published Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Budget talks tether lawmakers to Capitol

NASHVILLE — Georgia lawmakers wrestled with their huge shortfall and left town on April 4.

The Kentucky Legislature kicked up its heels and skedaddled on March 26.

And while more sluggish, Alabama legislators finished their work on May 18.

But 41⁄2 months after the Tennessee General Assembly began work, lawmakers are perhaps two weeks or more away from finishing their business, officials say.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who is Senate speaker, ascribed delays to “one thing and one thing only — the budget.”

Lawmakers hope Gov. Phil Bredesen will submit a major rewrite of his original $29.3 billion budget by Friday, one that takes account of continued drops in state revenue.

Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, said a major issue in delays has been over how to juggle cuts, expenditure of state reserve funds and federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

“It (the stimulus) also has lots of rules surrounding how it can be used, and it’s really that complexity which is causing us an extra week or two here at the end,” Gov. Bredesen said.

The administration would “probably” have the budget rewrite done by Friday, he said. Lawmakers are expecting an overview of the overhaul on Wednesday.

State revenues have continued to plummet, and the administration is now faced with slashing what Lt. Gov. Ramsey said is another $250 million in spending on top of the $1 billion in reductions in the original budget.

Bert Waisanen with the National Conference of State Legislatures said Tennessee’s Legislature is by no means the only one facing delays in finishing up.

“A number of states are in a similar situation, facing a challenging budget climate,” he said.

Action on Tennessee’s budget could be complicated by partisan divisions in the Legislature. In the House, there are 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and a one-time Republican speaker elected by Democrats. Republicans have a firm 19-14 majority in the Senate.

Democrats are interested in softening the cuts as much as possible, with some arguing the state needs more revenue. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, has said the state should get rid of some of its estimated $6 billion in state sales tax exemptions on services. Loopholes in the tax code also need to be closed, he said.

Democrats also are interested in exploring greater use of funds from Tennessee’s $750 million Rainy Day Fund or other reserves.

Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Ramsey and House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower, of Bristol, say they are adamantly opposed to any tax increases beyond what Gov. Bredesen recommended in the original budget.

New taxes “won’t fly,” Lt. Gov. Ramsey said.

Even Democrats are divided. Some, such as House Democratic Leader Gary Odom, of Nashville, say they also are opposed to any sort of sales tax increase.

But the budget is hardly the only issue left. Republicans and Democrats, for example, have yet to resolve how Tennessee Supreme Court justices are chosen. Three bills on the issue are in play.

Other issues appear resolved. For example, Democrats and Republicans have finally come to bipartisan agreement on taxes to restore the state’s sagging unemployment trust fund.

For months, House Republicans had refused to agree to a tax increase on employers, even though employer groups were begging them to do something to stave off even more draconian action by the federal government.

Democrats refused to shoulder the blame alone.

Now, at least some Republicans are supporting the tax increase.

“As far as I know, after a suitable amount of posturing, this thing is all back on track again in the Legislature,” Gov. Bredesen said.

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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