Memphis in crossfire of budget fight

On May 20, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris

But Senate panel’s exit stops progress for now

By Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
May 20, 2010

NASHVILLE — More than a month past its targeted adjournment, the Tennessee legislature is stalemated over the state budget, with several Memphis projects among the points of contention.

At least four budget alternative plans are in play. Two include, and two exclude, $5 million for the National Civil Rights Museum, $4 million to demolish abandoned buildings at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, $177,000 for the T.O. Fuller State Park golf course, $175,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and $150,000 for the Stax Museum.

A $20 million contingency appropriation for the Regional Medical Center at Memphis is included in all four but is receiving new scrutiny since County Mayor Joe Ford accused the Bredesen administration last week of reneging on an agreement for more money. The state money is to be paid if the federal government doesn’t approve that amount for the hospital.

The Memphis projects, plus a few elsewhere, are a small part of a budget war under way on several fronts: Democrats versus Republicans, House versus Senate, local projects versus state programs, dipping deeper into reserves versus cutting spending. Also at issue is the governor’s proposal for a one-time 2 percent salary “bonus” for state workers who’ve not had a pay raise in three years.

But much of the ire of Senate Democrats and House members of both parties is directed at Senate Republican leaders who virtually abandoned the budget process Tuesday and left town until next Monday.

Senate Republicans command the only dominating majority in the General Assembly, which means a budget deal relies on their approval. But the Senate Finance Committee unexpectedly recessed for the week Tuesday without voting on Gov. Phil Bredesen’s budget proposal, an alternative proposed by Senate Republicans last week, nor a plan presented by Democratic Leader Jim Kyle that Republican House Speaker Kent Williams says is backed by a bipartisan majority of House members.

The committee’s inaction was striking given that when the Senate recessed last Thursday to next week, it left the panel here to draft a final budget package for a vote in the full Senate next Monday.

The committee’s recess means no budget plan will be ready for floor votes early next week, delaying adjournment of the General Assembly to at least Memorial Day weekend, possibly into June.

House Speaker Williams is strongly critical of Senate Republicans, particularly their goal of minimizing use of more than $700 million in state reserves to offset spending cuts to balance the budget.

“Our state Senate reminds me of Congress — going to straight party-line votes no matter what. You get locked down and there’s no movement,” Williams said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said he recessed the committee because there is no agreement yet that can pass both chambers. Kyle, D-Memphis, urged a vote on some plan as the first step toward a compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in New York for a Council of State Governments meeting, said critics “are probably the ones trying to derail some very productive ongoing negotiations with the House.”

Norris said he expects the contingency appropriation for The Med to be approved.

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