Budget Clock Starts Ticking When Special Session Ends

Once lawmakers finish with any changes they plan to make to the state’s higher education laws and put an official end to the legislative special session currently underway, they’ll have less than 45 session days to tackle the state budget.

Lawmakers are given 90 days over two years to meet in regular session — which involves hearing and hammering compromises on bills, vetting ideas for new laws and, most pressingly, determining each year’s state operating budget.

Since January of 2009, the Senate has used up 47 of the 90 allotted session days. The House has met has met 46 times.

Only those days in which the entire Senate or House chamber meets, typically twice a week, are counted against the total allowed days. Committee hearings and meetings on off-days do not.

Bredesen called the Legislature into special session at the Capitol last week specifically to change education laws that deal with evaluating K-12 teachers, addressing failing schools and to increasing college graduation rates. Lawmakers approved one set of proposals for K-12 last week and they’ll focus on higher education reform this week.

Lawmakers ultimately have until July 1, 2010 — the beginning of the fiscal year — to pass a budget. The General Assembly usually OKs a budget package sometime between April and June.

Almost across the board, members of the Tennessee General Assembly agree that their most trying task this spring will be ironing out the state’s FY2011’s spending and revenue agenda amid a sluggish business environment, lofty unemployment and a $1.5 billion hole they attribute to lackluster tax collections.

Last fall, Gov. Phil Bredesen asked state departments to draw up separate plans for cutting 6 percent and 9 percent respectively from their annual budgets, which ranged from reining in state employee health care costs to closing a handful of veterans centers.

The governor expects to announce his budget plan Feb. 1.