published Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Tennessee budget deal falls apart

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Legislature's $31.4 billion budget train came to a screeching halt Wednesday when a chasm opened up between House and Senate Republican leaders over a previously cut deal.

The cause? About $2.25 million in Senate Republicans' amendments for projects, some of them attacked by House minority Democrats in the House Finance Committee on Wednesday as local "pork barrel" spending.

Problems began when House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, pushed an amendment deleting a $200,000 grant for a higher education building in the hometown of Senate Education Commissioner Delores Gresham, R-Somerville.

Republicans sought to table the amendment. It failed, with several Republicans siding with Democrats. That prompted Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, to call for a brief recess that stretched into several hours as Republicans argued behind the scenes.

When they returned, several projects were cut.

And that stopped Senate Republican leaders' plans to pass the budget Wednesday night dead in its tracks.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who had one of the projects attacked by Democrats, charged his House GOP counterparts reneged on the overall agreement.

He threatened to sift through the budget for other local projects, including some championed by Democrats.

"If their reaction is every project has to be statewide, we'll make every project statewide," Ramsey told reporters, going on to cite a $25 million expenditure for the West Tennessee Megasite industrial park, the West Tennessee River Basin and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

He said the Senate "was right on target with an agreement we'd reached with the House, and shook hands, looked each other in the eyes and said this is a deal. And we could have finished [today] in the Senate. But obviously that deal is not a deal any longer, and we'll just have to see where we are [today]."

Earlier, McCormick said fellow Republicans on the Finance Committee "sent a clear signal and we responded to it."

Asked whether he had informed Senate Republicans, McCormick said yes. And what was senators' reaction?

"I'll let you ask them," McCormick said. "I don't think they signed off on the new plan at all."

Also gone in the House budget version was $300,000 for a drug treatment center in Knoxville. A $500,000 appropriation for a planned Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, sought by Ramsey, was turned into a $600,000 grant to be distributed statewide by the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Ramsey said Bristol, Va., which is literally across the street from his district, has been designated by Congress and the Smithsonian as the "birthplace of country music" and officials are trying to build a museum. Virginia has anted up about $3 million. There's funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, and a building has been donated.

"This [Tennessee] contribution was the final piece of that puzzle," he said.

A $50,000 McCormick amendment for the Legal Aid Society of East Tennessee to fund domestic violence programs and services in Chattanooga and Knoxville turned into a $150,000 grant with the money divided equally between East, Middle and West Tennessee.

A $1 million appropriation for Roane State Community College was cut.

Naifeh told reporters that the Ramsey and Gresham projects were "absolute pork."

Lawmakers were hoping to adjourn their annual session Friday, but there are now concerns it may go longer. Ramsey said he is prepared to go into next week.

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, downplayed the flare-up, saying they are common in budget negotiations and usually quickly resolved.

Chattanooga bills

Meanwhile, both House and Senate have agreed -- at least right now -- to provide $109,800 for one of Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's anti-gang proposals.

That is a proposal to expand the state's existing Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to include criminal gang leaders and give them longer sentences. It has statewide application.

Another new provision in the Senate's version of the 2012-13 spending plan would enable the city of Chattanooga to facilitate the sale of the Chattanooga Lookouts Class AA baseball team should it become necessary to do so.

The provision would allow the city to keep an estimated $250,000 annually in sales tax revenues from ticket and concession sales to help fund bonds to purchase the Lookouts' AT&T Field if necessary.

It could be used should a buyer of the Lookouts have no interest in purchasing the stadium from current owners, including Frank Burke.

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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