Battles loom over key Tennessee bills as legislative session nears close

Battles loom over key Tennessee bills as legislative session nears close

April 22nd, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

NASHVILLE -- Like a herd of thirsty cattle catching a whiff of water, Tennessee lawmakers appear ready to start their annual stampede toward what leaders hope will be the final week of session.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, is keeping his fingers crossed that lawmakers can finish up on Friday.

"I think we're going to," McCormick said. "Of course, I've never been right before when I've predicted that."

But before the 107th General Assembly concludes, the 132 lawmakers must wrap up work on the $31.4 billion annual budget. It's the one thing lawmakers must pass.

And battles still loom over controversies including a bill allowing guns in business and school parking lots, the selection of appellate judges, drug testing for welfare recipients, Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed overhaul of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority and even a little sex education.

The latter subject is the topic of two bills affecting public school students. One of them is the so-called "Don't Say Gay" legislation, which would ban discussion of alternative lifestyles in kindergarten through eighth-grade public classrooms. Critics say state law already makes it illegal to teach sex education in grades K-8, but that hasn't deterred proponents of the bill.

Chattanooga-area lawmakers, meanwhile, are pursuing several local priorities. The list includes Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's anti-gang legislation, as well as what Littlefield has called a "contingency" plan if the sale of the Chattanooga Lookouts baseball team should become necessary.

If a new team owner didn't want to buy AT&T Field, the change would allow the city to issue bonds and buy the stadium using state sales tax revenue.

Legislative leaders also plan to meet today behind closed doors in hopes of getting budget issues squared away.

At this point -- last-minute actions are notoriously difficult to predict -- Republican-majority lawmakers appear to have a list of tax cuts they intend to include in the budget, including elimination of the state's gift tax.

House Democrats, meanwhile, last week unveiled their alternative to the fiscal 2012-13 budget pushed by Haslam and Republican lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he expects revenues may exceed $200 million above projections. But Haslam and Republicans don't intend to let the new money be formally acknowledged by the State Funding Board, which means they can resist spending it, Fitzhugh and other Democrats complain.

"At a time when working families are still hurting and the state is collecting revenue far and beyond what last year's estimates indicated, it's irresponsible to leave this money out of the budget," Fitzhugh said.

"A far better option, I think, is to use these funds for the benefit of all Tennesseans by avoiding unnecessary cuts and making smart investments in our future."

Democrats' plans include accelerating Haslam's proposed quarter-penny reduction on the state's sales tax on groceries and restoring some of the cuts the governor included in his original spending recommendations.