NASHVILLE — Growth in state tax revenues appears to be swirling down the drain, but hope springs eternal for many Tennessee lawmakers.
House and Senate members have filed dozens of budget amendments that would fund nearly $1 billion in projects and programs even as Gov. Phil Bredesen prepares to slash up to $585 million from his proposed $27.88 billion 2008/2009 budget.
Spending proposals include a $97,200 budget amendment filed by Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, for programs and services at the Chattanooga Zoo, records show.
Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, meanwhile, has a proposal that would provide a 2 percent across-the-board pay increase for state employees, teachers and higher-education personnel, according to a copy of the amendment. The price tag is an estimated $102.4 million.
But with general-fund revenue projected to grow an anemic 1.5 percent to 2 percent next year, many of the proposals will not be funded, top legislative leaders said Tuesday.
“I think they’re going to be dead on arrival,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker. “I’ve not even looked at those budget amendments, to be honest, because in a year like this I don’t believe that many of them will be taken seriously.”
According to a Senate Finance Committee document, senators filed budget amendments totaling $577.37 million for projects or programs that require recurring funding. Dozens of other amendments totaling some $384.19 million require funding on a one-time basis.
Lt. Gov. Ramsey said he understands the “political pressure you’re under sometime to file an amendment for a constituent, to file an amendment for a constituent group.”
House Finance Committee Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said members file the amendments for “many reasons,” and he noted that “sometimes when these were filed, or at least prepared, we didn’t know the extent of the fiscal shape that we were in this year.”
Last year, the state appeared to be awash in new revenues, and legislative leaders encouraged members to submit budget amendments.
Revenues now are running well below projections, and things don’t look much better for 2008/2009. Gov. Bredesen said he must take budget-cutting steps, including layoffs of some employees.
“It doesn’t take a mathematician to know by and large it’s just impossible to fund these otherwise worthwhile things,” Chairman Fitzhugh said.
Rep. McCormick said he doubts money for the zoo will be available, given the tight budget situation. Last year, zoos across the state got funding. This year “we wanted to make sure we were in line, too,” Rep. McCormick said. But he acknowledged, “it may be a long shot with the budget numbers we’re hearing.”
Sen. Bunch drew a blank when asked about his amendment on state employee salaries.
“I don’t recall that,” he said.
A copy of Senate budget amendment No. 158 has Sen. Bunch’s name on it.
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, has a $200,000 amendment to expand the Camp Tiger program at Chattanooga State Technical Community College. The program provides a summer college-prep program that encourages lower-income students to think and prepare for college.
“It’s a wonderful program,” Rep. Brown said.
But Rep. Brown, a Finance Committee member, said that with a “crisis” looming, “common sense tells me I don’t need to be doing it.”
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, has a $30,000 amendment for Chattanooga’s National Medal of Honor Museum of Military History. The money would help defray costs to train museum volunteers in how to properly preserve artifacts. She said she still plans to offer the amendment, but noted, “I certainly will understand if it can’t be appropriated.”
Many big-ticket items are attempts to provide pay raises to state employees or address other compensation issues involving public employees.
Gov. Bredesen’s intention to lay off a yet-to-be-disclosed number of employees has prompted discussion of using one-time money to give state employees a one-time “bonus.” If that happens, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, appears to be ready with a $142.3 million budget amendment to provide a one-time $1,000 bonus to state, local education and higher-education employees.
“Of course, we’re all anxiously awaiting the final numbers and the final proposal from the governor,” Sen. Johnson said.
Lt. Gov. Ramsey said “bonuses could be on the table because you could do that with one-time money out of the Rainy Day Fund. My understanding is that’s what the House is proposing, and I think that’s something we could look at.”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...