Legislative bickering over special “pork barrel spending” amendments to Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed $31 million-plus budget brought progress on Tennessee’s state government spending plan to a temporary standstill Wednesday.
Budget talks in the House ground to a crawl when Democrats on the chamber’s Finance Ways and Means Committee began to challenge some of the funding requests made by Republicans in the Senate.
In fact, hints of what lay in store started to emerge Tuesday evening during a House finance subcommittee meeting when Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh complained that Republicans seemed to be backtracking on their stated desire to avoid doling out greater-than-expected tax-collection revenues on spending projects that don’t benefit the state as a whole.
Fitzhugh groused through his Twitter account that a lot of additional spending had started accumulating on the proposed budget that seemed to him geared toward delivering funds to pet projects in Republican districts: “Apparently ‘not considering local appropriations’ only applies to Democrats. The majority pork barrel runneth over.”
On Wednesday former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh took up the theme and ran with it. The 19-term Covington Democrat, who is retiring this year, made a motion to scrap a $200,000 earmark for a post-secondary learning center in Republican Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham’s hometown of Somerville.
Naifeh said it’s unfair that the Senate was authorized to direct money for projects back to individual districts when the House promised not to do the same.
“There’s nothing local if this isn’t local,” Naifeh said regarding seed money for the higher education facility in Somerville. “I’d ask for $200,000 for the center in Tipton County, but I wouldn’t have gotten it because the House wasn’t putting any local amendments on.”
Naifeh’s logic wasn’t lost on the committee’s Republicans.
“I’m not sure why our colleagues on the other side determined to put local bills in the budget when we don’t have the same opportunity,” said Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas. “Or did we have the opportunity and just elect not to do it?”
House Finance Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, said arguments could be made that education funding tends to benefit Tennessee as a whole, although he acknowledged other projects added to the budget in the Senate don’t involve education.
House GOP Leader Gerald McCormick tried to table Naifeh’s motion, but enough members of his own party broke ranks that it was McCormick’s motion that failed.
McCormick quickly asked for a recess to quell the unrest in his party. After several hours holed up in a caucus meeting, Republicans returned and promptly cut roughly $1.5 million in projects the Senate has already approved before moving the budget along to the House Calendar Committee. Among the proposed spending the committee severed was a half-million dollars for a proposed “Birthplace of Country Music” in Bristol, hometown of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
Ramsey, a Republican, later said the House committee’s actions had jeopardized GOP lawmakers’ stated aim to wrap up the session by the end of this week. He said he’s now of a mind to start examining all manner of project spending “to make every project statewide,” including projects close to the hearts of West Tennessee lawmakers, like $25 million for the megasite project in Haywood County and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee that he chairs was ready to send its version of the budget to the Senate floor Wednesday before word came down to apply the brakes.
“We thought we had an agreement, but sometimes things fall apart, and we try to patch them back up and go on from there,” said McNally. He added that the situation is now “difficult,” but that he hopes “things don’t spiral out of control.”