Negotiations came to a sputtering halt Thursday after lawmakers from both parties walked away from the table unable to hash out an agreement on one spending plan sticking point: whether to fund a $16.1 million fish hatchery during the tight fiscal year.
Calling it “the most political budget” he’s ever seen, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner blames much of the strife on Senate Republicans. GOP lawmakers, said Turner, are seeking “political payback” against House Speaker Kent Williams, a former Republican, and readying their election campaigns for higher elected offices.
“They’ve got nine people running for Congress, 150 of them running for governor. This is all about politics,” said Turner, who is from Old Hickory. “They’re using this fish hatchery because they think they can gain political points about that and there’s more to this than the fish hatchery.”
Proposals from the House and Senate were seemingly just beginning to come together on several fronts until members of leadership met Thursday afternoon. When that meeting was over, Lt. Gov. Ramsey, R-Blountville, and his GOP leadership crew had walked away from the bargaining table.
Ramsey, in the thick of a three-way race for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, said there’s no way he could support funding the “pork barrel” fish hatchery project in Speaker Williams’ Northeast Tennessee district. Opposing that project is an example of “running things the Tennessee way and not the Washington way,” said Ramsey, who has taken to using that phrase in commercials and on the campaign trail.
On one point Ramsey and Turner do share agreement: The impasse at the statehouse is about “more than just a fish hatchery.”
“It’s a symbol of out of control spending,” said Ramsey. He said that is the one issue he and his caucus will not budge on — all other issues are negotiable.
Ramsey said blocking the fish hatchery has nothing to do with political retribution against Williams, a former Republican who was voted Speaker of the House by the Democratic Party last year. In a tough budget year when legislators are considering cuts to mental health, children’s services and other social programs, Ramsey said there’s no way to justify spending any money on a fish hatchery.
The hatchery isn’t the only issue Democrats and Republicans are disagreeing on at this point in the budget process that promises to drag into June. But it’s one that both parties aren’t budging on, Ramsey said.
Other issues being debated include whether to give state employees a cash bonus, help with health care payments or something else of value. Also on the table is a plan to offer flood victims a sales tax holiday on items they purchase to fix up their homes.
“Things like that can be worked through, but when it comes to projects that are pork-barrel projects, we just cannot,” said House Republican Caucus Leader Glen Casada of Franklin. “Let’s cut the pork and make government smaller with no tax increase.”
Lawmakers expect to adjourn for the holiday weekend and pick up on budget talks next week.
Ramsey said he and his caucus will stay “as long as it takes” to pass a budget without Williams’ fish hatchery. House Democrats say they expect to spend at least another two weeks at the Capitol hammering out a budget.