Republicans Envision Succinct Budget Debate

On December 11, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris

By Andrea Zelinski, Tennnessee Report
December 11, 2010

Republicans still aren’t revealing much about the shape next year’s state government spending plan might take — in particular, the kinds of cuts they’ve promised are in the cards.

But the GOP House speaker-nominee did indicate this week that she’s of a mind to end the session earlier rather than later, hinting that the legislative budget process will begin picking up momentum in March.

Harwell said lawmakers will start getting their hands dirty as soon as Gov.-elect Bill Haslam releases his first-ever state budget plan on March 1 and the General Assembly receives the latest tax collection estimates.

“We want to work with the revenue figures we receive in March…so we can work toward an earlier adjournment,” Harwell told TNReport after a Republican Caucus meeting in Nashville Wednesday. “The earlier we can balance this budget given our limited resources, the better off we are going to be.”

Normally in past, the governor has released a budget proposal in February and the Legislature starts earnestly taking up the details in April. But with a new governor assuming office, he’ll be given a one-month delay to pitch his plan, which under different circumstances could be expected to potentially stretch out the legislative session.

The current year’s budget tops off at $29.8 billion. The state will have roughly $1.5 billion less than that to allocate toward government operations when stimulus money from Washington runs out, Haslam says.

Historically, part of the budget hold-up has been waiting for the State Funding Board to release up-to-date state revenue projections so lawmakers have a guide in assuming how much money the private sector can be counted on to fork over in tax revenue, said Sen. Mark Norris, the Republican Caucus leader in the Senate.

The later lawmakers wait on the board’s projections, the more accurate those estimates will likely be, Norris said. But there’s nothing stopping lawmakers from asking the board to meet earlier.

Lawmakers’ posturing and legislative gamesmanship also tends to slow the process, Norris said. However, with Republicans dominating the legislative process for the next two years and bipartisan agreement not particularly necessary to get things done, Norris expects a budget on the governor’s desk earlier rather than later next year.

Harwell, who is expected to be voted in as House Speaker in January, also indicated she’s of a mind to push for depositing any potential excesses in tax revenues into the state’s rainy-day fund, and will have little interest in entertaining debates about spending it.

Republican leaders will likely meet with Haslam and his government-finances picks before the inauguration to begin laying the foundation for a budget plan, Norris said. Both he and Harwell indicated there’s been little substantive discussion between Legislative leaders and the Haslam team relating to state fiscal matters since the election.

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