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VOL. 124 | NO. 117 | Wednesday, June 17, 2009

House Budget Proposal Sent to Full Floor Vote

By ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press Writer

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NASHVILLE (AP) – Tennessee’s Republican House speaker is describing a state spending plan headed for a full floor vote as a “compassionate budget” because it doesn’t include some of the deeper cuts proposed in the Senate Republican version.

But Republican House Majority Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol said many of his members consider the decision Monday to send the measure to the floor as “a very preliminary vote.”

The measure was advanced on voice votes by first the House Budget Subcommittee and then the Finance Committee. Democratic House Finance Chairman Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley is sponsoring the measure.

“There are deep cuts in this budget,” said House Speaker Kent Williams, of Elizabethton. “But even with the deep cuts, I feel like it’s a compassionate budget.”

The measure would protect many state workers from layoffs until the end of June 2010, and would issue bonds for bridge projects and higher education buildings. Neither provision is included in the Senate version that was headed for a floor vote Tuesday.

The House plan also differs from its Senate counterpart in that it would restore about $5 million each for coordinated school health care grants, the Department of Children’s Services and the mental health programs for families and children.

“We feel like it’s our responsibility to take care of our citizens who can’t always take care of themselves, especially our children,” Williams said.

Senate Republicans and some of their House counterparts have called for accelerating cuts because of the state’s bleak revenue outlook, and have balked at taking on more debt to pay for the bridges and college buildings.

Backers of the House budget version said new projects would create jobs and position the state for when the economy rebounds.

“Times are tough, we all know that,” said Williams. “But we just can’t curl up and lay in a ball in the corner. We need to work our way out of this recession.”

Republican Rep. Joe McCord of Maryville said he agreed with funding some of the building projects.

“I’m OK with bonding for the higher education capital projects because historically we’ve done that,” he said.

But Mumpower said he still has concerns about the spending enhancements and the bonds.

“There’s much worry about the bonding and the use of the taxpayer’s credit card in this hard time,” he said.

Fitzhugh said Tennessee has the lowest per-capita debt in the country, and that it will retain that rank even if the Legislature approves $350 million of bonds for bridge projects and $211 million for buildings at colleges and universities.

While there was no significant debate about the budget proposal in either House panel on Monday, it’s unclear whether Williams has the 50 votes needed to pass it in a full floor House vote. Republicans hold a 50-49 edge in the lower chamber.

Even once the House passes a spending plan, it would have to be worked out with the Senate version before it could head for Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s consideration.

“I think everybody recognizes that the real work is going to be reconciling the House and Senate (versions of the) bill,” Mumpower said. Republicans have a 19-14 advantage in the Senate.

House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner said he wasn’t optimistic about finding a quick consensus with Senate Republicans.

“The posture they’re in right now is a long way from where we are,” said Turner, of Old Hickory.

The House budget bill would stave off until the end of the budget year any layoffs outside of the Mental Retardation Services Division and the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. But those two agencies account for 552 of the 717 existing positions that Bredesen has recommended to be eliminated.

Another difference between the plans is that the House would draw all pre-kindergarten funding from recurring revenues, while the Senate wants to use lottery reserves to pay for part of the program.

Pre-K supporters argue that using reserves is a first step toward cutting or eliminating the program.

“I don’t think we should even take the risk of losing this pre-K program,” Williams said.


Associated Press Writer Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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