Haslam begins budget hearings amid calls for tax cuts, increased spending

Gov. Bill Haslam will have his first round of department budget hearings on Monday as various legislators are calling for tax cuts and various interest groups — like state employees who had no pay raise last year — are calling for increased spending. Excerpts from an Andy Sher setup story:

The governor, who will be inaugurated for a second four-year term in January, knows the drill.

“It’s easy to say I’d like to cut taxes. I would, too,” Haslam told reporters earlier this month. “It’s easy to say I’d like to spend more. I would, too.”

But, the governor said, “we have to present a balanced budget.”

Haslam ordered state departments in August to submit plans detailing how they would cut up to 7 percent of their budgets. That was after the state wound up with a $300 million shortfall in the 2014 budget year that ended June 30.

But those cuts are all theoretical right now. The actual amount of any reduction hangs on how much state tax collections rebound, on what needs are most pressing and on Haslam’s own spending priorities.

So far this year, general fund revenues are running $91 million above projections. The 2014-15 budget is $32.4 billion. Some $12.9 billion of that comes from the federal government and the rest from state sources.

Beginning Monday morning, five state agencies will detail their priorities and where they might cut if necessary. (Note: They are Human Services, Tourism, Health, Mental Health, Children’s Services.)

…House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, blamed previous budget cuts for the chaos.

“I’m convinced the problems we had in Children’s Services were, frankly, from cutting staff too quickly and making some changes to save some short-term money instead of trying to make sure we accomplish our long-term goals,” Fitzhugh said.

That’s happening in several areas, Fitzhugh said, noting unemployed Tennesseans are having problems finding work because of major cuts at state career centers.

But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, disagreed things have gone too far.

“I think [the governor] has been very judicious in the cuts that he’s made,” he said. “At the same time, we’re seeing increasing funding demands.”