published Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

$31 billion Tennessee budget heads to Gov. Bill Haslam

NASHVILLE — The House and Senate gave final approval Monday night to a compromise on the state's $31 billion budget, sending the annual spending plan to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

House Republican majority lawmakers batted down four alternative Democratic proposals. The plan, which includes some $50 million in tax cuts, passed the chamber on a 64-28 vote.

Senators largely dispensed with debate, approving the majority Republican conference committee report on a 31-2 vote. Provisions include a 2.5 percent increase for state employees and $560 million in building construction or improvements, many of them in higher education.

The Senate then recessed until today, while the House debated into the night.

On Monday, Democrats sought to restore regional projects and add additional funding for higher education to cut likely tuition hikes by half. They also wanted to accelerate Haslam's cuts to the sales tax on groceries.

One proposal included a last-ditch effort to keep Taft Youth Development Center in Bledsoe County from Haslam's budget ax. It failed as well as a proposal that provided four appropriations of $1 million each to four community colleges including Chattanooga State.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said the improvements and restorations easily can be funded by higher tax collections that Republicans have refused to acknowledge.

"This is cash in the bank that we simply need to recognize, ladies and gentlemen," Fitzhugh said.

Another effort sought to eliminate a $600,000 grant for the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Reading from a Times Free Press article on the House floor, Democrats charged that $500,000 of that would go toward a new Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Va., located literally across State Street from Bristol, Tenn.

Rep. Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, sought to question the veracity of the article published last week in which Ramsey stated the money was going for that purpose.

According to a digital recording, Ramsey told reporters last Thursday the planned museum "is on the Virginia side -- barely. Literally on State Street. It's on State Street in Bristol. We'll put our money through the Arts Commission here as a grant to the city of Bristol and then they'll do their part."

State Street divides Bristol, Tenn., and Bristol, Va.

Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, initially sought to evade questions about the museum's location. Eventually, he implicitly acknowledged it was in Virginia but said "this will be tourism for the entire area. ... It will help Bristol, Tenn., as much if not more than Bristol, Va.

The money would be given by the city of Bristol, Tenn., to the Tennessee-chartered Home of Country Music Alliance. Several House Republicans said the tourism revenues would benefit Tennessee with visitors simply walking across the street into Tennessee to visit restaurants and shops.

The debate continued about the legality of spending money outside Tennessee even after the proposal was tabled on a motion from Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

"If the question is, can we spend money outside of the borders of the state of Tennessee, and is that objectionable? Then would it be objectionable for the state of Tennessee to spend money to take care of memorials to our dead soldiers in France, from World War II, that died storming the sands of Normandy?

"That's what we're doing right now," McCormick said. "So I'd say it's probably legal if we're going across state lines."

Ramsey said Monday evening the "proposed building site is just on the line in Virginia." The speaker said he has spoken with the Tennessee Arts Commission "and they're very anxious to join" the $13 million project.

Funding includes $3.5 million from Virginia as well as private donations and money from Bristol, Tenn., he said. The museum will be a Smithsonian-accredited facility, he noted.

Calling Bristol a "unique town" because it is split down the middle between two states, Ramsey said Tennessee "will get an advantage out of this."

As for Democrats' criticism, Ramsey said, "they just saw an opportunity and took it."

He later issued a statement on the budget's passage, saying lawmakers "passed a balanced budget which cuts spending, makes government smaller and provides tax relief to every Tennessean. Republicans have proved once again that it matters who governs."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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