Legislature adjourns after passing $30.8B budget

On May 21, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

WashingtonExaminer.com, TimesNew.net, Westport-News.com
May 21, 2011

The Tennessee Legislature adjourned Saturday night after passing the state’s $30.8 billion spending plan, most of new Gov. Bill Haslam’s agenda and a contentious measure to curb teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

Lawmakers approved Haslam’s proposals to make teacher tenure standards more rigorous, lift a cap on charter schools and limit payouts from civil lawsuits. They declined, however, to give his administration the authority to require prescriptions for medicines used to make meth.

The session was marked by teacher rallies against measures they said unfairly targeted them. The proposal concerning teachers’ bargaining rights drew protesters throughout the legislative process and at one point sparked an anti-union protest that led to seven arrests.

The session also attracted hundreds of members of the Muslim community to speak out against a bill that originally sought to make it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah. The anti-terrorism bill was later stripped of religious references.

In the final days of the session, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a proposal to extend unemployment benefits for thousands of Tennesseans.

“We understand … that it is tough economic times out there,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. “It is hard to find employment.” She called the extension a reasonable response.

The spending plan — passed 32-0 by the Senate and 96-0 in the House — for the fiscal year that begins July 1 also includes $71 million for disaster relief from recent storms and flooding and a hospital assessment fee supported by the industry that is expected to raise $449 million next year. It is designed to draw another $871 million in federal matching funds.

A balanced state spending plan is the only legislation that the General Assembly is required to pass each year under the state constitution.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville thanked his Democratic colleagues for making it a unanimous vote.

“This has been a real labor of love to get the budget where we are today,” Norris, a Republican, said. “We have collaborated a great deal on getting where we are.”

Harwell agreed. “I’m excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish. There’s been a spirit of cooperation, we’ve all worked well together,” she said.

Passage of the budget seemed in jeopardy when lawmakers couldn’t agree on extending the benefits, which ran out in April for about 28,000 jobless people in Tennessee after state officials didn’t change state law to comply with new federal standards. The extension would pay for up to 20 more weeks of unemployment benefits.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey was among those against the extension. In the end, the Blountville Republican acquiesced and on Saturday voted for the legislation that extends the benefits.

“Philosophically, I’m adamantly opposed to this,” he said. “But … I don’t see the economy turning around anytime soon. And there are members of our caucus who represent counties that have 15, 20 percent unemployment rates. People truly are looking for jobs.”

The spending plan includes about $3 million in state funds to help draw about $60 million in federal money.

“There’s a tsunami in some folks’ lives,” said Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville. “This will help them.”

Harwell said members of both parties talked to the governor about the benefits.

“I think there was initially more support in the House than in the Senate, and the governor sat down and talked with both leadership teams, both Democrats and Republicans, and genuinely came to the conclusion that this was a wise and important step for the state to take,” she said.

The Republican governor told reporters later Saturday that the collection of unpaid fines will help the state pay for the extended unemployment benefits.

“There are a lot of folks in our rural areas who are hurting,” he said. “In the end, we thought it was a great way to address what we thought was a need.”

The spending plan contains a 1.6 percent raise for state employees, their first pay hike in four years.

It also includes $45 million for higher education capital projects; $33 million for TennCare services such as labs, X-rays, dental care and transportation; $21 million for state building maintenance; $20 million to allow lottery scholarships to be used during summer school, and $16.5 million to issue bonds for the potential expansion of the Hemlock Semiconductor plant in Clarksville.

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