State Budget Sails Through Legislature

Both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly have agreed on a state budget and sent it along to the governor. And it’s pretty likely he’ll sign it, since it’s exactly what he asked for.

The appropriations blueprint passed Thursday by the Senate and the House calls for $32.4 billion in state spending from July 1 if this year through July 1, 2015. The current fiscal year’s budget was originally approved at 32.7 billion.

“This is a budget that we hoped would be a lot better. But with $276 million in the hole, this is an excellent, excellent budget that we all can be proud of,” said House Finance, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin.

The package was approved 68-27 in the House and 28-3 in the Senate. Those voting against the budget were mostly Democrats; Reps. Jeremy Durham of Franklin and Judd Matheny of Tullahoma were the only GOP lawmakers to give it a thumbs-down.

The biggest complaint Democrats voiced with the package — other than that id didn’t include enough spending in general, and too much allocated to “rainy-day” reserves — was that the governor withdrew plans he’d put forward earlier to award pay increases to teachers and government employees.

“The huge problem with this budget is that we’re not going to do what we said we were going to do. And we are going to balance (the budget) on the workers of this state,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. He proposed an amendment that would hold out the promise of adding the raises back into the budget if the fiscal picture brightens for the state government.

“If the numbers rebound, then we can keep our promise,” said Fitzhugh.

That didn’t fly with Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. The House majority leader said he considered the idea “with an open mind” but concluded it’s a “gimmick.” McCormick suggested such a move would leave employees in limbo and might even encourage them to make unwise personal financial decisions under the speculative assumption that the raises would somehow materialize, when in fact they very well might not.

McCormick asked the GOP supermajority to reject Fitzhugh’s amendment, which it did. “It’s a lot easier in the good budget years to hand out pay raises, especially in election years, then go home and take the accolades. The tougher part of leadership is to be responsible, and to only spend what we have and not what we don’t have and raise false expectations,” he said.

When the upper chamber debated the budget later in the day, the item that got the most attention was a proposal by Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, to find $2 million for fueling grants for law enforcement agencies around the state process backlogged “rape kits.” The issue of local investigators not being able to afford to process DNA samples in sexual assaults is national in scope, and has gotten a lot of attention in Memphis.

Legislation passed in the state House and Senate this week and headed to the governor directs local law enforcement agencies to inventory their unprocessed rape kits and report findings back to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said federal money is expected to soon become available to address the backlogs nationwide, He suggested the state should hold off spending money until the TBI has a grasp of the nature and magnitude of the problem statewide. On a 22-8 vote, the Senate rejected Kyle’s bid to locate and earmark funds to start processing the kits immediately.