Lawmakers predict leaner state budget

On April 4, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

By Rino Dolbi, The Independent, SCN
April 4, 2008

Belt tightening will be the order of the day for the Tennessee Legislature for the remainder of the 105th session as revenue shortfalls continue to lower the availability of funds for state programs and agencies.

Six members of the legislature spoke on what is going on during this session at the Collierville and Germantown Chambers of Commerce ninth annual Legislative Breakfast held March 28 at Ridgeway Country Club.

State Sen. Mark Norris opened by telling several hundred guests that Tennessee, like many other states, is facing tough fiscal times. “One thing I will tell you is that the state is still strong despite the downtown in the economy,” he said. “But we will have a leaner budget.”

Leaner may be an understatement.

At present, he said the state agencies and programs are looking at $181 million in cuts due to lack of revenue. And a supplemental budget is in the offing with even deeper cuts proposed. Before it’s all over he said the state may have to cut as much as $300 million from the budget.

“But we are planning for this,” he said. “We are trying to anticipate what will happen and we don’t believe there is anything coming up that we can’t handle.”

Norris said he is particularly interested in funding education and a consideration is how excess lottery funds will be used. The state will have as much as $350 million in excess lottery funds to consider.

State Sen. Paul Stanley said the legislature would also have an opportunity to improve on a crime package that was initiated last year.

One facet of the proposed bill would add more assistant district attorneys to speed up the legal process and put convicted criminals behind bars. Another bill would continue the effort to increase penalties on those who commit gun crimes.

Stanley said crime in general, as well as gang-related crime, can no longer be considered an inner-city problem.

“We all have to be concerned about the crime issue, it touches us all,” he said. “I am convinced the right laws can significantly lower the incidence of crime.”

State Sen. Reginald Tate said he is working on legislation to provide better legal rights for nursing home patients and their families.

Rep. Brian Kelsey said maintaining the excellence of Shelby County Schools is one of his priorities.

“We’ve got some of the best schools in the state,” he said. “We must protect them.”

With the U.S. facing mounting pressure from Europe and Asia to produce the best scholars and best trained technical personnel, he said it is imperative that local schools push to add new and better teaching methods to meet those foreign challenges.

He said the legislature must be careful in how it allocates the excess lottery funds.

“There is a lot of money there and a lot of ideas on how to use these funds,” he said.

One area he would like to see increased funding for would tackle the problem of “at risk” students, those who for any variety of reasons are the most likely not to learn and to drop out of school before graduation.

Rep. Curry Todd says the state is missing out on a substantial revenue source by prohibiting mixed martial arts competitions.

“It’s the fastest growing sport in the world,” he said. “It’s a tourism draw.”

He said statistics show that local venues can bring in anywhere from $24 million to $40 million for one mixed martial arts event.

Curry said he is also working on a bill to allow citizens to carry guns into restaurants that serve alcohol, which is now prohibited by state law.

Responding to a question from the floor, Kelsey said the state is presently negotiating with neighboring states concerning water rights. Water sources in the southeast U.S., especially in Atlanta, have been severely depleted by recent record drought conditions. Many states are seeking more water resources as a result.

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