Tenn. lawmakers: Tough budget to dominate session

On January 25, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris

By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II, Associated Press, BusinessWeek.com
January 25, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn.

Tennessee lawmakers began the second session of the 106th General Assembly on Monday mindful of the constitutional obligation to balance a budget that’s facing a shortfall of nearly a billion dollars and expecting to tackle only a few other major issues.

“I think we’re going to be concentrating on the budget so heavily that there won’t be a lot of bills that pass,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

Although the Legislature has been meeting for two weeks, that was for a special session called by Gov. Phil Bredesen to enact major changes to education in Tennessee. Lawmakers largely gave Bredesen what he asked for — including evaluating K-12 teacher performance based on standardized test scores and reworking the funding formula for colleges and universities to emphasize graduation rates.

Lawmakers didn’t take up any bills when they reconvened the regular session Monday, but they’re expected to turn their attention to some bills that revisit the issues of guns in bars and in-session campaign fundraising and possibly some new matters, such as school vouchers. But the tight budget and the pressures of an election year — when all the House and half the Senate seats are on the ballot — will set the tone and scope of the session, lawmakers say.

“I’m going to try to file as little legislation as possible so I can spend as much time as possible focusing on the budget because it’s going to be a monumental task,” said House Majority Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol.

The current year’s budget includes a 10 percent reduction in the state budget, though many of those cuts were obscured by the infusion of $2.2 billion in stimulus money. The State Funding Board has projected the state’s revenues will expand by between 1.8 percent and 2.3 percent in the upcoming budget year, though that modest growth won’t be enough to make up for the loss of the stimulus.

“The bottom line is, as conservative as the funding board has been over the last few years, we’ve not made projections,” said House Minority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville. “We basically had no growth.”

As for legislation, a judge ruled in November that Tennessee’s new law allowing people with handgun permits to be armed in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol is unconstitutionally vague.

Tennessee previously banned handguns in all locations where alcohol was served. The new law made an exception for establishments that serve at least one meal on five days per week and where “the serving of such meals shall be the principal business conducted.” Tennessee has no legal definition to distinguish bars from restaurants.

Mumpower said lawmakers will probably review the court action on the bill before making any proposals. But he said he expects some version of the law to be back in effect at some point.

“I think it will have the support from everybody that supported it before and … pass overwhelmingly again,” he said.

Legislation to lift an in-session fundraising ban could still come up this session, even though Ramsey, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, has said it’s no longer among his top priorities.

The Legislature enacted the ban following the FBI’s 2005 undercover extortion sting known as Tennessee Waltz, which led to the convictions of five former lawmakers.

Ramsey has said the ban is unfair to lawmakers seeking office outside the General Assembly.

The bill to drop the ban cleared the committee system in the Senate last session and could be called up for a full floor vote any time this session. The companion measure failed to clear its last hurdle on a 10-10 vote in the House Calendar Committee but could be brought back for another vote.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said he’s uncertain if the issue will return this session, but if it does, “we’ll try to work with something that’s equitable to everybody.”

Another hot-button issue is a proposal by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would set up a pilot program in Memphis that awards school vouchers to students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Students would be able to attend a participating school until graduation at a cost to the state of at least $7,500 per child.

“I just want to give these poor children a chance to receive the quality education that they deserve,” Kelsey said. “If this pilot project doesn’t work, then we won’t pursue it.”

Turner said he doesn’t expect the legislation to pass this year, even though Republicans control the House 51-48 and have a 19-14 majority in the Senate.

“I think there are enough Republicans … that care about public education that they won’t vote for that bill,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris thinks otherwise.

“It will have its detractors, but it will get full airing,” said the Collierville Republican.

But whether it’s the budget or some type of legislation, Turner said the regular session will be defined by lawmakers trying to draw attention to themselves.

“It’s an election year, so you’re going to see a lot of talking,” he said.

 

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