VOL. 41 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 5, 2017
Tennessee House adjourns amid budget chaos
By Sam Stockard
The House of Representatives adjourned in apparent disarray today after arguing over amendments to $37 billion budget plan, some saying discord stemmed from votes on the governor’s IMPROVE Act.
They wound up with about $325 million extra, causing some members to question whether they would be violating their constitutional duty to pass a balanced budget. Republicans leaders said they would have to pass a measure Friday morning to take that amount out of the state’s rainy day fund in order to balance the budget.
Asked if Republican leaders had lost control of their caucus, Majority Leader Glen Casada said, “No, it’s the democratic process.”
Instead, they’re advocating for “outlandish spending,” he said.
Such spending isn’t expect to make it through the Senate, and House Majority Chairman Ryan Williams said he had spoken with Senate leaders earlier in the day about the long list of budget amendments coming.
Even Casada lost one fight, a move that took money away from a historic site in his Franklin district, the Carter House, and shifted it to a program to fly veterans to Washington, D.C., for honors and a tour and then bring them home to a hero’s welcome. Casada argued the House should vote for economic spending that would create jobs and revenue instead of the bolstering the veterans’ program.
Despite that funding shift, Casada said he felt House members were “more mature” than to vote for extra spending because they’re still upset about the IMPROVE Act’s passage.
It is clear, though, that several Republicans remain upset about passage of the IMPROVE Act, which will raise gas and diesel taxes over three years and increase motor vehicle registration fees, though those are projected to be less than a spate of tax reductions to the food tax, Hall income tax and business taxes.
Memphis Republican Rep. Mark White said he felt a block of Republicans voting for budget amendments that raised spending, primarily a $300 million chunk for school systems to pay for building projects, circumvented the House committee process.
White also acknowledged many of the votes to boost spending resulted from sour grapes on the IMPROVE Act.
“You didn’t win there, so we’re gonna win here,” he said. “But when you haven’t thought things through, this is what happens.”
The $300 million amendment by Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, to send money to school systems for capital improvements didn’t go through the House committee system, White noted.
“That’s wouldn’t even work,” he said, noting county commissions appropriate the money for capital projects, not school boards.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh managed to pass an amendment by one vote to shift a total of $150 million in the rainy day fund into a new fund for K-12 education. It would be used to generate interest, the proceeds of which school systems would be able to tap for important needs such as reading coaches or computer equipment.
“That amendment did not throw the budget out of balance,” Fitzhugh said.
However, it didn’t go through the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee where it was likely to fail because of the amount of money involved and the impact on the rainy day fund and bond rating.
It had the backing of several Republicans, too, many of whom voted against the IMPROVE Act.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, who was formerly House Majority leader, agreed much of Thursday’s maneuvering was caused by discontent over the governor’s gas tax measure.
“This Republican in-fighting, we’ve got one group that would rather meet with Democrats and work with them than they would with other Republicans. And that’s OK too. That’s their right. It’s bipartisanship,” McCormick said.
He called the situation “disappointing” and “irresponsible” but said he hoped cooler heads would prevail Friday morning.
“It seems like a lot of those that have lost elections and lost votes, and I think part of it has to do with the IMPROVE Act, and the folks that lost that vote are upset over it. And I think that’s part of the motivation for this. I don’t know what the whole motivation is. That’s certainly part of it,” McCormick said.
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.