House and Senate Republican leaders settled their differences over earmarks in a $31 billion state budget during a conference committee Friday night, leaving the two chambers to meet Monday and sign off on the deal would end the 107th General Assembly.
Democrats vowed to file an alternative plan to the Republican agreement that would provide more money to community colleges.
The House-Senate conference committee was set up late Friday after the Senate on Friday morning passed a budget plan in substantial conflict over earmarks with the House version adopted Thursday.
The House had cut about $1.8 million in special projects that had been approved by the Senate Finance Committee. In retaliation, the Senate voted to cut another $22 million in House-approved projects – the largest being $12 million to complete a West Tennessee Megasite. The Senate cuts also included $4 million for spending related Lambuth University in Jackson, a private school that has been made a branch of the University of Memphis.
“That was one of the slickest threats I ever heard in my life,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner told Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris at one point.
The Conference Committee basically dropped all the cuts made by the Senate earlier in the day and some of the more modest in reductions made by the House. With a few exceptions, all the spending that Republican majorities in both chambers wanted will now be in the budget.
The biggest item of initial House cutting was elimination of $1 million to “build out” an incomplete building at Roane State Community College. The conference committee put that back into the budget.
Some smaller cuts were also restored, including $125,000 for a the Oral School for the Deaf in Memphis, which teaches deaf children how to talk. Others items were expanded, such as a $50,000 grant to Legal Services of East Tennessee – initially cut, but changed by the committee to $150,000 with $50,000 going to each grand division.
But other House cuts remained out of the budget under the conference committee compromise. They included $300,000 for the E.M. Jellinek Center in Knoxville and $200,000 to put up a privately-operated “higher education hub” in Somerville.
The House had decided on a generally bipartisan basis to make the initial cuts with members contending the selected items conflicted with a House-Senate “gentleman’s agreement” to spend no money on special legislative initiatives that were purely local in nature.
In the conference committee, Democrats defended that concept and tried to use it to expand spending in some areas. For example, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said the $1 million for Roane State’s “build-out” should be expanded to $5 million to cover similar projects needed at five other community colleges.
Fitzhugh said the Legislature three years ago provided $19 million for construction of new facilities at nine community colleges. Four got their buildings completed, he said, but five – including Roane State – did not have enough funds to finish the work.
It was unfair, Fitzhugh said, to let Roane State complete its building while Chattanooga State, Walters State, Dyersburg State and Jackson State were left with buildings still needing work.
Fitzhugh’s motion was killed on a party line vote in the conference committee. But Democrats said that – and other proposals shot down by Republicans in the committee – would be brought to the floor of the House and Senate as a “minority report” for a vote on Monday.