Tennessee: Budget, schools on tap

Tennessee: Budget, schools on tap

January 11th, 2010 by Andy Sher in News

Special session

The General Assembly will convene Tuesday in special session to consider Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposed reforms on K-12 and higher education. The governor will address lawmakers at 6 p.m. EST. The speech will be carried on live streaming video on the state's Web site -- www.tn.gov.

Rep. Mike Bell, R-Cleveland, on preventing Georgia from taking Tennessee River water: "This is not negotiable. I can't help it. I think it's probably the most precious natural resource the state of Tennessee has."

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, on national health reform's impact on state: "If we're truly going to be doing something about being competitive in the world environment we have to get this right, one way or the other. At the state level we're certainly going to be looking at how we implement what the federal government does. But this is a serious issue for jobs or for businesses locally."

Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland on cutting services: "I think that's what we're going to be looking for (is) what's essential, what constitionally do we have to provide."

Rep. Tommie Brown on the need to vet issues thoroughly: "I also want to take the appropriate amount of time because if we have the deep budget cuts that are predicted I believe it is our responsiblty ... to understand the importance of those cuts upon people."

Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland on budget cuts: "I think the governor's got to determine and balance this year what's essential services versus what are good and worthy programs ... Personally I'm for maintaining as much of the essential services as necessary, which means a lot of good working programs are going to be reduced in funding if not cut."

Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City on gas taxes: "I won't be voting for tax increases myself."

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge on Chattanooga State dormitories: "A new dormitory at Chattanooga State would be fanatastic. It'd be a wonderful idea, but I don't think in the (economic) environment we're in right now, that's a wise decision to start putting them in."

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, on evelvating role of two-year colleges: "As a former associate professor at Chattanooga State, I am very pleased with the push to increase the prominence of community colleges in Tennesee because so many of the older students will opt to go to community colleges."

Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, on whether lawmakers should fix a new law, which a judge has ruled unconstitutional, which allows handgun permit holders to bring weapons into establishments selling alcohol: "I think it should (pass). I don't think guns are the problem. Alcohol's the probelm."

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga on taxes: "I don't see any appetite for a general tax increase among the people I'm talking to."

Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere on community colleges: "Community college is the best bang for the buck. At least they are in the 14th district. They do a great job, and we need to make sure they have the resources available to them."

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, on the special session on K-12 and higher education: "My priority is a discussion on Race to the Top (K-12 issues). It is not the higher education piece. If I have to make a decision on where I'm going to spend my time deliberating, I'm going to spend it on race to the top."

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee legislators return to the state Capitol this week to begin a special session on K-12 and higher education reform before beginning the process of slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from the 2010-11 budget.

Area lawmakers say their work is cut out for them. In the special session that begins Tuesday, Gov. Phil Bredesen wants laws changed to let teacher tenure decisions be tied to student achievement.

The governor also wants to place new emphasis on community colleges and make higher education funding formula changes that better reward institutions for graduating students. Another proposal calls for elevating the role of two-year colleges.

"I think it's a heavy amount of lifting we need to do," said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, chairman of the Hamilton County legislative delegation. "We have to be careful about making decisions in haste."

Gov. Bredesen says the K-12 changes need to be approved so the state can include them in Tennessee's application for a portion of $4 billion in federal Race to the Top funds. The deadline is Jan. 19.

Administration officials say Tennessee, which is competing against other states, has a good chance of becoming one of the winners and obtaining up to $500 million.

But some lawmakers, including Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, a House Education Committee member, have expressed reservations about giving test scores too much weight in tenure decisions.

"This is being escalated because of the glitter of dollars," said Rep. Brown, a former vice chairwoman of the committee.

The Tennessee Education Association has raised concerns, as well.

The special session could take a week, possibly more. But when that's over, members of the General Assembly face some even tougher decisions, lawmakers said during a recent roundtable with Chattanooga Times Free Press editors and reporters.

BUDGET PAIN

After slashing $750 million last year for the 2009-10 fiscal year that ends June 30, lawmakers now must whack an additional 6 percent to 9 percent from programs for the 2010-11 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The additional cuts could be $620 million to $790 million, according to some state estimates. Regardless, lawmakers said, it won't be easy.

"I think the governor's got to determine and balance this year what are essential services versus what are good and worthy programs," said Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland. "And then that's going to be the dispute, I think, between the legislative and the executive branch."

Other states face the same pain.

The National Conference of State Legislatures recently warned that "budget cuts will again be deep, controversial and painful. States are heading into an era of retro budgeting, where state spending is receding to levels of five to 10 years ago."

In Tennessee, thousands of nonpregnant adult TennCare enrollees could face a $10,000 annual cap on hospital stays if the program is cut 9 percent to save $51 million. Prosecutors could lose 17 assistant district attorneys to save $1.8 million.

Grants totaling $4.6 million for federally qualified health centers would go. An estimated 176 youth development center beds could be slashed to save $8.8 million.

But there is resistance to raising taxes to stave off cuts, said Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, assistant Republican floor leader.

"I don't see any appetite for a general tax increase among the people I'm talking to," Rep. McCormick said, citing local business owners' concerns about a jump in Chattanooga's stormwater fees. "We are going to have to pick and choose and prioritize."

There will be efforts to maintain the state's emphasis on job development.

Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber and Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr already have said they'll ask for another $40 million in insurance gross premium tax credits to expand a pool of venture capital funds for investment in Tennessee companies.

Jim Brown, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, has approached the Bredesen administration about a small-business jobs and investment credit bill.

Lawmakers also are expected to battle over any number of social issues. They already have said there will be attempts to salvage a 2009 law that allowed handgun-carry permit holders to go armed in establishments selling alcohol, provided they do not drink.

A Davidson County judge threw the law out, calling the so-called "guns in bars" law unconstitutionally vague. The state attorney general's office is appealing the decision.

Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said he expects and will support efforts to pass a better-worded measure that will withstand judicial review.

"It all boils down to what I feel like is the Second Amendment," Rep. Floyd said.

Some lawmakers are predicting this will be a short session -- even with the special session -- because it is an election year.

All 99 House seats are up for election, as are half the seats in the 33-member state Senate. Moreover, five senators are running for governor or Congress.

But Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said it would be wrong for lawmakers to get into a hurry simply to get campaigns into gear.

"I want us to make sure we do the business of the people of the state of Tennessee and not predicate that on people running for office," she said. "I don't want to be there until June 18 like I was last year, but I don't want to rush just because of the election."