Tennessee lawmakers approve reduced $39.8 billion budget to respond to COVID-19 after partisan fight

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, wears a mask during House floor proceedings in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, March 19, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee's GOP-led General Assembly Thursday night approved Gov. Bill Lee's retooled version of the state's estimated $39.8 billion fiscal year 2021 budget Thursday night.

The budget seeks to respond to a growing coronavirus pandemic while freeing up other funds to prepare for an expected economic storm.

"This is not the budget any of us anticipated passing," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, told the chamber, noting that when lawmakers arrived in January he was concerned that flush revenues would result in too much spending.

Watson said "it does address the principal responsibilties of government. This will not solve our problems, but it is a good step." He later added, "I don't think any of us enjoy voting for this budget. Because we realize what we left out."

But Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said lawmakers are not providing Lee enough money in a $150 million emergency and contingency fund the governor requested nor did they authorized him to take adequate steps "to respond to the current crisis."

There's "nothing to allow him to purchase equipment and supplies, nothing to pay for medical treatment if Tennesseans are suffering," Yarbro said, adding the money can't be "directed to temporary aid and relief for the economy.

"We are about to live through something that we have never lived through, and I think the state should be able to respond" and keep as many people and businesses afloat as possible, Yarbro said, later adding the budget is "leaving too many people vulnerable."

Saying that the governor's recent declaration of a state emergency giving him wide-ranging authority and latitude to act gives Lee sufficient authority to act, Republicans tabled Yarbro's amendment to grant Lee more latitude.

The debate was far more tense in the often rancorous GOP-run House.

Minority Democrats condemned the Republican governor's fiscal year 2021 spending plan as falling far short of the needs of 6.8 million Tennesseans, especially for 300,000 uninsured Tennesseans who don't have health care and other needs.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Clement, however, charged that under Lee's budget "uninsured Tennesseans are going to suffer. And they're going to suffer in the midst of an epidemic."

Minority Democrats lobbied nearly a dozen amendments seeking to amend the spending bill, including one that sought to devote $1 million for Chronic Wasting Disease, which impacts deer, for human residents. That use of the money, said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, showed Republicans have more compassion for "Bambi" than "Randy, Sandy and Andy."

Other Democratic amendments unsuccessfully sought to divert more money to help small businesses such as restaurants already getting slammed. They railed at Lee's inclusion of $40 million for his voucher-like Education Savings Account program and unsuccessfully sought to divert that money toward bolstering health care in rural areas.

All the amendments were shot down by Republicans.

House Finance Committee Chairwoman Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, said Lee's spending plan "will help with unemployment as things get more serious. It'll help with coronavirus . schools, our colleges and universities, [emergency management] money. This budget does a lot."

Rep. Clemmons, however, charged that under Lee's budget that "uninsured Tennesseans are going to suffer. And they're going to suffer in the midst of an epidemic."

House Democrats warned Republicans they would pay a price for refusing to allow the state to apply to participate in the Affordable Care Act and provide Medicaid health coverage to the estimated 300,000 Tennesseans now without coverage.

The budget also seeks to deal with aspects of the deadly tornadoes that tore through Nashville and other parts of Middle Tennessee on March 3, killing 25 and leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

Later in the Senate, Watson said the new spending plan is $900 million less than Lee's original $40.9 billion budget. "Nearly a billion dollars, gone in an instant."

But he said the state's "Rainy Day" fund has been bolstered with $350 million and is expected to be $1.45 billion. That will "help us to survive to the degree we survive this economic downturn," Watson said, later stressing to collegues that "we can weather this storm. It will be painful. But given the circumstances we've put together the best appropriations we can do."

Lee's spending plan includes a provision that doubles his previous proposed $100 million infrastructure fund for cities and counties to $200 million and allows them to use funds to help respond to other needs, including COVID-19 woes.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, noted it fully funds the state's Basic Education Program funding formula for K-12 as well as provides funding for public colleges and universities.

As the Republican sought money to prepare, the governor's changes for the fiscal 2021 budget include cancellation of a $21.9 million proposed advanced manufacturing building at Chattanooga State. It's one of four higher education building projects totaling $159 million to be cut.

The governor also eliminated his proposed $250 million mental health trust fund for K-12 students as he diverts funds to other areas while building the emergency reserve to $1.45 billion.

While public school teachers, state employees and higher education workers still will see pay some pay raises, Lee slashed percentage amounts.

In an unusual move, Lee himself sat in the House and Senate galleries watching the proceedings.

After passing the annual spending bill, the Senate continued to work on ancillary spending bills until early Friday morning and was expected to adjourn shortly after.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.