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Upcoming Leglislative Session’s Focus on Fiscal Concerns

Lawmakers are looking to plug a $1.5 billion budget hole without drastically cutting government operations or gouging taxpayers too deeply. First on the Legislature’s 2010 calendar, though, is a special session in which Gov. Bredesen hopes to position Tennessee to corral $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” education grants.

Lawmakers say they don’t need a crystal ball to know that passing a budget will likely be the greatest challenge in the Tennessee General Assembly this year.

“This is going to be my 14th budget, and this is going to be the toughest one,” said Rep. Mark Maddox, D-Dresden.

The current year’s budget is roughly $1.5 billion in the hole due to lackluster state revenues, said Sen. Republican Leader Mark Norris, a lawyer from Collierville. With unemployment up and family incomes down, next year doesn’t look much better.

Because 2010 is an election year, lawmakers will be cautious not to upset voters too much, which makes filling the hole with a tax increase unpopular and unlikely, said Maddox. Last fall, Bredesen asked state departments to highlight ways they can cut up to 9 percent from their budget.

The legislature could also dabble with cleaning up the guns in bars legislation, moving more money to the TNInvestco to invest in capital investment firms, increasing transparency and possibly paring down programs the Tennessee lottery is funding, lawmakers said.

First on lawmakers’ 2010 calendar, though, is a special session designed to try and help Tennessee gobble up a chunk of $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” education grants. To do that, the legislature will have to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores before the Jan. 19 deadline.

Gov. Phil Bredesen also wants lawmakers consider linking the state’s higher education funding formula more heavily with performance measures like higher degree completion rates. That topic, too, might come up in the Jan. 12 special session.

“These are all things that need to be done. I’m not sure they need to be rushed in a special session when we have other burning and otherwise unresolved financial issues,” said Norris.

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