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Senate Stays Late To Advance Budget Bills

Legislators stuck around the Capitol until nearly midnight Thursday, advancing major budget packages out of committee and zipping through other bills on the chamber floor.

Burning the midnight oil on the Senate’s penultimate legislative day, lawmakers managed to pass state spending plan out of a key budget committee late Thursday night.

Members of the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee — which works like a filter for all bills with a price tag — worked until 11 p.m. approving budget items line by line.

The result was a measure that will offer state employees a buyout instead of a bonus, eliminate so-called “pork barrel” projects such as building a $16.1 million fish hatchery in North East Tennessee or keeping up the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis with a $5 million allotment, and offering nearly $20 million in tax breaks for flood victims.

“We got most of the budget done today,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. The technical corrections, appropriations and omnibus bills — which make up the meat of a state budget — are all ready to be heard by the full Senate.

There are still a few “leftover bills” regarding bonds the committee will take up next week, but those will be easy to pass, he said.

Gov. Phil Bredesen was nonplussed but the Senate’s budget, saying he hopes to see some changes before the spending package reaches his desk.

“I have some strong objections to the budget the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee passed tonight, and frankly am disappointed in their action,” read a statement from the Democratic governor. “They have backed up on some important issues that I was told had been resolved. I trust these can be fixed before the process is complete.”

After passing the spending plan, legislators met on the Senate floor until midnight to zip through about 30 bills members identified as non-controversial.

The Republican-run Senate plans to wrap up the budget process next week, and leaders told legislators to pack enough clothes to get the job done without going home.

The House still has to approve it’s own version of the budget. But because the House and Senate seem to have some varied ideas for a spending plan, they may have to resolve those differences in a conference committee where select lawmakers from each chamber negotiate a deal.

But they’re beginning to run out of time.

Both chambers have have a limited number of days to meet during every two-year legislative session. The Senate will reach its last day, 90, on Wednesday, and members will no longer be able to collect almost $160 worth of daily per diem.

The House has 3 paid session days left.

But regardless who gets compensated for negotiating out a budget, lawmakers need to approve a spending plan by the beginning of the fiscal year, which begins July 1.

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