For the first time in eight years, the Tennessee state budget may be headed to a conference committee.
A conference committee is a mechanism for reaching a compromise on a piece of legislation when the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill.
Normally, nuts-and-bolts budget debate and “quibbling” — as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called it last week — over particular spending projects goes on in backroom meetings amongst party leaders.
“When we don’t have conference committees, we’re essentially having a conference behind closed doors,” said Sen. Mark Norris, Republican majority leader from Collierville.
Norris said he’s looking forward to a possible conference committee. It’ll shine a public light on the behind-the-scenes deal-making, and force the two bodies to speak openly and for the record about tax-spending decisions, he said.
Senators are preparing to vote this week on a Republican-authored spending plan while the House moves its proposals through the legislature.
House Speaker Williams, on the other hand, isn’t so fond of the prospect of lengthening the budget battle.
“I hate going to a conference committee,” said House Speaker Kent Williams, who holds the tie-breaking vote on the budget committees in his chamber.
Williams — who has a lot riding on this budget, including funding for a $16.9 million cold-water fish hatchery in his Upper East Tennessee district — said he will “probably” appoint members on his side from the 14-member Budget Subcommittee.
However, Williams said he would prefer an agreement be reached before a conference committee is needed.
Senate Republicans, including Speaker and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ramsey, have said they adamantly oppose the hatchery project.
Williams was ousted from the Republican Party after positioning himself to get elected speaker of the House by the Democratic minority last year. He said he fears a conference committee could be deadlocked because “I just don’t feel the Senate’s negotiating in good faith.”
“I feel like we have 132 members here and we have an administration,” said Williams, “and for 17 or 19 members of one body to dictate what the budget’s going to be for the state of Tennessee, that’s not right.”
If the House and Senate vote for their own budgets but refuse to adopt the other’s plan, formation of a conference committee is the next step.
“It’s hard work, and it’s often not pretty,” Norris said of the conference-committee process. “But I think it will be a good thing for people to see us doing it in the open.”
There are now 10 operating conference committees working out differences in other pieces of legislation — although the last time a similar committee was empaneled to hash out a budget impasse was during Gov. Don Sundquist’s final year in office.
Gov. Phil Bredesen — also in his last year running the state — is reportedly expressing frustration with the deadlocked lawmakers.
Typically, conference committees have three to five members from each chamber with no quota requirement for the number of Republicans verses Democrats, said Senate GOP budget author Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican who agrees a budget conference committee is likely in the cards this year.
However, the speakers of both chambers of the General Assembly can appoint as many members to the committee as they want. The respective House and Senate committee teams will get one collective vote to alter debated budget points.
The process could last as little as a day or stretch on for weeks.
“It’s as long or as short as the conferees want it to be,” said Jim Naifeh, D-Covington, the man Williams replaced as speaker.
If the committee fails to achieve a consensus or either chamber rejects the agreement, the Speakers can dissolve the committee and appoint a new one, according to Senate rules.
The committee will ultimately seek to debate out an agreement a majority of both chambers can live with before the state begins the next budget year on July 1.