Monthly Archives: May 2010

Pork, Pilot and Other Budgeting in the Governor’s Campaign

By Erik Schelzig:
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says his gubernatorial aspirations aren’t a factor in his insistence on ridding the state budget of local projects that he calls pork barrel spending.
And yet in explaining his opposition to spending $16 million on a fish hatchery in Carter County or $5 million on the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Ramsey draws back to a campaign refrain that promises to “give Washington the boot.”
“This is a symbol of running things the Tennessee way, and not the Washington way,” Ramsey, a Blountville auctioneer, told reporters at the Capitol last week amid the budget impasse.
Ramsey is running against Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga in the Republican primary on Aug. 5. Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, is the lone Democrat running.
The Ramsey campaign has taken aim at Wamp for his vote for the $700 billion bailout of the U.S. banking system and has characterized him as a “serial earmarker” for votes in favor of pet projects around the country.

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Budget Cutting? Well, Just Imagine Judgment Day & Dream of Taxes

OK, I knew the state budget battle involves a lot of symbolism – the heartless versus the spendthrifts, as previously noted at some length. I didn’t realize it was inspiring fantasies.
But apparently so, at least in the case of the proposed Senate Republican cuts for the Governor’s Office of Children’s Care Coordination, which strives to combat infant mortality. And from opposing sides.
Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr imagines Republicans trying to explain the cut on Judgment Day. Rep. Stacey Campfield says on his blog that he had ab entirely different fantisy as he was drifting off to sleep. Just goes to show, i guess, that folks think about things in entirely different ways.
The Kerr column is HERE. An excerpt:
Have they no shame? No moral compass whatsoever? Tennessee ranked an abysmal 47th in the nation for the number of babies who die before their first birthday in 2003, and Gov. Phil Bredesen dedicated $4.6 million — matched dollar for dollar by federal money – to stop that.
Guess what Senate Republicans stripped from the budget last week? Yep. The folks who fight abortion as immoral and anti-Christian don’t seem to care too much what happens once a mother gives birth. Can you imagine how they’ll explain that on Judgment Day?”
“Well, Lord, it was like this. We believed life begins at conception, and we’re against ending those lives. Once the babies are born? You’re on your own, kiddo. It’s a tough world. And we don’t tolerate slackers.”
It’s heartbreaking hypocrisy.

Campfield’s commentary is much shorter (link HERE) and goes, in full, as follows:
Last night as I was drifting off to sleep I was thinking about the budget and the political games the Democrats are playing. I was thinking about how they are all jumping up and down about the infant mortality study money.
Do they really care about the babies or is this just a political game? How serious are they really? What are they willing to do to keep funding up for this project?
Would they be willing to vote for a $50.00 tax on every abortion preformed in Tennessee to keep funding up?
Would they be willing to impose a $10,000.00 professional privilege tax on abortion doctors for the “Privilege” of killing unborn babies with the funding going to the infant mortality study?

Chances of $341 Million ‘Contingency’ Money for TN Budget Dim With U.S. House Vote

The prospects of Tennessee receiving an extra $341 million in federal funds for the coming year – both the House and Senate budget plans are drafted with receipt of the money in mind as a “contingency” – have dimmed substantially.
The $341 million was Tennessee’s anticipated share of $24 billion that would have been made available to states by extending for six months one part of the federal stimulus package.
The contingent plans for spending the money differ somewhat in the House and Senate budget proposals, figuring prominently in a dispute between the two chambers over a new state budget.
The House plan (and Gov. Phil Bredesen’s budget blueprint) call for using $16.1 million of the money to build a fish hatchery in Carter County near House Speaker Kent Williams home. Senate Republicans, joined by some colleagues in the House, have attacked the project as a symbol of wasteful “”pork barrel” spending.
Both plans also count on the federal money for $120 million needed to build the Highway Patrol a new radio communications system and provide new equipment for drivers license testing stations. (Bredesen proposed to get the money for those projects by raising drivers’ license fees by $2 a year, an idea apparently dead in both chambers.)
The House plan calls for using another $100 million of the money for improvements to community college facilities around the state. The Senate version proposes only $50 million for community colleges and sets another $50 million aside to provide state employee buyouts (not part of the House plan),
Andy Sher had a story on the developments Sunday, including comments from Williams.
“It’s arguing over money we may not even get,” observed Rep. Williams, noting that he won’t try to fund the hatchery with state dollars although he considers it an economic development project and “we always have money to do economic development.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures, in an alert on its website, says the funding is not completely dead but is “on life support.”
Here’s a story on the U.S. House action:
WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democrats on Friday salvaged a bill to continue providing unemployment checks to people out of work more than six months and revive tax breaks popular with families and businesses.
But spending cuts demanded by Democratic moderates unhappy about voting to increase the deficit will mean layoffs next year by state governments and no health insurance subsidies for people laid off after Memorial Day.
The House approved the legislation in a 215-204 vote that capped a turbulent week for Democratic leaders, who were forced to kill $24 billion in aid to cash-starved states and $7 billion for health insurance subsidies for laid-off workers. The programs were created by last year’s economic stimulus bill and Democratic leaders had wanted to extend them.

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Politics of Budget-Making: The Heartless Versus The Spendthrifts (at $185 per day, so far)

In the ongoing House-Senate state budget conflict, one side is being depicted as heartless, the other as bunch of spendthrifts and both as playing political games.
The competing plans generally follow spending recommendations of outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen. Both sides, however, rejected the governor’s recommendations for raising new revenue, which he had described as closing loopholes or equalizing tax levels and they differ in about $150 million of spending details.
That may not be much in the big $28 billion budget picture or if you consider that spending of state dollars has already been reduced by about $1.1 billion in a two-year period, under Bredesen recommendations, as state tax revenue collections declined in the economic downturn.
But the two sides have been locked down on a handful of specific conflicts. When the House and Senate meet again on Wednesday, they will be less than a month from the July 1 start of the state’s new budget year.
Senators, after Wednesday, will no longer be able to collect the automatic $185 per day in expense allowance normally received. That’s because Wednesday will be the 90th day the Senate has met in floor session, the maximum authorized by the state constitution. The House has three days left before facing a shutoff in the $185 per day payments to each member.

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The 2010 Symbolic Gesture Session

(Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel)
If the 2009 session of the Tennessee General Assembly was “year of the gun,” as some pundits reasonably suggested about this time last year, then maybe the 2010 edition is the session of the symbolic gesture.
In 2009, there really was action on multiple measures that actually changed laws to liberalize where handguns may be taken by carry permit holders and otherwise arguably impacting Second Amendment rights.
Republicans took control of the state House in the November, 2008 elections – they already had the Senate – and a flood of pro-gun bills, previously thwarted for years in committees appointed by former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh – flowed into the law books. They dealt with allowing guns in bars, guns in cars, guns in parks and so on.
There was, too, the Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act, which basically proclaims that, if you make a gun in our state without involving interstate commerce and keep it here, you can ignore federal firearms laws. Maybe that was a symbolic gesture – no one has tried to invoke its provisions yet, and the federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agency says the act is not to be taken seriously – but at least it set up a lawsuit.
In the 2010 symbolic gesture session, Republicans have once again taken the lead – not that the Democrats aren’t in there trying, too.
Last week, for example, the House spent the better part of an hour in impassioned debate over whether Arizona and its elected officials should be praised for enacting a law dealing with illegal immigrants.
It’s doubtful that anyone in Arizona noticed. Maybe a few weeks from now, a clerk at the Arizona House will get an engrossed copy of the resolution (HJR1253) and remark, “Well, isn’t that nice,” and show it to his/her bosses.
But it was a pretty good symbolic gesture and maybe should be seen as a Republican triumph. Yes, several Democrats joined in support – notably including almost all facing a hotly contested election this fall. They do not want to be found on the wrong side of a symbolic gesture, because there can be political consequences even if there are no physical or fiscal consequences.
Democrats tried a symbolic resolution, too, on the same day. The measure (HR369) praised President Obama for his administration’s efforts toward flood relief in Middle and West Tennessee. Ah, but the crafty Republicans, led by Knoxville’s Rep. Bill Dunn, attached an amendment that praised everyone else involved in flood relief as well and relegated Obama’s administration to the 23rd paragraph, behind Nashville TV stations and the like.
Perhaps the president can live with the disappointment.
Symbolic gestures have come in other forms this year. Here are a couple of examples that should symbolically make our state government function much better:
-Republican-sponsored HB2219, which has already become law of the land, declares in the central paragraph that, “Each department and agency of state government shall strive to achieve economic efficiency through utilization of innovative approaches and methodologies while maintaining the highest level of service for the citizens of Tennessee.”
-Democrat-sponsored HB3007, also already enacted into law, declares that the state finance commissioner must declare that some state employee already on the payroll shall be henceforth known as “the EFFECTS person.” That person, the law says, will “insure that state government is efficient, forward-looking, focused, energetic, competent and transparent.” EFFECT is the acronym for efficient, forward-looking, energetic, competent and transparent – get it.
Maybe the EFFECTS person can sent a memo to every department and agency of state government telling them to strive to achieve economic efficiency. It’s the law, you know.
There were some bills that started out with the premise of actually changing current state law, then were changed into symbolic gestures.
One example – there are several — is legislation that, as introduced, would have required that driver’s license examinations be conducted in English only. But it was watered down by amendment to simply restate present practice; that is allowing examinations in various languages so long the folks taking them are here legally. Thus, it accomplished really nothing, but it was an important symbolic gesture – allowing every legislator who voted for the bill to declare he/she supported English-only legislation.
Then there is the Tennessee Health Care Freedom Act and its various kindred, designed to declare defiance of a federal health care reform. The centerpiece bill directs the attorney general to file a lawsuit that he has, more or less, officially declared cannot and will not file.
Therefore, the bill is basically a symbolic gesture. But a darned important one, of course. Without action on this matter, how will anyone know – or believe – that Tennessee legislators stand for limited government.
So limited, in fact, that they enact laws that do nothing.
(Afterthought: You know, the budget battle involves some symbolic gesturing, too.)

‘You Haslam — I Don’t Has Something’

Bill Haslam introduced himself to “four no-nonsense veterans,” reports the Johnson City Press, by saying, “Hi guys. I just wanted to listen to what you had to say.” Here’s a sampler of what was said, following the introduction, from the article:
Porter told the candidate that he needed to “get on the legislators’ case about getting on board to help veterans. Take them in the back room and talk to them — whatever you have to do.”
The queries continued. And as they came, Haslam turned in his chair and faced each man when they spoke.
“Tell me more,” and “Keep going,” he responded many times.
“One of the main things I’m hearing is that some veterans returning from the Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan are finding it hard to get an education,” said Terry Nelson, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War. “Is there something the state can do? I’d like to see something more than federal holidays.”
No answers followed. At the same time, no campaign promises were offered up
.
(Note: The Legislature did set up a “Helping Heroes Grant” program a couple of years ago that provides up to $1,000-per-semister grants to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan attending state colleges and universities. It’s described on the Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. website, HERE.)
… “During this time when the federal government is being so gracious with public funds, we seem to have a lack of continuity due to their inability to keep medical professionals out there (at the VA) for some reason or another,” said Mike Sanford, a U.S. Air Force veteran who fought in Vietnam and also worked for the Secret Service. “These vets need the best care the VA can provide.”
“Keep going — tell me what you mean,” Haslam replied.
“Now where do you stand on gun control?” Sanford asked.
“The Second Amendment gives you the right to bear arms,” Haslam said. “The Supreme Court has upheld that.”
“Good,” Sanford said moments before riding away on his Harley-Davidson.
“You Haslam — I don’t has something,” joked Claude Griffith, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, as the two shook hands
.
The Haslam campaign did news release on veteran visiting. It’s not as interesting as the article, but it’s reproduced below nonetheless.

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The Other Fish Fight

The House and Senate have passed conflicting versions of a bill (H3136) that, as initially introduced, would have required restaurants serving catfish to state the “country of origin” on their menus.
The House version, as amended, now says customers must be told country of origin on request and it also prohibits calling a product catfish unless that’s what it really is. The Senate version, as amended, requires non-American catfish be designated as “imported” on the menu.
Chas Sisk has a thorough report on the arguments for and against catfish labeling, a movement spurred by growing imports from China and Vietnam. A spokesman for Gov. Phil Bredesen, incidentally, says the subject didn’t come up during the governor’s recent trip to China and Vietnam.
Tennessee would be the fifth state to pass such a law and the first that is not a major catfish production state. Catfish labeling legislation also has been introduced in Georgia, and supporters hope passage here will pave the way to similar laws in Texas, Missouri and Kentucky.
The Catfish Institute says it is primarily concerned about the safety of Asian catfish. Often raised in polluted rivers, imported fish frequently contain antibiotics and chemicals that would be unacceptable in food raised in the U.S., they say.
But Jack Flynn, a Rhode Island importer who supplies catfish to Middle Tennessee, disputes that claim. The federal government sets the same standards for domestic and foreign fish sold in the U.S., Flynn says.
“This is just a non-duty trade barrier,” he said. “Really, what they’re going to do is drive up the price of catfish in Tennessee.”

More Budget Battle Reports

Talking About Breaking Off Talks
Republican senators adopted their budget plan in Senate Finance Committee, reports Chas Sisk, after “abruptly breaking off talks with House negotiators, setting up an election-year showdown led by one of the Republican candidates for governor.”
Included in the article is some of the back-and-forth commentary. An excerpt:
(Lt. Gov. Ron) Ramsey said the tough line taken on the budget was consistent with his campaign statements. But he denied that political considerations factored into his thinking.
“I think I would probably be better off to be out of here (the legislative session) right now,” he said. “But I want to continue doing the job I’m hired on to do.
“I’m the lieutenant governor. I’m the speaker of the Senate. You finish that job before you go onto the next one.”
But (House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike) Turner said some of the GOP proposals seemed designed to fit Ramsey’s plans if he’s elected governor. He pointed to a Senate provision to set aside $50 million to buy out state workers, money that the Democratic plan would give to community colleges.
“I think Ron’s trying to set himself up where it won’t be so hard in his first year,” Turner said. “I think that’s what he’s doing. I think we’re playing politics here.”

Flooding in the Budget
Andrea Zelinski has a report on part of the flood of efforts by legislators to provide tax breaks to people impacted by floods in Middle and West Tennessee. It begins thusly:
Lawmakers are trying to work in sales tax relief to victims of this month’s flood, a move some worry could be abused by people trying to “game the system.”
Roughly 50,000 people have filed claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to line up for federal disaster aid. The state wants to tack a little extra relief onto that — up to $2,500 in sales tax refunds
.
Zelinski also did an article on the Senate Finance Committee “burning the midnight oil on the Senate’s penultimate legislative day.”
Babies Will Die
From Richard Locker: Despite pleas by children’s advocates and testimony that babies will die, Republicans on the state Senate Finance Committee stripped funding for an infant-death reduction initiative that officials say is reducing Memphis and Tennessee’s high rates of infant mortality.
The committee voted 7-4, on straight party lines Thursday night to reject an effort by Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis and others to restore the state budget funding for the governor’s Office of Children’s Care Coordination and the grants it administers across Tennessee.

Senate Budget Plan Now Includes Employee-Teacher Bonus

The Senate Finance Committee approved a pay bonus plan for state employees and teachers late Thursday night, effectively offering a compromise on one of the key differences in an ongoing House-Senate standoff over a new state budget.
The Senate Republican plan would provide a salary bonus of $50 for each year of service by a state employee, teacher or higher education employee, which would cost the state about $50 million. The funding would be contingent on state revenues coming in above official estimates.
The House version of the budget calls for granting each teacher and state employee a flat $500 “recession stipend,” which would cost the state about $72 million.
Senate Republicans had previously opposed any bonus for state workers and teachers. Gov. Phil Bredesen, in his budget plan, had proposed a 3 percent across-the-board bonus, which would cost about $113 million.
Otherwise, however, substantial differences remain between the House and Senate budget plans. In general, the House proposes to spend more out of state reserves while the Senate proposes to make more cuts to the budget.
The Senate Finance Committee approved its budget bill about 10:45 p.m. after more than six hours of debate and discussion, much of it devoted to arguments against various proposed cuts. In most cases, the Republican majority on the committee stuck with the cuts as planned and rejected extra spending programs that have been advanced in the House.
The Senate then convened in floor session, where the lawmakers dealt with around 30 non-controversial bills before adjourning at about midnight. The next Senate floor session will be Wednesday; the same day the House will meet again.