Tennessee deserved better from GOP budget-busters

Tennessee deserved better from GOP budget-busters

April 23rd, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Tennessee's Republican state lawmakers must think we're stupid.

Otherwise, they wouldn't have bragged about passing a "balanced budget," as state Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman; state Rep. Kevin Brooks, of Cleveland; and a number of other GOP lawmakers did last week.

And they never would've implied that new state budget was "thoughtful and strategic" like Gov. Bill Haslam did last Friday. And they certainly would never have called the budget "fiscally responsible" as House Speaker Beth Harwell did with a straight face in a guest op-ed in The Tennessean.

Did these Republican leaders think Tennesseans would forget that the State Constitution requires a balanced budget?

Did these supposed "fiscal conservatives" believe that taxpayers wouldn't realize that they just passed the biggest, most bloated budget in the 217-year history of the Volunteer State?

Did they hope that no one would notice their hypocrisy when they voted to bust the state's cap on spending after they spent much of the legislative session championing ideas intended to strengthen the spending limit?


At $32.8 billion, the new state budget is the largest in Tennessee's history. It's a full $2 billion more than last year's budget.

But that's not the worst of it for taxpayers.

The state portion of the state budget -- the chunk of the budget paid for by revenues from state taxes, such as the sales tax, franchise and excise tax, state gas tax, and the Hall income tax -- is limited by the Tennessee Constitution. State spending is limited based on the personal income growth in the state over the previous year. That spending limit, known as the "Copeland Cap," can only be overridden by a majority vote of both houses of the legislature.

With a Republican supermajority in the Tennessee General Assembly, taxpayers must have believed that GOP lawmakers wouldn't dare vote to bust the cap and spend more than they were constitutionally allowed. But they did -- by $132.5 million.

When the state coffers began filling with more money than expected, rather than returning the excess tax dollars to taxpayers by further reducing the sales tax on groceries or enacting several sales tax holidays, lawmakers decided to waste it.

Out of 132 members of the Tennessee General Assembly, only seven voted against busting the spending cap. Even state Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville, who sponsored a constitutional amendment to make the cap much more difficult to bypass, voted to exceed the spending limit. So much for principles. So much for fiscal conservatism.

That $132.5 million isn't just a one-year expenditure. Since each year's spending cap is based on total state spending from the previous year, the $132.5 million will be added to every state budget from here to eternity. Republicans' decision to bust the cap will ultimately cost state taxpayers billions upon billions of dollars.

So how did Republicans in the Tennessee legislature spend the extra money they collected from the pockets of Tennesseans? A number of questionable pork projects found their way into the budget at the last minute, including:

• $1 million for grants to private zoos and aquariums in the state.

• $1 million in handouts to refurbish the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation.

• $475,000 to fund a State Museum Task Force to look at building a new State Museum.

• $400,000 in additional funding for the Jackson Theater in Jonesborough.

• $310,000 to build a storage shed at the West Tennessee Cemetery in Memphis.

• $125,000 to spread among Tennessee's public television stations.

• $50,000 to the Alex Haley House and Museum.

• $20,000 in giveaways to National Coalition of 100 Black Women chapters in the state.

Did the budget do some good things? Sure, lawmakers passed a number of tax cuts. But, in total, those tax cuts amount to less than $7 per Tennessean, or approximately diddly-squat.

For years, Republicans in Tennessee promised that if they ran state government things would be different. The budget would be lean, spending would be responsible and the state spending cap would remain intact.

Well, now the GOP is in control, and what happened? They spent more than Democrats ever did.

After such a dramatic display of fiscal irresponsibility by GOP lawmakers, conservatives in Tennessee must be thinking, "With Republicans like these, who needs Democrats?"