Gas tax, health care complicate Tennessee governor's race

Wildcard issues make race for Tennessee governor less predictable.

Eric Schelzig, The Associated Press | 4/15/2017, 12:10 p.m.
Wildcard issues make race for Tennessee governor less predictable.
Gov. Bill Haslam (Photo: tn.gov)

The repeal of former President Barack Obama's health care law was supposed to provide a springboard for U.S. Rep. Diane Black's entry into the Tennessee governor's race.

State Sen. Mark Green was supposed to capture to the core of President Donald Trump's supporters.

And term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam's gas tax proposal was supposed to fall flat, avoiding political difficulties for House Speaker Beth Harwell.

But none of that has happened as expected, leaving an unsettled Republican field for the 2018 gubernatorial nomination.

The bid to replace and repeal the health care law fell apart, and Black, who chairs the powerful House Budget Committee, has given little indication since then about her plans about entering the governor's race.

Green has put his gubernatorial ambitions on hold since being nominated by Trump to become the next secretary of the Army. That might lead tea party-styled Republicans like state Sen. Mae Beavers or former Rep. Joe Carr to jump in the race.

And Haslam's transportation plan is poised for votes on both the House and Senate floors next week.

Harwell, who had publicly been neutral on the governor's road funding proposal, caught her Senate counterparts and Haslam's office by surprise when she suddenly declared her support for stripping the fuel tax hike from the bill.

"There's a fine line between indecision and deception," responded Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, another potential Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Norris has championed the governor's bill as including tax cuts that total more than would be raised through the fuel tax increases, while also beginning to tackle overdue road and bridge projects.

Norris voiced exasperation at Harwell's last-minute efforts, saying he'd "never seen a real Republican run from a tax cut like she is."

Harwell was long considered Haslam's closest ally in the Legislature, and her likely governor's bid was expected to take the shape of continuing the governor's legacy. That began to fall apart when she declined to embrace Haslam's effort to extend health care coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans in 2015.

Despite strong support from the hospital industry, the business community and some wealthy potential donors, Harwell declined to get behind the effort called Insure Tennessee, and the measure failed without getting even one House committee vote.

Harwell's disagreement with Haslam over the transportation bill appeared to signal another break with Haslam and a similar array of supporters. The move was seen as an attempt to position herself more to the right, though she has often been criticized by tea party groups for not being conservative enough.

But Harwell again appeared to change course late this week when she told reporters that she was "leaning" toward voting for the road funding bill if attempts to remove the gas tax fail on the floor. It's unclear what prompted that apparent change of heart, or whether this stance will affect her gubernatorial aspirations.

With Green's attention now focused on the Pentagon, the only Republican candidate actively campaigning around the state is Haslam's former education adviser and economic development commissioner Randy Boyd. The Knoxville philanthropist burnishes his credentials as a natural successor to the popular incumbent.