It's a great question: What to do with an extra $600 million in state revenue?
Our state officials already are lining up to chirp about how to spend those dollars.
In the 2015 session, Haslam, despite asking for departmental spending cuts, saw a surplus coming and filed a last-minute amendment to his budget that spent a big chunk. The largest item in the governor's shopping list was $120 million for building a new state museum. Some Republican legislators grumbled, but in the end they went along with what was actually a good and needed expenditure.
This time? Given our legislators' tendency to fight over surplus money more than budget cuts, some think Haslam may not win a similar go-along, get-along attitude from lawmakers.
Just within Haslam's own administration, the Department of Environment and Conservation is asking for $125 million to repair long-neglected facilities at state parks while General Services Commissioner Robert Oglesby wants $529 million to begin an estimated $1.8 billion needed to patch up other state buildings. Several legislators, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, want to spend $280 million of the surplus on road projects — a move that could undercut Haslam's hopes for increasing fuel taxes as a longer-term roads fix.
And don't expect Insure Tennessee, either. Insure Tennessee was the sensible Gov. Haslam-negotiated Tennessee version of the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid that a state Senate committee (including our own Todd Gardenhire, Bo Watson and Mike Bell) turned down. Twice.
In nixing it, our lawmakers turned down a federal offer to pay for a two-year pilot that would cover 285,000 working poor Tennesseans at 100 percent. In all, they turned down $2.8 billion — yes billion with a "b" — claiming they did not to trust the federal government's promise that federal money would pay for 90 percent of the program's cost thereafter.
So, bottom line, we in Tennessee won't get a return on our federal tax dollars because our lawmakers have continually left money on the table for someone else.
Oh, and the next time you hear our lawmakers say they listen to you and your neighbors — their constituents — just go ahead and laugh out loud. A Vanderbilt University poll of Tennessee registered voters found that a resounding 64 percent said they supported Insure Tennessee. What's more, a whopping 78 percent wanted the full Legislature to vote on Insure Tennessee. Only 19 percent said they opposed Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee.
As for the 2016 second session of the General Assembly that begins this morning? Just know they'll be talking again about how to spend our money. There's the potential gas tax increase, the elimination of the Hall income tax on dividends (as opposed to decreasing the sales tax for all Tennesseans), a proposed division of our higher education system, guns on college campuses, same-sex marriage and Syrian refugees.