Democrats made a provision to give $500,000 for construction of a museum in Virginia the focus of last-minute criticism of a $31 billion state budget Monday as their attempts to make alterations were voted down.
After heated debate, the final, Republican-drafted version of the budget was approved 63-27. The Senate followed later with approval of the spending plan, mostly prepared by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, on a 31-2 vote with virtually no discussion.
Hopes for adjourning the legislative session Monday were dashed by long debate on other issues. The House and Senate will meet again Tuesday to deal with them.
Money intended for the Birthplace of Country Music Cultural Heritage Center was added to the budget at the urging of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who said the proposed building site is on the Virginia side of the state border that runs through Bristol.
As adopted by a House-Senate Conference Committee, which drafted the final version of the budget, the Tennessee Arts Commission will receive $600,000 for “musical heritage” grants. Ramsey said the understanding is that $500,000 will go to the new Bristol facility and $100,000 to Stax Records, a music teaching and museum facility in Memphis.
In the House, debate over the project began with Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, asking Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, sponsor of the budget, if he knew $500,000 in Tennessee taxpayer money to a museum in Virginia.
Sargent said that he did not, touching off a confused round of conflicting declarations and arguments over the status of the proposed structure. At one point, Sargent said it was in Tennessee “at the present time.”
Democrats in general said it was wrong to send Tennessee tax dollars to benefit another state. Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, questioned whether it was even legal and called for having the attorney general give an opinion on the matter. Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, called for revising the budget to say any building constructed with the aid of state tax dollars be “on the soil of Tennessee.”
Republicans said precedent had been set for spending money outside the state by a memorial in France to Tennessee soldiers killed in the World War II Normandy invasion and a military museum at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Ramsey said the total budget for building the new Bristol facility is $13 million and the state of Virginia has provided $3.5 million with other money coming from the cities of Bristol, Tenn., and Bristol, Va.; the federal Appalachian Regional Commission and private donors.
The basics of the budget as proposed by Haslam in February – including money for a 2.5 percent pay raise for state employees and teachers and covering revenue losses from cutting the state inheritance tax and the sales tax on groceries – have remained intact.
The House and Senate initially had differences over earmarks that were resolved in a House-Senate conference committee dominated by Republicans.
House Democrats made four attempts to change the conference committee plan, all voted down in party-line votes.