Tennessee budget expected to be a sticking point

On April 12, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

By Associated Press, TimesNews.net
April 12, 2009

NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen say they expect the state budget to be probably the biggest sticking point this year as legislators began to pick up the pace toward the end of the session.

Legislative leaders would like to shut down committees later this month and hope to end the session before Memorial Day. That could be possible with contentious legislation such as the abortion amendment and several gun-related bills already passing the Senate and making progress in the House.

But there’s still the budget, the only thing lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass each session. Because of the poor economy, there’s no new money for legislators to fight over, which would seemingly make it less complicated.

However, there’s room to disagree over cuts and how to efficiently use $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money to pad them. Bredesen has said the stimulus money — which is to be spread over two years — will allow Tennessee agencies to phase in 12 percent spending cuts over three years.

Still, he said about $750 million in cuts will be necessary by 2011.

“I think the budget is going to be frustrating for them because there are so many cuts of things that people like,” Bredesen said last week. “At the same time there’s not a lot of choices there, so I think that ultimately they’ve sort of just got to come to grips with it.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said there are still questions about how the stimulus money is being spent, and that lawmakers are “trying to put all the pieces together to look at the cumulative debt that the governor wants us to take on.”

“In order for this budget to work, we need to have the big picture and know the cumulative effect of what’s being done,” said the Collierville Republican.

One issue lawmakers must decide on concerning the stimulus money is whether to use $141 million of it to expand unemployment eligibility. Lawmakers in Virginia rejected the extra benefits, and Bredesen said he’s unsure what will happen in Tennessee.

“I don’t know. It’s a call as you know,” he said.

For Rep. Henry Fincher, it’s a no-brainer: “Help the working people.”

“I think the federal government has made this benefit available to people and we owe it to our folks that are without jobs … to do what we can to help them,” the Cookeville Democrat said.

As for legislation, Republican-supported bills that have normally stalled in the House are making progress this year, mainly because the GOP has a majority in the lower chamber of the Legislature for the first time since 1869.

One of the more controversial proposals — the proposed constitutional amendment that would limit access to abortion in Tennessee — has passed the Senate and is nearing a vote on the House floor.

Likewise, several gun bills — including one to allow guns in bars — have either passed one of the legislative chambers, are headed for floor votes, or on their way to the governor for his consideration.

Besides the budget, two contentious bills remain. One deals with the expiration of the state’s method for selecting appeal judges and Supreme Court justices, and the other would allow wine to be sold in supermarkets.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville has said he’s working with the Senate Government Operations Committee to keep the state’s Judicial Selection Commission from expiring, which would lead to the popular election of all appellate judges.

Rep. Mark Maddox said something needs to be done.

“If we don’t do anything, that goes away,” said the Dresden Democrat. “It will be a whole new day in Tennessee.”

In the case of wine in supermarkets, an Associated Press survey of all the lawmakers last month found most of them undecided about the proposal, a strong indication that the measure is unlikely to be voted on this year.

Only 40 percent of the General Assembly’s 132 members said they have made up their minds on the issue. And of those who have, a narrow majority say they oppose changing the law that now restricts wine sales to liquor stores.

“I’m not sure where that’s going,” said House Speaker Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton.

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