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VOL. 41 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 21, 2017

Fitzhugh's $250M education fund faces long odds

By Sam Stockard

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Legislation by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh seeking to create a $250 million education fund may have to fit through the eye of a needle to get into the governor’s $37 billion budget plan.

The K-12 Block Grant Act was placed “behind the budget” in the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee Wednesday, meaning the Legislature could take it up after the budget is approved during the next two weeks before adjournment but would have to come up with the money.

“I’d bet against it, but I wouldn’t absolutely bet my house against it,” said Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican who chairs the House finance subcommittee.

Despite the hurdle, Fitzhugh said the move was “standard” because the governor didn’t include any funding in his supplemental budget for the measure or in his overall spending plan.

“People said we cut a deal. Well, you can tell there wasn’t any deal cut because he certainly didn’t fund the proposal,” Fitzhugh said.

The Ripley Democrat was referring to talk that 23 House Democrats backed Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, a mixture of gas tax increases and tax reductions, with the understanding he would support Democratic initiatives such as Fitzhugh’s education funding plan.

Fitzhugh said he’s working to ensure support in the House and Senate to create the funding mechanism enabling the Department of Education to make block grants to school systems across the state as a supplement to the Basic Education Program, the funding formula for schools statewide.

Local education associations would be able to use the money at the direction of school boards, but no block grant money could be used for salaries or other recurring expenditures, according to the bill.

The fund would be created using surplus money from excess sales tax revenue collected in fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017. The state is expecting to have a $1 billion surplus in non-recurring money this fiscal year and is projecting another nearly $1 billion more in recurring extra money.

Fitzhugh points out the state has a “very robust budget,” with money going in a lot of different directions, including a direct airport route.

“It’s certainly still alive,” he said of the legislation. “I don’t know how long we can keep it going, but I think once we explains to folks what it’s all about and the opportunities that it gives us, people will know it’s not some kind of deal cut. It’s an opportunity.”

Fitzhugh, who continues to contemplate a run for the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said the K-12 fund would be similar to a fund the Legislature set up to pay for chairs of excellence in universities across the state.

McCormick said he likes the idea of setting up the fund and “multiplying” the money over the years to bolster education. But he was skeptical of its passage.

“I think the governor would have to make significant changes to his budget that he’s already presented to find that kind of money, it’s such a huge amount of money. I’m not sure how practical it is to get it funded,” McCormick said.

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