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.
In the argument, the spendthrifts, according to Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and other Republicans, are those in a House coalition of Democrats, House Speaker Kent Williams and a handful of GOP allies who have developed what they presented as a “no-new-taxes, conservative budget.”
But the House plan also includes some spending the Republicans have labeled as “pork” and inappropriate in a time of state revenue shortfalls and cuts to other programs.
As a symbol, the Republicans have chosen to put the spotlight on a proposal for using $16.1 million in federal funds to build a fish hatchery in Carter County that has been planned for several years. Bredesen recommended the expenditure, contingent on receiving the federal money, part of an anticipated $341 million that has not actually been approved yet in Washington.
The House plan incorporates the proposal with the enthusiastic and determined support of Williams, who represents Carter County.
“We really are down now to quibbling over a fish hatchery,” Ramsey told reporters last week, adding that all19 members of the Senate’s Republican majority are “willing to stay as long as it takes to avoid having pork barrel projects.”
Several other items in the House budget have been branded as pork, including a $5 million grant to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and considerably smaller grants to various organizations around the state.
The Senate Republicans have presented what they describe as “a conservative, no-new-taxes” budget that chops several programs Bredesen had recommended for continuation, leaving to House contentions of heartlessness.
The most highlighted symbol of Republican ruthlessness in Democrat presentations has been a cut for the Governor’s Office of Children’s Care Coordination, which Bredesen recommended to continue receiving $4.5 million per year, which is matched by federal money to conduct programs combating infant mortality, childhood diseases and child abuse prevention.
The GOP plan cuts the funding in half, which program director Bob Duncan said means it will terminate on Dec. 31. The GOP budget, based at least partly on the premise that similar services are offered through other programs, also envisions no money for the program in future years.
In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, Duncan pleaded for continued funding, declaring that termination would mean “babies dying” and Democrats agreeing with him. On a party-line vote, the committee voted 7-4 to keep the cut in place.
State Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester singled out Ramsey, who is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, in a news release attacking the “Republican budget that would eliminate funding for an agency meant to save the lives of babies.”
“We have made progress reducing the infant mortality rate here in Tennessee since Gov. Bredesen started the Office of Child Care Coordination,” Forrester said. “Why in the world would you want to eliminate programs meant to save a baby’s life?”
State Republican Chairman Chris Devaney, meanwhile, issues news releases praising the GOP efforts and decrying the House plan favored by Democrats.
“It is frustrating to learn that House Democrats apparently broke down negotiations because they refuse to back down on bigger spending and more government,” said Devaney. “From day one, Republicans have advocated for a budget that reins in spending and protects Tennessee taxpayers. Clearly House Democrats are not on the same page.”
There is also talk of political maneuvering among legislators. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said the Republican focus on the fish hatchery is “political payback” for Williams voting with Democrats to elect himself speaker last year. Ramsey said the hatchery is a “symbol of out-of-control spending,” but criticism of it is “absolutely, positively, unequivocally not” aimed at Williams for political reasons or intended to help his gubernatorial campaign (though he concedes it might).
Williams, who has been banished from the Republican party, is seeking re-election as an independent. He has depicted the GOP budget plan as based on political considerations of Ramsey and other Republicans running for higher office. Two Republican senators, Diane Black of Gallatin and Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, are running for Congress.
Turner said the Republicans have advanced “the most political budget I’ve ever seen,” trying to appease “the right-wing” and confusing voters on the difference between generally tight-fisted state spending and deficit federal spending. The result is cuts that are unnecessary and ill-advised, he said.
Bredesen said that “frankly, I am disappointed” with the Republican plan as approved by the Senate Finance committee.
“They have backed up on some important issues that I was told had been resolved. I trust these can be fixed before the process is complete,” Bredesen said in a statement.
Still, the Senate Republicans have retreated on some earlier proposals and offered compromises on others.
Most recently, the Senate Finance Committee late Thursday night approved a plan to provide state employees, teachers and higher education employees a salary bonus payment of $50 per year of working for the state, contingent on state revenue coming in higher than presently projected.
That would cost the state about $50 million and is a change from Republicans’ prior position of insisting there should be no pay bonus in the coming year.
Bredesen had proposed giving state employees a one-time bonus of 3 percent of each workers salary, costing $113 million. The House plan proposes a flat $500-per-employee “recession stipend,” costing about $72 million.
Republicans have also retreated from earlier proposals that could have ended Career Ladder salary supplements for teachers, which can amount to as much as $3,000 per year and which date back to the days of former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander, and to cut “agriculture enhancement grants” to farmers.
The House plan dips more deeply into state reserve funds than the Republican plan, though proponents point out that – if one counts all available reserves and not just the “rainy day” fund and TennCare reserves – there will still be $500 million in reserve money available.
The House plan calls for spending $100 million, contingent on receipt of the anticipated $341 million in federal funds, to upgrade facilities at the state’s community colleges. The Senate plan cuts that in half and proposes to set aside the other $50 million to provide buyout packages to state employees.
Without dissent, both plans accept Bredesen’s request to set aside $51 million of the contingent money to provide economic incentives to unidentified businesses – two, by some accounts – to build new facilities in Tennessee.
The Republican plan, meanwhile, calls for spending $16 million to keep in effect for another six months the contract with Corrections Corporation of America for housing prisoners in a Hardeman County facility. Bredesen had proposed closing it July 1 and moving inmates to recently-expanded state prisons. The CCA prison is in Republican Sen. Delores Gresham’s district.