Budget bickering within Republican ranks, determined Democratic effort to make political points and a bipartisan desire to let veterans gamble combined to thwart leadership plans to adjourn the 107th General Assembly last week.
The fallback plan of legislative leaders calls for an unusual Sunday evening session today to deal with the veterans issue, followed by Monday meetings of the House and Senate wherein reunited Republicans will presumably vote down the determined Democrats.
And then, unless plans go astray again, legislators will go home to begin campaigns for election to the 108th General Assembly — probably with some of the curious voting that took place last week as part of the picture for those seeking new terms.
There has been broad, bipartisan agreement on almost everything within the $31 billion budget plan submitted by Gov. Bill Haslam with the exception of his proposal to close the state’s maximum security prison for juvenile offenders, Taft Youth Center.
On that matter, there was a bipartisan effort in both the House and Senate to block the Taft closure, provoking long and impassioned public debate — and reportedly intense private lobbying by the Haslam administration — before governor’s plan prevailed.
Otherwise, the arguments over the budget all revolved around items that legislators wanted to add to the Haslam plan. Predictably, the Republican majority voted down Democratic efforts for a substantial increase in spending.
The Haslam plan leaves at least $200 million in state revenue unallocated — Democrats extrapolate that figure to double in the coming year. A Democratic alternative budget would have spent about $150 million of that money and put the remaining $50 million into the state’s “rainy day” account. The governor and Republican legislative leaders say that would be a bad idea because the money likely will be needed next year if the federal Affordable Care Act is implemented.
In killing the Democratic plan, Republicans are now on record — with a bit of political campaign translations — as having voted against everything from a cut in the tax on groceries to aid for needy college students and job-creating programs.
Not so predictably, the Republican majorities of the House and Senate adopted conflicting versions of add-on earmarks.
House and Senate Republicans had reached agreement in closed-door meetings on what to leave in and what to leave out in the way of earmarks. About $600 million in budget add-ons had been proposed by individual legislators in filed budget amendments.
But when the House Finance Committee prepared to vote on the agreed plan, Democrats — starting with House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh — protested that some were “pork barrel” and conflicted with an understanding that no earmarks would be strictly of local benefit. Instead they were supposed to be of statewide, or at least regional, benefit.
Perhaps mindful of the political negatives raised by “pork barrel” spending, Republicans agreed on some of the projects and chopped them from the agreed-upon list. Most were in East Tennessee — including $1 million to “build-out” an uncompleted building at Roane State Community College and $300,000 for the E.M. Jellinek Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Knoxville.
Senate Republicans responded by voting to cut $22 million in projects, including some that are part of Haslam’s budget. Most were in West Tennessee, notably including $12 million for completion of a “megasite” industrial park and $4 million for making Lambuth University, a private Jackson school closed by financial problems, a part of the University of Memphis.
The clash resulted in the first appointment of a House-Senate Conference Committee to resolve budget differences in more than a decade. The result of that committee meeting Friday night was another deal — one with some odd aspects insofar as individual projects go and a new opportunity for Democrats to score political points.
For example, the $1 million for Roane State Community College was restored to the list of approved spending. But the Jellinek Center was not.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley led Democratic efforts to revise the Republican plan. He said that Democrats were wrong in their initial assessment of the Jellinek grant as strictly local because the center treats patients from throughout East Tennessee. The center can also use the money to help those impacted by Haslam’s plan to close nearby Lakeshore Mental Health Center, he said.
His motion to restore the Jellinek money was voted down by Republicans.
On Roane State, Fitzhugh proposed that the appropriation be expanded to $5 million, with Chattanooga State, Jackson State, Walters State and Dyersburg State each also getting $1 million to complete unfinished building projects. The Legislature previously allocated $19 million for construction at nine community colleges, he said, and only four wound up with enough money to complete their buildings. It would be unfair, he said, to single out Roane State for special treatment.
Republicans voted down his motion. The motion to kill it came from House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, who thus was in the unusual political position of voting against funding for a college in his hometown while giving $1 million to a college elsewhere.
Democrats later pointed out that Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, is an assistant professor at Roane State. The Jellinek earmark had originated with Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville.
Fitzhugh and Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, announced they plan to prepare a conference committee “minority report” that effectively will put the Fitzhugh proposal up for votes on the floor of the House and Senate along with the Republicans’ “majority report.”
Which may be seen as another determined effort to score political points.
The veterans issues is posed by SJR222, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would allow veterans organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars to hold raffles, lotteries or other fundraising events involving gambling.
The state constitution now prohibits gambling except for the state-sanctioned lottery and events sponsored by one category of non-profit organizations.
Sponsor Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, says veterans organizations were “inadvertently” omitted when the current constitutional provision was adopted.
Crowe’s resolution passed the Senate on March 1. But it did not reach the House floor until Friday.
The rules for amending the constitution require that the resolution to be read aloud on three separate days on the House floor before passage. With the first reading delayed until Friday, legislative leaders decided to hold special sessions of the House and Senate at 7 p.m. Sunday to allow a second reading.
That means the third and final reading — and a House vote — can be held on Monday.
If the House approves, as expected, the resolution would then go to the 108th General Assembly that convenes next year. If the 108th also approves, the proposal would go to a statewide vote in 2014.
Without the special Sunday session, lawmakers would be required to have the second reading Monday, then meet again Tuesday to pass the resolution.
And the present plan is for legislators to be gone by then.