published Saturday, June 13th, 2009

Tennessee: Kisber, Watson disagree on VW job training funds

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    Staff Photo by John Rawlston The War Memorial building is seen at left in this view of the plaza leading up to the State Capitol building in Nashville. Tuesday was the opening day of the 2008 session of the 105th General Assembly of Tennessee.

NASHVILLE -- The state's chief economic recruiter says he believes Senate Republican changes to Gov. Phil Bredesen's budget threaten $5.1 million in job-training funds to attract Volkswagen's prospective suppliers.

"The funding we'd set aside with jobs-skills money to pay for VW suppliers' training needs has been taken to be used for a commitment made to Eastman Chemical," Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber said.

His department had about $6.5 million in unobligated funding "and when the governor was looking at the budget, I explained we were holding that so we wouldn't be asked for new money for VW's suppliers' training," Mr. Kisber said.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, however, said "there's disagreement between our analyst appropriators and what the department is saying. OK? They disagree with that."

He said he had been contacted by Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, who had expressed concern, but said he has been assured by legislative budget analysts that the Economic and Community Development has more than $100 million in reserve funds and the department likes to keep the balance so high in order to earn interest money.

As a result, Sen. Watson said, there should be funds available for auto parts manufacturers the state is trying to lure to Hamilton County to supply the $1 billion auto assembly plant being built by VW at Enterprise South industrial park.

But Mr. Kisber said those reserve funds have largely been obligated to meet the state's commitments to other companies.

Asked about that Friday morning, Sen. Watson said, "I met again with the analysts and they have said that does not affect VW in any shape, form or fashion."

"I've covered as many bases as I can unless there's something they're not telling me," the senator said.

Mr. Kisber said the ability to offer the job-training assistance to VW suppliers is crucial and without it, "we're in a very difficult position in trying to recruit Volkswagen suppliers to the state."

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he has been hearing "rumors" about the impact of the Senate Republican budget and questioned why Mr. Kisber had not contacted either him or Sen. Watson, noting they both represent Enterprise South.

"Kisber has our phone numbers if he wanted to work with us on that," he said.

Republicans are trying to squeeze an additional $100 million in cuts to Gov. Bredesen's budget, citing the continued nosedive of state revenues below projections. The GOP-controlled Senate Finance Committee approved the appropriations bill on Friday and it is scheduled to taken up Tuesday on the Senate floor.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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