Legislature Sends Budget to Governor

The Tennessee General Assembly has approved a $33.8 billion budget, which includes a state appropriation of $13,778,481,400.

By comparison, the state appropriation for last year’s $32.4 billion budget was $14.9 billion, Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent told TNReport following the vote.

“Last year (the breakdown) was 45 percent state, 40 percent federal and about 14 percent other services,” the Franklin Republican said.

Thursday afternoon, the state Legislature completed its main task for the 2015 session in moving a budget forward to fund the state for another year.

Now, just a few more days of floor sessions and committee meetings remain next week to allow the state’s legislative body to wrap-up loose ends and hear final bills.

The House took up the appropriations measure first, and despite amendments offered and objections proffered by several members from both sides of the aisle, the lower chamber passed a budget with no riders and no changes from the measure established by the Finance Committees Wednesday evening.

One area of contention was a one-time, $120 million appropriation to fund a new state museum, which is currently housed in the basement of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, across the street from Legislative Plaza. The state will also raise $40 million in private donations for the project.

Since its announcement by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration in March, Republican Reps. David Alexander of Winchester and Rick Womick of Rockvale both voiced opposition to spending so much on a project that’s akin to a monument when some of the state’s employees and services were facing funding shortfalls.

Alexander, a vice-chair of the House Finance Committee, offered an amendment to take $60 million of the museum project funds and instead send half to the state’s reserve fund, and the other half to the state Department of Transportation. However, that amendment was rejected.

House members also voted to reject several amendments offered by Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh.

One of Fitzhugh’s amendments would have urged Haslam to continue his negotiations with the federal Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services to get a written agreement for a medicaid expansion waiver.

But Sargent argued that an appropriations measure was not the appropriate place for the House to consider Fitzhugh’s amendment.

Additionally, several objections were raised by the Volunteer State’s minority party to a Finance Committee amendment blocking local school boards from using funds granted to them by the state’s Basic Education Program funding formula to sue the state government.

That amendment was added by committee Republicans Wednesday night in response to a recent decision by several of the state’s school boards to sue the state government claiming that the BEP is being inadequately funded.

House Bill 1374 passed the lower chamber 80-12. Womick was the only member of the GOP to join 11 Democrats in voting against the measure.

Sargent congratulated the representatives for passing “one of the finer budgets we’ve had in a long time.”

Fitzhugh told TNReport after session that he took the budget “very seriously,” and while there were “good things in it,” there were “two major factors” that led him to vote against the bill. It doesn’t contain any allowance for the governor to pursue Medicaid expansion and the state’s tax-relief program for disabled veterans and senior citizens will “come up short this year,” he said.

“The way that the budget was put together was a little strange this year, but those were the main two reasons that I just couldn’t pull the trigger on the budget,” Fitzhugh said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris lauded the GOP-run House for sending Republicans in the upper chamber an “intact budget.”

According to Norris, the 2015-16 budget was “basically flat” in growth, representing about a 2 percent increase over last year, and includes $74.5 million for the state’s rainy day fund.

The Collierville Republican added that over the past four years the General Assembly has done a lot to reduce the size of government and “increase its efficiency.”

“Washington, D.C. — that’s not Tennessee,” he said.

The Senate passed the appropriations measure in short order, 32-1, without spending much time on debate. Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, a freshman from Memphis, supplied the only vote in opposition.

“This may be the first year in a number of years I had any red lights against it, but it was smooth here and generally supported very strongly,” Norris told TNReport after the Senate adjourned for the week.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, speaking with reporters after the end of session, praised the budget’s passage, especially the inclusion of funds for the State Museum.

“I do think that we’ve been long overdue on building a state museum. It’s a shame that we have our museum in the basement of a building,” the Blountville Republican said. He added that since they “had a little one-time money, that was the thing to do there, too. So I think it’s a great budget.”

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.