NASHVILLE -- House and Senate leaders met in a budget conference committee Friday night where they fought over cuts the respective chambers had made on $23.8 million worth of earmarks for projects or programs in the proposed $31.1 billion state budget.
After 90 minutes of occasional confusion and wrangling, majority Republicans finally reconciled their differences, declared success and cleared the way, they hope, for the expected passage of the state's $31 billion budget on Monday.
Minority Democrats on the panel, however, cried foul over a handful of projects still slated for cuts as well as initiatives they sought to insert into the conference committee report.
Among them was an effort involving the Senate's $1 million earmark for Roane State Community College, which originally was cut by the House. It made it through the conference committee. Democrats agreed it should be funded but also pressed for similar grants of $1 million each for four other community colleges including Chattanooga State Community College.
That proposal was tabled by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.
McCormick later explained that House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, "had over $200 million in additional spending that he wanted to do. We found our line and decided not to go over it."
That was a reference to budget amendments Fitzhugh previously pushed on the House floor, saying rising state revenues justified additional expenditures to restore cuts and do other things, including deepening Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed sales tax cut on food.
In the conference committee, Fitzhugh defended his $5 million community college proposal, saying, "this takes care of the House's concern with local projects. But more importantly, it fulfills our commitment to these community colleges that did not get what they planned for" in grants made several years ago.
Earlier Friday, the Senate on a 32-1 vote passed its version of the budget. It made $22 million in cuts to earmarks for programs and projects. That was in retaliation for $1.8 million in cuts to what House leaders deemed "local" earmarks when they passed the budget Thursday on a 66-30 vote.
"I felt like that if they wanted more cuts, we'll have more cuts," Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, told reporters earlier.
He noted the Senate budget bill gave the GOP-run House a choice of deeper cuts, going back to the original agreement or a conference committee. Among the cuts proposed by the Senate was about $12 million for the West Tennessee Megasite economic development park that was included in Haslam's budget. The funds were restored.
In the end, conference committee members restored most of the cuts except for items including a $200,000 earmark for a higher education building in Somerville, a $300,000 earmark for a Knoxville drug treatment center and $75,000 for a motivational program for at-risk youth.
The Senate accepted a House amendment that expanded a $500,000 earmark for a country music museum in Bristol, Va., which shares a main street with Bristol, Tenn., into a $600,000 musical heritage grant. The state Arts Commission has authority to distribute the money.
Both House and Senate budget bills still include Haslam's proposed closure of Taft Youth Development Center in Bledsoe County. Haslam says shutting down the 94-year-old facility will save $8.5 million.
Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, unsuccessfully fought to save Taft earlier in the day during the Senate's budget floor debate. Haslam says Taft is the most expensive of the state's five youth development centers to operate.
Stewart said that's due in part to Taft housing older teens ages 16 to 19, many of them repeat offenders or those prone to violence or disciplinary issues.
Taft also bears the costs of operating a water and wastewater treatment plant that also benefits a nearby prison and Fall Creeks Falls State Park, Stewart said.
Moreover, he added, Taft is the equivalent of the state's maximum-security state prison for adults, Riverbend.
"Closing down Taft in my mind is like closing Riverbend ... and sending the meanest of the mean to our other facilities," Stewart said, noting Taft has done the best job of any facility in rehabilitating its teen offenders.
"Ladies and gentlemen, not everything can be done for the lowest price," Stewart said. "What matters is doing it right."
His amendment restoring $12 million for Taft was tabled on a 19-14 vote with Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, the lone Republican opposing the tabling of the measure.
The House and Senate bills include plans to cut the sales tax on groceries from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent as well as increasing the exemption on the inheritance tax from $1 million to $1.25 million.
Also included are tougher penalties for gang and gun-related crimes, as well as mandatory sentences for repeated domestic assault.
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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