politically and culturally the times are different, and the two programs are also: More new highways then, more highway and bridge maintenance now together with new prospects for transit. But two things have not changed: The implications for long-term economic prosperity, and a leadership moment for the current General Assembly.
Enactment of the 1986 initiative, with a phase-in of two tax increases over three years, enabled a statewide program for new highways, notably connecting more isolated county seats to interstate routes. It also eliminated Tennessee’s highway bond debt.
That year, Alexander insisted that modern highways were essential to recruiting the wave of suppliers to serve the state’s new automakers. The investment paid off – today 917 automotive suppliers in 85 counties employ many thousands of Tennesseans.
We take so much of this progress for granted now, and we should not.
The prosperity that Tennesseans have enjoyed over three decades was not accidental but deliberate. Supporting the automakers’ just-in-time delivery model, for example, is no less important today to Nissan, GM and now Volkswagen. And deteriorating roads won’t help anybody find the future.
Our needs today are also more complex. In the Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis and Chattanooga markets, transit choices are essential to livability now. These days, job creation and robust hiring are driven by the availability of a talented workforce – for whom “lifestyle” choices include more convenience and better access to work.
(Did you know between one-half and two-thirds of all workers in Rutherford, Sumner and Williamson counties now drive in to work each day from other counties? No wonder rush-hour congestion is only getting worse.)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan would upgrade or replace many hundreds of highways and bridges and add some new routes, including Interstate-69 in northwest Tennessee. Local jurisdictions would also have new authority for transit referendums.
Legislative politics must always be factored in, but here history can help. Tennessee actually raised fuel taxes three times in the 80s – in 1981, 1986 and 1989.
The highway fund was depleted in 1981, as it is now. I spoke with former state Rep. Lincoln Davis, Democrat of Fentress County, about his vote that year. A freshman, he was skeptical of any tax hike, but then he held town hall meetings in each of the five counties in his Upper Cumberland district.
“I remember Jackson County especially,” he told me. “They were Democrats. The courthouse in Gainesboro was completely full. Before I started, I asked them if they wanted me to vote for it. Over half of them raised their hands against it.”
Then he described the highway program and its benefits. At the end of the evening, the tone in the room had changed to positive.
“Lincoln, I was not for you voting for this tax increase,” one constituent said, “but if what you’ve just told us is true, if you vote against it I’ll be voting against you the next time you run.” Next day, Davis signaled McWherter and Alexander that he was supporting the program.
That “yes” vote didn’t hurt Davis’ politics. He was reelected the following year, and after that his constituents sent him to Congress.
Nor did McWherter’s leadership on the 1986 vote damage his prospects: That November he was elected governor (succeeding Alexander, who was term-limited) running on a record of better roads and new jobs.
Many McWherter allies will tell you how he loved to declare: “Schools plus roads equals jobs!”
Three decades later, that math of the common man still adds up. Today’s super-majority ought to lead us now into Tennessee’s next 30 years and adopt this governor’s wise proposal.