NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers hope to finish their annual session this week, acting on Gov. Phil Bredesen’s proposed budget cuts and a voluntary buyout package for employees and resolving an impasse over lottery surpluses.
Tossed into the mix is a potential Senate battle over extending the life of a panel that recommends judicial appointments for the governor, and lawmakers said they have a full platter.
The General Assembly convened Jan. 8.
Hopes of ending the session last week began collapsing as Democratic Gov. Bredesen outlined a revised approach to balance the 2009 budget. House Democrats split over a lack of detail in a key provision — proposed voluntary buyouts for 2,011 state employees.
Gov. Bredesen estimates the employee cuts will save $64 million in annual expense. He warned layoffs will be necessary if buyouts fail to attract enough workers and on Friday he urged members of his own party to trust him.
“In the end, the legislature has to trust the administration a little bit to put this thing together and administer it. I certainly think we’ve earned that trust over these last few years,” the governor said.
Opponents suggested recessing until June to learn more about the buyouts, but Gov. Bredesen expects to provide more details early this week.
Senate Democrats and Republicans as well as many House Republicans are willing to trust the governor on the buyout issue, which the Tennessee State Employees Association is opposing.
“I think a voluntary buyout, or however they’re terming it, is a reasonable approach to trying to get staff reductions to the point where we can balance our budget,” said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis agreed.
“I trust the governor to do the very best he can,” he said.
Bolstered by complaints from the employees association, Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, and other legislative opponents attacked the buyout plan’s lack of detail and pushed to use $100 million in one-time funds from the state’s $750 million rainy day account to pay salaries for another year.
He contends he has a majority of House members willing to support his position.
The governor argued using one-time money for ongoing expenses is “exactly the road that led to income tax proposals and everything else a number of years ago” during the administration of former Gov. Don Sundquist.
Lawmakers voiced displeasure that recommendations on cuts to next year’s proposed $27.88 billion budget have come late and are forcing them to act hastily.
“You work the entire session down to the last week before you even get to look at the budget and see what the governor’s proposal is,” said Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge.
The governor held off on making final recommendations so he could evaluate April revenues.
LOTTERY BRIGHT SPOT
In a year where a faltering economy is causing the state to cut virtually everywhere, lawmakers hope a lottery agreement will provide at least one bright spot in a bleak budget.
“I think there’ll be huge attempts to find common ground before Tuesday,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga.
The House and Senate last week agreed on two key points — using $360 million in reserves to expand lottery-funded college scholarships and to create a $100 million fund to pay for energy-efficiency grants and loans for K-12 schools.
But lawmakers remained divided at week’s end over how to expand college scholarships.
House Democrats want to use $17 million of the estimated $27 million in lottery growth and interest proceeds to reduce grade-point averages needed to maintain lottery scholarship for college students. The current GPA is 3.0, and the House plan would drop it to 2.75 through five years of college.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to reduce the GPA to 2.75 through the junior year. Both sides would devote about $10 million to needs-based scholarships. The Senate is proposing using about $10 million to assist older students returning to school and Tennessee veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We cannot leave session without finishing the lottery,” Sen. Berke said. “Regardless of the differences, we have to make sure we put this money to use for scholarships, for Tennessee students.”
Another potential flashpoint is extending the life of the Judicial Selection Commission, the 17-member body that makes recommendations to the governor on filling trial and appellate court vacancies.
The House and Senate are expected to reach their 90th, or final, legislative day Tuesday, pending any changes in the schedule.
The commission’s work is a key part of the so-called Tennessee Plan, a statutory scheme in which appellate judges including state Supreme Court members do not run in partisan contests. Instead, voters decide whether to retain the appointed judges.
Gov. Bredesen and Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, have criticized sharply the Judicial Selection Panel.
The Tennessee Plan was created by state Sen. John Wilder, D-Mason, a former lieutenant governor.
The Senate Operations Committee last week blocked a bill extending the commission, but Sen. Wilder indicated he will try to bring the bill directly to the Senate floor Tuesday, the expected last day of the session.
Video: The governor speaks outAt a Times Free Press editorial board meeting on Tuesday, Gov. Phil Bredesen discussed proposed state budget cuts, problems with the sales-tax holiday and the prospects of a Volkswagen plant coming to Chattanooga.
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, ...