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With House Passage, Budget Action Moves to Senate

The Tennessee House of Representatives on Thursday passed a $31.4 billion state spending blueprint, setting the stage for a possible standoff between the two General Assembly chambers.

Both the House and the Senate are dominated by Republicans, however in the past couple days rifts have emerged over how many “pork barrel” projects ought to be funded in the next fiscal year — and whether the projects in question are “local” or in fact ostensibly serve regional or statewide interests.

Almost all the Democrats in the House voted against the budget package, saying it didn’t take into account the upward trajectory of Tennessee tax-revenue growth, which they assert justifies greater spending on education, job training and medical care for low income Tennesseans, among other areas.

The House Democratic Caucus, led by Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, has been arguing for the past week that the state isn’t really accounting for at least $200 million and as much as $400 million in revenues that’ll be funneled into government tax-collection coffers as the economy improves.

Democrats also unsuccessfully pitched the idea of taking a bigger bite out of the state’s 5.5 percent food tax, which in the Gov. Bill Haslam-backed proposal adopted by the House will drop to 5.25 percent.

Fitzhugh said the budget numbers the Legislature and the Haslam administration are using are inaccurate.

“Without a doubt, we have exceeded (State Funding Board) estimates, since we have that money in the bank,” said Fitzhugh, referring to the $107 million more in revenues government tax collectors have sponged up from the private sector this budget cycle than originally anticipated.

“The process by which we got to this budget was flawed,” he said. “We’ve really never been in this process before whereby we have additional funding in the bank and don’t even recognize it.”

Fitzhugh said passage of a budget that doesn’t account for the additional revenues constitutes a “travesty.”

The 66-30 vote came after 3 and a half hours of discussion, with Rep. Kent Williams, an independent from Elizabethton, and freshman Rep. Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson, D-Memphis, voting with Republicans in favor of the spending plan.

“There were some places that I would have liked to improve on it. But it is what it is, and I don’t think we had the votes to make any changes to it,” said Parkinson.

House Republicans were pleased with their efforts and eager to enter what they hope will be the last hours of the 2012 legislative session.

“I think we have a good budget and we are going to move forward with it and try to come to an agreement with the Senate,” House GOP Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga said after the vote.

McCormick acknowledged, though, that more wrangling is likely in store before the Senate and House versions line up.

“The Senate could pass the budget that we have already passed and I would be happy with that,” he said. “But if they don’t want to do that certainly we will be willing to go talk with them and have a conference committee and try to come to some sort of agreement.”

The Senate will likely take up the budget on the chamber floor today.

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