Conferring Legislators OK State Budget Over Democratic Opposition

The Tennessee General Assembly is scheduled to vote on a final budget when it returns to Capitol Hill today. A 12-member conference committee met Friday night to “resolve differences” between the House and the Senate.

In an hour and a half, the conference committee hammered out a “report,” really a third version of the budget.

The Senate had four Republican and two Democratic members, the House the same partisan split. All disagreements were settled by a 4-2 partisan vote on each side, Senate and House.

Originally the two sides were apart by an estimated $1.8 million in a $30 billion budget. Democrats have argued that improved revenues have brought in many times that much money which hasn’t been allocated for any purpose. Republicans have argued the money is properly saved for future needs.

The final “conference committee report” now goes before each house for a simple yes-or-no vote. It can not be amended at that step – only approved, or disapproved.

The video of the conference committee is here.

For most of the budget, the two houses are in agreement. About 33 minutes into the video, Senator Randy McNally takes over the meeting from House Finance Chairman Charles Sargent and makes a series of motion to add several items back into the budget:

Put back into the budget:

• The proper pot of money to fund a men’s health awareness project —whether the $50,000 is one-time money or repeating, “recurring” money – settled in favor of the Senate version, taking the money out of permanent revenues rather than one-time funds. Making it “recurring” means the program is expected to funded year after year, not just this year.

• The committee restored $125,000 to the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf, a preschool for hearing impaired youngsters

• The state Legal Aid Society is to get $150,000, to be apportioned $50,000 in each grand division of the state. The original amount had been $50,000.

• $1 million for a project at Roane State Community College, building out the third floor of the Allied Health and Technology Building. House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh characterized the allocation as a “local project” and Democrats have blamed Senator McNally as the beneficiary – even though it’s not in his district. Fitzhugh tried to add $1 million each for Chattanooga State Community College, Jackson State, Dyersburg State and Walters State, saying that all five of the schools had been shortchanged in a previous year when the legislature promised funds to community colleges but fell short of supplying them. The Fitzhugh proposal was tabled by a 4-2 partisan vote.

• The state Arts Commission Heritage Music project was restored to $600,000. Democrats tried to extend it to $1.5 million and make the improvement available to projects in all three grand divisions, but that move failed.

Left out was:

• $75,000 for the privately run Education Equal Opportunity Group, essentially a one-man mission by a former state employee getting under-privileged students in the state lined up to go to college.

• A $30,000 historical interpretation center for the Civil War battlefield at Parkers Crossroads

• $300,000 for the E.M. Jellinek Center in Knoxville, a substance abuse treatment center.

• $200,000 for a privately operating “higher education” facility in Somerville.

Here’s how it works, technically
The state House of Representatives passed one version of the upcoming state budget. The Senate passed another, and that set up a “conference committee” work out the differences.

The final “conference committee report” goes before each house for a simple yes-or-no vote. The conference committee report can’t be amended at that step – only approved, or disapproved.

When both chambers agree (conference committees sometimes are sent back to try again) that version is adopted as the budget and sent to the governor for his signature.

Another caveat: budget figures are a moving target. At Monday’s conference committee, members weren’t able to identify how many projects were funded in the budget but depended on separate legislative bills that hadn’t passed – in other words, the money is in the budget, but it can’t be spent because the project isn’t authorized in law.

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