GOP explores funding sources

On March 1, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris

Lawmakers look at several areas

By Lucas L. Johnson II • ASSOCIATED PRESS •
March 1, 2010

Tennessee Republican lawmakers are taking Gov. Phil Bredesen up on his challenge to find other ways to fund higher education and save 200 state employees’ jobs.

Earlier this month, the Democratic governor told lawmakers to approve his plan to eliminate a tax exemption on cable bills or find another means of funding.

The proposal to lift the tax break on the first $15 of a cable bill is part of Bredesen’s plan to raise about $49 million in new revenue a year. The state is being sued by the satellite TV industry because it doesn’t get the kind of tax break that cable does.

Prosecutors, public defenders, foresters and probation and parole officers could lose their jobs if state leaders can’t come up with more revenue. About $32 million of the proposed new revenue would go toward higher education, and the rest would be used to preserve the jobs.

Authorized debt

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said a number of options are being tossed about, but he said one involves possibly reducing some of the debt the state authorized for capital projects. The Collierville Republican said the total interest on all the debt authorized last year was about $160 million, but he said state officials “authorized a lot more than they have used.”

“I’ve continued to work … to see how much debt has been authorized but never issued,” Norris said. “By canceling some of that old debt, we can free up some of the reserves by law we’ve been required to set aside, and thereby free up cash.”

He said he’s not sure exactly how much that would be, but he estimates “several tens of millions” of dollars.

Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson said he’s open to looking at different proposals, but Norris’ concerns him because it may adversely affect the state’s credit rating.

In addition to Norris’ plan, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin said his colleagues have found a couple of places for possible increased revenue.

One proposal would generate about $3 million by billing the federal government for “health services provided in our education” through the Department of Education instead of the Department of Health. He said another option could generate several more millions by tweaking the way the state collects property tax sales.

“There are some hard choices to make,” said Casada, adding that House Republicans plan to provide more details about their funding proposals this week.

But fellow Republican Rep. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville said on his blog that there may not be a political will to fight the governor on the budget in an election year.

“So far it seems the general consensus is to pass the budget, blame the governor, go home and campaign,” he said.

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