NASHVILLE -- There appears to be little love between Tennessee's House and Senate speakers these days, but they do share one thing in common: Both are under fire for how they would use a likely federal windfall estimated at $341.6 million in budget-balancing plans.
Republicans are attacking House Speaker Kent Williams, an independent from Elizabethton, for a provision in Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's latest budget proposal. It includes a $16.1 million contingency spending provision to construct a fish hatchery in the speaker's district.
"This idea we're going to build a fish hatchery in Carter County has got a lot of people outraged, quite frankly," said House Assistant Republican Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga.
The funding is based on Congress' approving a six-month extension of enhanced federal matching rates for Medicaid. The plan, estimated to cost between $23 billion to $25 billion nationwide, is expected to come to the U.S. House floor this week as part of a much larger proposal.
Meanwhile, Democrats are heckling Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, a GOP gubernatorial candidate whose slogan calls for giving Washington "the boot," for planning on using $120 million from the same Medicaid funding for Senate Republicans' budget balancing plan.
Lt. Gov. Ramsey and fellow Senate Republicans want to use the money to plug a hole in their version of the state's $28 billion budget and avoid Gov. Bredesen's plans to raise $120 million in taxes.
Over the weekend, House Minority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, called Senate Republicans' planned use of the funds "hypocritical."
"I think it is somewhat ironic that to a person they have bemoaned the Obama administration's management of federal dollars and yet they (federal dollars) are the basis of making the budget work," he said.
Last week, Republicans' unhappiness over the use of funds, albeit federal dollars, for the fish hatchery provision resulted in a head to head confrontation between Rep. Williams, who has argued the state should dip further into reserves to deal with state revenue problems, and Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City.
"A fish hatchery in Carter County doesn't qualify for poor pitiful people," Rep. Matlock told the speaker as a reporter stood by. "Quote me on that, by the way. That's ridiculous. You gave us (Republicans) a speech upstairs _ how the government's got to be involved, the government's got to do this. Everybody needed government. And that's what you put into a budget that we don't have money for."
In response to further questions, Speaker Williams noted the funding is federal and the hatchery would produce about 22 jobs and draw thousands of money-spending tourists to his county on an annual basis.
"Why don't you move in to my poor county and see what we've gotten over the last 150 years," the speaker said. "We've gotten nothing."
Lt. Gov. Ramsey, meanwhile, said that if he had his way, Congress would not approve the six-month extension of increased federal Medicaid matching dollars for states.
"There is a possibility that Tennessee will get the federal money if the Democrat controlled Congress votes to appropriate it," he said via e-mail. "I hope they don't. We have been responsible in Tennessee and, unlike other states, we don't need it to balance our budget."
But he said that "should the money be appropriated, the Senate will set priorities. This includes funding the (Tennessee Highway Patrol communications) towers with cash. The governor had proposed raising driver's license fees, borrowing money to build the towers, then pay the bonds with the increased fees."
He lashed out at Gov. Bredesen, saying, "these towers have been needed for years. Suddenly they have become a priority for the administration." He also aimed a boot at U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who also is running in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
Rep. Wamp has said he plans to vote against the extension of more generous federal match rates for states' Medicaid spending. He said that because Democrats are folding it into a larger spending bill, the legislation "will take us further down the road to bankruptcy as a nation."
Lt. Gov. Ramsey said, "I hope Zach does vote against borrowing this money and sending it to the states. Apparently, now that he is running for governor, he is voting against spending after 16 years of never seeing a spending bill he didn't like."
Meanwhile, The Associated Press on Monday quoted Rep. Williams saying further negotiations with senators could lead to an agreement on the state's annual spending plan by week's end.