House Republicans soundly defeated a raft of Democratic attempts to revise their plans for state spending of $31.4 billion in the coming year Thursday and, by a closer margin, put down rebellion against closing a Taft Youth Center.
The end result was a 66-39 vote for HB3835, the budget bill submitted by Gov. Bill Haslam. It includes virtually everything that Haslam wanted along with some additions.
The additions, however, are in conflict with Senate plans and leave uncertain the prospects for enactment of the budget in time to adjourn the 107th General Assembly this week as leaders had planned.
The Senate will take up the budget today. As approved in committee, it includes several special projects that the House has axed.
The longest debate in the House – if not the most heated – came on an effort led by Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, to block Haslam’s plans to close the facility for juvenile offenders in Bledsoe County.
The governor says it will save taxpayer money to send young inmates at the center to other juvenile facilities across the state. Sexton and others argued that the move will mean laying off about 150 employees who are running a facility that is designed for the “worst of the worst” juvenile offenders and, at the same time, has the best success rate in rehabilitation.
Sexton’s amendment was crafted so as not to add any expense to the Haslam budget plan, instead requiring the Department of Childrens Services to re-allocate funds now otherwised budgeted.
At one point, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick’s motion to kill Sexton’s amendment was defeated – prompting him to recess the House session for a round of prodding Republicans backing Sexton to change their vote.
After more maneuvers, apparently including promises from administration officials to work with legislators toward finding jobs with comparable pay for laid-off workers, the amendment was defeated.
Democrats, noting that the state had a surplus of $107 million already on hand that is not spent in Haslam’s budget, proposed an array of uses for the money. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, says the total clearly will reach $200 million and perhaps up to $400 million during the coming year.
“The governor’s budget is good, as far as it goes,” he said. “It just doesn’t go far enough.”
Fitzhugh said the whole budget process was “fatally flawed” because the State Funding Board, which often has had April meetings to readjust revenue projections, did not meet this year. The result is “hiding” at least $200 million, he said.
House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, says the state needs to keep a stash of cash to deal with possible new state spending required next year by the federal Affordable Health Care law.
Among the Democrat amendments defeated on party-line votes:
-Restoring a 2 percent cut previously imposed on higher education statewide. Fitzhugh said the move would assure that tuition increases at colleges and universities required in the coming year – now projected at 6 percent to 10 percent – would be cut in half.
-Lowering the state sales tax on food to 5 percent, instead of 5.25 percent as Haslam has recommended in drafting the budget.
–Provide state technical centers and community colleges with $30 million to buy equipment, computers and other needs to train students in skilled jobs.