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Republicans Reach Budget Compromise in Conference Committee

GOP lawmakers set aside their disagreements and struck accord on a list of spending projects to cut and keep. The deal they achieved put the competing versions of the budget in line with one another and on track for final passage in both chambers Monday.

Republican legislative leaders seemingly mended a rift late Friday that had emerged between their Tennessee House and Senate lawmakers over local “pork barrel spending.” They agreed on about $1 million worth of additional reductions to a budget plan that had temporarily put GOP members of the two chambers at loggerheads earlier in the week .

In a rarely-called budget “conference committee” involving House and Senate lawmakers assigned to hammer out differences in the $31 billion budget, Republicans set aside their disagreements and struck accord on a list of spending projects to cut and keep. The deal they achieved put the competing versions in line with one another and on track for final passage in both chambers Monday.

“It’s not worth bringing state government to a halt,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said of the earlier impasse. After the conference committee, the Collierville Republican criticized the House for being “just cold” and practicing “a little hypocrisy” for deleting a handful of local projects GOP senators wanted funded this year.

“To hold up the entire state budget under the guise of funding only statewide projects when in fact the House was funding $22 million in local projects just wasn’t going to cut it,” Norris told TNReport.

Prior to the committee meeting it seemed perhaps that the legislative aides, lobbyists and die-hard Capitol watchers who’d stuck around after a grueling week of legislative action to watch the proceedings might be treated to a public airing of intramural animosities among Tennessee Republicans. But that didn’t really happen.

During the hour and a half of back-and-forth over minute budget details and for-the-most part fiscally insignificant programs, declarations of resentment were left mostly to Democrats, who weren’t expecting to win much anyway with respect to program-spending restorations and ampler reductions to the state’s food tax that they’d been advocating most of the week.

GOP leaders had hoped to wrap up their business by week’s end before they began quarreling Wednesday over a pile of so-called “pork projects” that would funnel money to specific programs in some lawmakers’ individual districts, through HB3835.

House leaders said they struck a deal earlier in the session to only fund projects with a regional or statewide impact. Norris says House leaders told them they preferred to fund statewide projects.

The Senate broke the deal, according to House lawmakers, who cut $1.8 million in “local projects” from the Senate’s budget Thursday. The Senate, led by its plainly nettled GOP speaker, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, came back the next day and almost unanimously voted to cut $22 million from the House’s spending plan.

The lone “no” vote came from Dresden Democrat Roy Herron, who said he opposed the appropriations bill because it fell short of giving taxpayers a bigger break on their food taxes and should have handed students more scholarship money.

“I respect those that made the budget, but I disagree fundamentally with taking all the taxes off of those who inherit more than $5 million and at the same time failing to fund education adequately and failing to do something more in terms of tax relief for those mothers who are trying to buy milk for their babies,” Herron told TNReport.

Senate Majority Leader Norris contended the move to gut $22 million from the budget was to send a “greeting card” to the House that the lower chamber’s budget, too, had “lots of local projects” still in it.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner called Norris’ description of the maneuver “one of the slickest threats I’ve ever heard.”

Ultimately, most of the cuts were restored, except for about a half dozen projects, which include $300,000 for the E.M. Jellinek Center in Knoxville for operational expenses related to substance abuse treatment, $200,000 in seed money for a higher education facility in Somerville, $75,000 for the Education Equal Opportunity Group’s programs for low-income and at-risk students, and $30,000 for a historic interpretation project.

“This thing needs to be fair. It doesn’t need to be unfair,” said Minority Leader Craig Fizhugh, D-Ripley, who unsuccessfully pushed to add those projects back into the budget. “Let’s just don’t try to get out of here without doing something for jobs in this state for people this year.”

Both chambers plan to pick up where they left off Monday and approve a final version of the budget.

The Senate will begin at 1 p.m. The House plans to come back at 7 p.m. Sunday to take up the second reading of SJR222, a constitutional amendment that requires three readings before lawmakers can vote. The chamber then plans to resume session on Monday.

Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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