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.
“We balance our budget, a foreign concept to members of Congress,” Ramsey said at a tea party convention in Gatlinburg last month.
Wamp responded that the number of state employees has grown by 10,000 since Ramsey was first elected the Legislature and rejected Ramsey painting every member of Congress as being in lockstep with out-of-control spending.
“To assume that all 535 of us are all the same is dumb as a boot,” Wamp said.
Wamp has defended his support for specific federal funding for local projects, like the Chickamauga Lock replacement project that could cost up to $600 million.
“The federal government built that lock, it’s the federal government’s lock,” Wamp said. “The federal government has responsibility to replace that lock in 70-plus years.”
Haslam, who has been most reluctant among the candidates to go on the offense, has nevertheless raised questions about a legislative initiative in 2007 — Ramsey’s first year in charge of the Senate — to spend $20 million of a budget surplus on local projects in lawmaker’s home districts.
During the debate over the so-called “community enhancement grants,” one Republican lawmaker in a floor speech put a piece of bacon into an envelope as a protest to what he called pork barrel spending.
“Looking back now, I’d say that most people in state government would say: If we’d known then what we know now, would we have done it?” Haslam said earlier this year. “And the answer, I bet, is no.”
Meanwhile, McWherter last week criticized Haslam for opposing his plan to create tax breaks for small business when Haslam’s family business has received more than $500,000 in state grants and subsidies since 2007.
“What’s good for Pilot Oil should be good for small businesses throughout Tennessee,” McWherter said.
Haslam is a former president of Pilot Corp., a family-owned chain of truck stops with annual revenues of $16 billion. He said after a gubernatorial debate in Memphis last week that the company was asked by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen to help expand the availability of ethanol fuel.
“Pilot didn’t do it as a profitable venture, they did it because the state wanted to set up a clean-fuels corridor,” Haslam said.
Wamp quickly joined in taking aim at Haslam for the grants, and raised additional questions about what he called a “serious breach of ethics” for a $5.5 million stake held by Haslam and his family in a publicly funded movie theater in downtown Knoxville.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said the mayor and his family only became involved in the project as a “buyer of last resort,” because no one else would buy the bonds in a public bid.
Smith said Wamp is either “trying to mislead voters or hasn’t done his homework — neither are good characteristics for a governor.”