State lawmakers forget where money comes from

State lawmakers forget where money comes from

April 18th, 2015 in Opinion Times

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam addresses state lawmakers at the state Capitol in Nashville on Feb. 2, 2015.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

It's really hard to find good things to say about Tennessee's General Assembly, of late.

Now the bullies among our GOP lawmakers are using their clout to strike back at school boards in Hamilton County and six other counties — Bradley, Polk, McMinn, Grundy, Marion and Coffee — that have sued the state over its consistent underfunding of the state's Basic Education Program.

The counties' suit charges the BEP formula, which distributes state education money for everything from teacher salaries to chalkboards, is deliberately underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars and thus violates the Tennessee Constitution, which provides the state will offer a free system of public education.

The General Assembly passed the current BEP funding formula just before the recession, and since then, with the natural growth in school students, health care costs and industrial incentives on the heels of two bumper job-growth years in the state, they claim there just hasn't been enough money to fully fund the allocations.

So once again on Thursday, Tennessee Republican lawmakers sent a $33.8 billion annual spending plan to the governor that doesn't fully fund education. But this time, it also includes an amendment that specifically bars the school systems from using any state BEP money for attorney fees, court costs or other expenses of the litigation.

But get this: The amendment also says that if the suing school districts lose, the state's cost will — yes, will — come from the BEP money.

To recap: Schools can't use education money to get more education money, but the state can use education money to keep schools from getting more education money.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, called his colleagues on what he termed a "bully" tactic: "I just think we're setting a bad precedent with this amendment. If someone has a just cause and we're just trying to more or less threaten the locals that you shouldn't do this, we're just being the bully on this."

Outrageously, however, some of our own lawmakers — Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson — thought the bullying move was just fine.

"It was not my idea, although I wish it was," McCormick said. "I'm fully in favor of it."

Watson said "the locals" in Hamilton County could fund it. "Or it could be funded by independent sources."

So, on one hand, our state leaders and officials are crying that there isn't enough money for education and they are keeping those greedy school systems from trying to get more. But on the other hand, they are pretty consistently singing their own praises on economic development, claiming to be bringing Tennessee new jobs right and left. In fact, Tennessee is doing so well that these same lawmakers are talking about doing away with the Hall income tax on investment income that generally only the most affluent Tennesseans pay. What? We don't need the money?

Once again, our lawmakers seem to forget just whose money this actually is in the first place, and who provided it to begin with. We did.

In this budget, we're paying $165.8 million in economic incentives for Volkswagen, which plans to produce a new line of SUVs at its Chattanooga plant, and $30 million in incentives for Nissan's Nashville-area operations. We're also paying $120 million to build a new state museum in Nashville, and we're adding $76 million to the state's Rainy Day fund, bringing the total to $568 million. On the education side, we're setting aside $100 million for teacher pay and another $40 million for the BEP funding formula, though still not fully funding it.

We are already paying to fully fund education. Our bully lawmakers should stop being obstructionists.

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