Democrats’ contentions that Senate Republicans had slipped “pork barrel” projects into the state budget derailed plans for passage of the $31 billion plan Wednesday after House Republicans at least partially agreed with them.
The House Finance Committee voted to strip $1.5 million in Senate-approved spending amendments from the budget – including $300,000 for Knoxville’s E.M. Jellinek Center – after a two-hour, closed-door GOP conference triggered by House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey responded by saying House leaders had broken a deal. In effect, Some House members said the same thing of the senators for their action in adding the questioned spending.
Ramsey canceled plans for Senate floor action on the budget Wednesday night and indicated the Senate may retaliate by cutting projects favored by the House.
“We’re going into the cutting room,” Ramsey said, adding that the House move jeopardizes the goal of ending the 107th General Assembly by Friday and “we’re prepared to come back next week.”
The dispute began with the House Finance Committee on the budget, which began with Republicans killing Democratic proposals for increased spending in several areas. Democrats contend Haslam’s budget leaves at least $214 million in surplus revenue unallocated and perhaps as much as $400 million, if state tax collections continue at present rates.
Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes, backed by Republican legislators, says the money needs to be held back largely because the federal Affordable Health Care law may add $200 million to $300 million to state expenses next year if the Supreme Court upholds the law.
After the main Democratic amendment was killed, Naifeh proposed a series of five amendments to delete special projects inserted into the budget by senators.
One would delete $200,000 for the city of Somerville in West Tennessee to build what House members described as a privately-operated “higher education hub” for area college students.
Naifeh said the money was “absolute pork barrel” and violated what Republicans had told him was a House-Senate agreement against funding any purely local special projects, though allowing some extra spending on regional or statewide projects.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, moved to kill, or table, Naifeh’s proposal to strip the Somerville grant from the budget. But some Republicans sided with Naifeh and the former House speaker prevailed.
McCormick then shut down the meeting and called the Republican conference. When the GOP members emerged, they returned to committee and voted to strip several Senate-approved spending from the budget – including the Somerville money pushed by Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville.
Also deleted was the $300,000 for Jellinek, added in the Senate by Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, who says the drug and alcohol rehabilitation needs the funding because Lakeshore Mental Health Center is closing. Also eliminated was $1 million for renovation work at a Roane State Community College building and some smaller projects.
There was also some added spending – for example expanding a $50,000 grant to Legal Services of East Tennessee to a $150,000 grant with $50,000 also going to Legal Services programs in West and Middle Tennessee. The net was a $1.5 million budget reduction, McCormick said.
The House also modified a Senate amendment to give $500,000 toward establishing a “Birthplace of Country Music Museum” in Bristol, which is in Ramsey’s district. The House version calls for $600,000 in “music heritage” grants to be distributed statewide.
McCormick said that, while he had initially opposed Naifeh’s stripper amendments, the consensus of House Republicans was “not just fund people’s pet projects.”
“They don’t take orders very well,” said McCormick of the GOP Caucus, adding that he now agrees “they did the right thing.”
Ramsey strongly disagreed.
“We shook hands, looked each other in the eye and said we had a deal,” Ramsey said.
With the House reneging on that deal, Ramsey said senators would take the attitude “they want just local, we’ll give them local.”\
He suggested that could mean stripping from the budget funding for such projects as the West Tennessee Megasite, which would receive another $25 million under the budget as submitted by Haslam.
Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said that “obviously, we’ve got some conversations the two chambers need to have.” But he predicted it would ultimately be a “hiccup” in the budget-making process.