Lawmakers hit impasse on budget
Posted: Thursday, June 3, 2010 7:42 am
By LUCAS JOHNSON II
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee legislative leaders said Tuesday that a budget impasse may keep lawmakers in session at least two more weeks.
The House and Senate appeared close to reaching an agreement Tuesday after some lawmakers even met on Memorial Day to try to resolve their differences.
But House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said after talking with Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville on Tuesday morning that he doesn’t expect an agreement this week.
“We’re going on with our budget and they’re going on with theirs,” Turner said. “We’re telling our people to possibly be here over the next two weeks.”
The Senate Finance Committee passed its version of the budget plan last week and it could be on the Senate floor as early as Wednesday. The House plan began moving through the legislative process on Tuesday when it passed the House Budget Subcommittee.
Both proposals would create a $20 million relief program for Tennessee flood victims.
“I think it is apparent that this is extremely important in helping those that were devastated by the May flood,” said Democratic House Minority Leader Gary Odom of Nashville, whose proposal would provide sales tax relief.
Turner said he expects the session to be extended because the budget issue appears headed to a conference committee. State Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz said the last such committee on the budget was in 2002, “and it took a very long time.”
The sticking points include whether to give state employees a bonus, dismantling the governor’s infant mortality program and some capital projects, such as a plan to build a $16 million cold-water fish hatchery in Carter County, which is home to House Speaker Kent Williams, an Elizabethton independent.
Republicans adamantly oppose the fish hatchery in particular. Democrats have said the Republican stance is payback against Williams, who banded together with all the chamber’s Democrats to win the top leadership post by a single vote.
Williams was later stripped of his right to run for re-election as a Republican because of the maneuver.
“The Legislature will be in session until those who want taxes and a $16 million fish hatchery realize we will not pass either,” said Lance Frizzell, Ramsey’s spokesman.
Williams said Tuesday he understands the opposition to the fish hatchery is political, “but don’t penalize my community because of politics.”
The overall projected shortfall for the upcoming budget year is about $150 million beyond what Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen addressed in his original spending plan.
He hoped to plug the budget gap through a series of revenue measures that included eliminating a sales tax cap on big-ticket items, restoring the sales tax on the first $15 of cable bills and increasing annual driver’s license fees by $2.
Most lawmakers in both chambers oppose any type of tax increase.
Later Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved an administration bill that authorizes issuance of bonds to fund state projects.
Following its passage, some members of the committee questioned a letter to legislative leaders from the state comptroller’s office that a delay in the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report to the federal government could adversely affect the state’s bond rating.
Goetz said the delay is due to complications with a new system that is replacing and centralizing the state’s payroll administration, financial management, information technology and procurement systems.
He said the problems are being worked out and the audit should be complete next month. In the case of the state’s bond rating, be believes bond officials will be understanding.
“I think we can explain it,” Goetz said. “They know we’re working our way through it.”
Published in The Messenger 6.2.10