NASHVILLE -- Republican and Democratic leaders quit negotiating with each other over the state's $28 billion spending plan on Thursday and began instead to hurl accusations.
Republicans contend the No. 1 remaining sticking point on a budget agreement is their opposition to a proposed $16.1 billion fish hatchery planned in the home district of House Speaker Kent Williams.
Rep. Williams, the one-time Republican, was cast out of the GOP after he and Democrats united last year to elect him speaker.
"We really are down now to quibbling over a fish hatchery," said Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who called it a "symbol" of waste. "It doesn't have anything to do with who wants this legislation. I think our caucus has locked down on not wanting to fund what is purely pork barrel spending in a budget like this."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner dismissed GOP charges and said the attack on the fish hatchery and talk about "pork" simply masks a thirst for revenge against Rep. Williams, now an independent.
Republican leaders, he contended, are "mad at Kent Williams because he's speaker of the House -- that's exactly what it is, political payback."
Rep. Turner said, "The fish hatchery is in our budget, but most everything in our budget is negotiable at this time."
But he said House Democrats and some House Republicans are "totally locked down" on issues such as maintaining funding for the Career Ladder pay supplement program for teachers, grants for farmers and protecting the Governor's Office of Children's Care Coordination.
Sen. Ramsey, whose position carries the title of lieutenant governor, also acknowledged other issues remain in budget discussions, including $5 million in funding for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and several other projects the GOP does not wish to fund.
He said GOP senators still are willing to discuss issues such as providing some type of financial benefit for state employees and teachers.
The speaker also maintained that his budget stances have nothing to do with his running for governor, although he said at one point, "this is a symbol of running things the Tennessee way and not the Washington way."
That is a campaign slogan.
Rep. Williams has defended the fish hatchery, which would be funded if Congress appropriates an additional $341 million in Medicaid matching funds for Tennessee.
He says the project has been planned for years and will generate 22 jobs and generate as many as 80,000 visitors to Carter County, where he lives.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, of College Grove, said, "There's really not (a revenge motive). I mean, my goodness, we reflect the views of the people of Tennessee. Nine in 10 would say, 'Glen, do not build a $16 million fish hatchery when folks need flood relief.' ... It's just a waste of money -- $16 million for 22 jobs. It just doesn't make sense."
Meanwhile, Thursday night, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee pressed ahead with passing their version of the budget.
They rejected a proposal to restore funding to continue the Office of Children's Care Coordination beyond December. The office combats infant mortality, and Bob Duncan, director of the office, warned children could die if the operation is allowed to shut down.
Rep. Turner said Democrats are planning for the legislation session to continue for at least two more weeks. Many leaders had hoped to adjourn by mid-May. Lawmakers are paid $185 a day in expenses for each day they are in session.
The new budget year begins July 1.
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, ...