NASHVILLE — Gov. Phil Bredesen and legislative Democrats said Thursday that despite plummeting revenues and state government cuts, lawmakers made significant strides in areas such as lottery-funded scholarships and long-term care in their just-completed session.
Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, said lawmakers had a “very successful conclusion to a difficult year.” He said the long-term care initiative will give older Tennesseans greater access to home- and community-based care alternatives to nursing homes.
Lawmakers finished their annual session late Wednesday night, passing a $27.7 billion budget that provides a voluntary buyout program for 2,011 state employees’ jobs, cuts higher education by $56 million and trims major improvements for the K-12 school funding formula.
The Democratic-run House and GOP-controlled Senate also broke a two-year logjam on how to use close to a half-billion dollars in excess lottery funds and reserves. The deal provides $90 million for a program to help K-12 schools make energy-saving capital investments. Another $350 million or so goes into an account whose interest will fund $28.1 million in lottery-funded scholarship improvements.
Improvements include lowering the cumulative grade-point average that students must maintain to keep their HOPE scholarships from 3.0 to 2.75 until the completion of 72 credit hours.
“It’s important to note how far we did come on the lottery with the 2.75,” House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said, noting Republicans resisted the initiative last year.
Republicans inserted their own lottery-funded scholarship initiatives, including opening up opportunities for older students.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, told Nashville public radio station WPLN-FM that lawmakers were able to bridge partisan differences despite “difficult times.”
“I think it was one of the most productive sessions in history,” he said.
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said of the 2.75 grade-point plan, “We got what we could get. We did not get everything we wanted.”
Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, said his “greatest disappointment” was that the Bredesen administration “waited so long to put all the cards on the table” regarding $468 million in cuts from the originally proposed 2008-09 budget.
“We didn’t know until last week what to expect, what the choices were and how to evaluate it,” he said.
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, ...