published Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Speaker: Political games holding up state budget

Audio clip

Kent Williams

NASHVILLE — House Speaker Kent Williams said Wednesday the General Assembly likely would have already passed the state budget except for the personal political ambitions of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and several other senators running for higher office.

“I think in the House we’re trying to do what’s responsible for the people of the state of Tennessee, and I think in the Senate it’s more politics,” Rep. Williams told members of the Shelby County legislative delegation Wednesday.

“I guarantee that if we didn’t have members running for governor, (and) Congress, we probably would have already passed this budget,” he continued. “It’s a political statement and you just don’t play political games at the stake of our citizens.”

Lt. Gov. Ramsey, who is the also the Senate speaker, is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination. He is in a three-man contest with Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.

Other senators seeking higher office are Republican Caucus Chairman Diane Black, R-Gallatin, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, who face each other in the 6th Congressional District GOP primary. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, is running in the 8th Congressional District’s Democratic primary.

In an interview later Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Ramsey said politics is not driving his position.

“I think we’re doing exactly what the citizens of the state want us to,” he said. “We’re living within our means. We’re balancing our budget through cuts and not through tax increases.”

While Lt. Gov. Ramsey said his position is not tied to his gubernatorial bid, Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Mark Byrnes said it nonetheless “might be beneficial.”

“Ramsey seems to be seeking support from the right wing of the Republican Party, and this is the sort of stance that would be appealing,” Dr. Byrnes said.

The lieutenant governor also is reaping large amounts of news coverage for his no-tax-increase stance and what, at least this week, took on aspects of a budgetary showdown with Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. As the Senate speaker, Lt. Gov. Ramsey can grab “the spotlight. It gives him a chance to make bold moves such as his budget proposal,” Dr. Byrnes said.

But it also could spell trouble for candidate Ramsey “if things don’t go smoothly or don’t go well,” Dr. Byrnes said.

Republicans have a 19-14 majority in the Senate. In the House, the margin is closer. There are 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats and Rep. Williams, a Republican who was barred from seeking re-election as a Republican after he allowed Democrats to elect him speaker last year.

On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Ramsey challenged Rep. Williams to move his own version of the budget bill “if he thinks he has the votes to do it.”

“Obviously, he’s willing to pass some of the taxes,” the lieutenant governor added.

In speaking to Shelby County lawmakers, Rep. Williams said he was looking not at increasing taxes but using state reserves, noting the state has a healthy Rainy Day contingency reserve fund as well as TennCare reserves.

“I will never, never be comfortable cutting even more than we’re cutting now and keeping $500 million in the bank. I just can’t live with that,” Rep. Williams said.

Gov. Bredesen has proposed about $150 million in tax or fee increases, as well as closing off tax loopholes. Republicans have turned thumbs down to all but about $16 million that shut off the loopholes.

Republicans instead are talking about eliminating a $113 million one-time bonus for state employees, phasing out the state’s 401(k) match program for state employees and moving funding for the Career Ladder program for teachers to one-time funding.

House Democrats said Wednesday their leaders have OK’d a “preliminary” counter to Senate Republicans’ plan that would rely largely on use of reserves.

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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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