Tennessee budget snagged over fish hatchery fight

On May 28, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris

Lawmakers balk at funds for trout, but include aid to Civil Rights Museum, St. Jude

By Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
May 28, 2010

NASHVILLE — A fish hatchery mired in politics — and some say revenge — is the biggest item holding up passage of a state budget, keeping the legislature in session weeks after its targeted adjournment and costing taxpayers at least $24,420 each day the battle drags on.

Leaders of both parties said budget negotiations broke down Thursday over a proposed $16.1 million trout hatchery in Elizabethton. That’s the hometown of House Speaker Kent Williams, the Republican-turned-Independent whose stunning election as speaker last year angered the GOP when he joined all 49 House Democrats in voting for himself over the Republican Caucus nominee who would have won.

Senate Republicans and most House Republicans are locked down against the fish hatchery and other local projects — including a proposed $5 million for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis — that they say are “pork barrel.” Williams, most Democrats and a handful of House Republicans are standing behind the proposal.

“It’s political payback. That’s all it is. They are mad at Kent Williams because he is speaker of the House,” said House Democratic Caucus chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, agreed that the fish hatchery is the top budget holdup but rejected the contention that Republicans oppose it because Williams supports it.

“Absolutely, positively, unequivocally not. This has to do with the project that’s trying to be funded in a time when we’re cutting our budget,” Ramsey said.

“And it’s more than just a fish hatchery. I do believe it is a symbol of just out-of-control spending.”

The proposed fish hatchery would be operated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and has been on the drawing board since 2002, four years before Williams was elected to the legislature.

But it is not the only point of contention in the General Assembly’s passage of a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The latest Senate Republican budget plan unveiled Thursday also rejects the proposed Civil Rights Museum appropriation, $4 million to demolish abandoned structures at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, $175,000 to pay for transportation costs of low-income Tennessee patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and $150,000 for the Stax Museum.

The House and Senate are also at odds over whether to fund a one-time pay supplement for state workers, who have gone without a pay raise for three years. Gov. Phil Bredesen proposed a one-time 3 percent payment and Democrats in the legislature have compromised down to a $500 “stipend.”

House Republican Caucus chairman Mark Norris of Collierville said Republicans have told Williams their opposition to the fish hatchery is not political. “That’s what he thinks and we did our best to disabuse him of that notion.”

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