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Turner Wants Temporary Halt to State ‘Earmarks’

Rep. Mike Turner, the state House Democratic Caucus chairman who won a slim victory in his District 51 re-election bid last month, says he received one message voters were sending, loud and clear: Wasteful government spending must stop.

The firefighter from Old Hickory has a plan designed to make Republicans put legislative walk to their campaign talk, and place a statutory lid on district-level pork-barrel spending.

Turner told reporters Monday he’ll file a bill in the 2011 session that would institute a two-year halt on legislative earmarks, the projects carved out by lawmakers for their home districts and sometimes added to unrelated bills.

“Their people said no mandates, so we’re going to probably put legislation forward that says you can’t have a budget amendment, you’re not going to be able to amend your fish hatchery in,” said Turner, referring to a controversial trout-rearing facility in Independent House Speaker Kent Williams’ district that was included in Democratic budget proposals, but was eventually removed.

While hashing out the state budget back in June, lawmakers haggled into the wee hours of the last legislative day over special projects, community improvements, property-upgrades and other tax-financed goodies and giveaways that incumbents could later take credit for hand-delivering to the folks back home.

Turner has yet to introduce the bill. He made the his comments Monday after leaving a Democratic caucus meeting on Capitol Hill. The Legislature will convene after lawmakers are sworn in Jan. 11, 2011.

(CORRECTION: The video caption to the clip originally posted misidentified Turner’s caucus membership; He is the Democratic Caucus chairman. TNReport apologizes for the error.)

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Ramsey Now Open to Granting Williams’ Fish Wish

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he is on board with a plan to build a $16.9 million fish hatchery in upper East Tennessee, a project that just a few months ago he said was perceived by voters and GOP lawmakers as “purely pork.”

He approved a motion to move forward with more than a quarter million dollars worth of planning for the project at a State Building Commission meeting in Nashville Thursday, later telling reporters he always supported the fish hatchery but just didn’t think last spring was the right time to fund it.

“It was just getting the cart before the horse from the very beginning,” Ramsey said. “That’s what I’ve argued from the very beginning. I’ve never, ever said I was against the project. Ever.”

If state revenues perk up by the next legislative session, Ramsey said he’d support adding the remaining costs of the fish hatchery to the 2011-2012 fiscal year budget.

The hatchery drew controversy earlier this year during contentious state budget negotiations.

House Speaker Kent Williams pushed for funding the facility, to be located in his hometown of Elizabethton. Senate Republicans and Ramsey stood firmly against the project. “Fish,” GOP lawmakers became fond of saying, “is the new pork.”

At the time, Ramsey denied speculation that his opposition to the hatchery was a move to punish the Republican-turned-independent Williams for voting with Democrats in 2009’s infamous House Speaker election in which Williams edged out GOP-favorite Jason Mumpower.

Rather, Ramsey said the project was simply an unacceptable example of out-of-control government spending.

“This is a symbol of running things the Tennessee way, not the Washington way,” Ramsey said at the time.

He made the comments in May as the legislature scrambled to wrap up the year’s legislative session in time for campaign season. Earlier this month, Ramsey lost in the primary election to Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam. However, he still holds the top leadership position in the Senate.

The State Building Commission, which includes both Ramsey and Williams, authorized the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to move forward with $290,000 worth of pre-planning work on the hatchery. Blueprints for the facility will be ready by January, according to Dwight Hensley, TWRA Chief of Engineering and Real Estate.

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Budget Process May Come Out from Behind Closed Doors

For the first time in eight years, the Tennessee state budget may be headed to a conference committee.

A conference committee is a mechanism for reaching a compromise on a piece of legislation when the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill.

Normally, nuts-and-bolts budget debate and “quibbling” — as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called it last week — over particular spending projects goes on in backroom meetings amongst party leaders.

“When we don’t have conference committees, we’re essentially having a conference behind closed doors,” said Sen. Mark Norris, Republican majority leader from Collierville.

Norris said he’s looking forward to a possible conference committee. It’ll shine a public light on the behind-the-scenes deal-making, and force the two bodies to speak openly and for the record about tax-spending decisions, he said.

Tennessee lawmakers have been clashing for weeks over a number of government-funded projects, programs and proposed state-employee bonus packages.

Senators are preparing to vote this week on a Republican-authored spending plan while the House moves its proposals through the legislature.

House Speaker Williams, on the other hand, isn’t so fond of the prospect of lengthening the budget battle.

“I hate going to a conference committee,” said House Speaker Kent Williams, who holds the tie-breaking vote on the budget committees in his chamber.

Williams — who has a lot riding on this budget, including funding for a $16.9 million cold-water fish hatchery in his Upper East Tennessee district — said he will “probably” appoint members on his side from the 14-member Budget Subcommittee.

However, Williams said he would prefer an agreement be reached before a conference committee is needed.

Senate Republicans, including Speaker and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ramsey, have said they adamantly oppose the hatchery project.

Williams was ousted from the Republican Party after positioning himself to get elected speaker of the House by the Democratic minority last year. He said he fears a conference committee could be deadlocked because “I just don’t feel the Senate’s negotiating in good faith.”

“I feel like we have 132 members here and we have an administration,” said Williams, “and for 17 or 19 members of one body to dictate what the budget’s going to be for the state of Tennessee, that’s not right.”

If the House and Senate vote for their own budgets but refuse to adopt the other’s plan, formation of a conference committee is the next step.

“It’s hard work, and it’s often not pretty,” Norris said of the conference-committee process. “But I think it will be a good thing for people to see us doing it in the open.”

There are now 10 operating conference committees working out differences in other pieces of legislation — although the last time a similar committee was empaneled to hash out a budget impasse was during Gov. Don Sundquist’s final year in office.

Gov. Phil Bredesen — also in his last year running the state — is reportedly expressing frustration with the deadlocked lawmakers.

Typically, conference committees have three to five members from each chamber with no quota requirement for the number of Republicans verses Democrats, said Senate GOP budget author Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican who agrees a budget conference committee is likely in the cards this year.

However, the speakers of both chambers of the General Assembly can appoint as many members to the committee as they want. The respective House and Senate committee teams will get one collective vote to alter debated budget points.

The process could last as little as a day or stretch on for weeks.

“It’s as long or as short as the conferees want it to be,” said Jim Naifeh, D-Covington, the man Williams replaced as speaker.

If the committee fails to achieve a consensus or either chamber rejects the agreement, the Speakers can dissolve the committee and appoint a new one, according to Senate rules.

The committee will ultimately seek to debate out an agreement a majority of both chambers can live with before the state begins the next budget year on July 1.

“I hate going to a conference committee,” Williams said
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Senate Stays Late To Advance Budget Bills

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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Budget Talks Stall Over Hatchery Project

Negotiations came to a sputtering halt Thursday after lawmakers from both parties walked away from the table unable to hash out an agreement on one spending plan sticking point: whether to fund a $16.1 million fish hatchery during the tight fiscal year.

Calling it “the most political budget” he’s ever seen, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner blames much of the strife on Senate Republicans. GOP lawmakers, said Turner, are seeking “political payback” against House Speaker Kent Williams, a former Republican, and readying their election campaigns for higher elected offices.

“They’ve got nine people running for Congress, 150 of them running for governor. This is all about politics,” said Turner, who is from Old Hickory. “They’re using this fish hatchery because they think they can gain political points about that and there’s more to this than the fish hatchery.”

Proposals from the House and Senate were seemingly just beginning to come together on several fronts until members of leadership met Thursday afternoon. When that meeting was over, Lt. Gov. Ramsey, R-Blountville, and his GOP leadership crew had walked away from the bargaining table.

Ramsey, in the thick of a three-way race for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, said there’s no way he could support funding the “pork barrel” fish hatchery project in Speaker Williams’ Northeast Tennessee district. Opposing that project is an example of “running things the Tennessee way and not the Washington way,” said Ramsey, who has taken to using that phrase in commercials and on the campaign trail.

On one point Ramsey and Turner do share agreement: The impasse at the statehouse is about “more than just a fish hatchery.”

“It’s a symbol of out of control spending,” said Ramsey. He said that is the one issue he and his caucus will not budge on — all other issues are negotiable.

Ramsey said blocking the fish hatchery has nothing to do with political retribution against Williams, a former Republican who was voted Speaker of the House by the Democratic Party last year. In a tough budget year when legislators are considering cuts to mental health, children’s services and other social programs, Ramsey said there’s no way to justify spending any money on a fish hatchery.

The hatchery isn’t the only issue Democrats and Republicans are disagreeing on at this point in the budget process that promises to drag into June. But it’s one that both parties aren’t budging on, Ramsey said.

Other issues being debated include whether to give state employees a cash bonus, help with health care payments or something else of value. Also on the table is a plan to offer flood victims a sales tax holiday on items they purchase to fix up their homes.

“Things like that can be worked through, but when it comes to projects that are pork-barrel projects, we just cannot,” said House Republican Caucus Leader Glen Casada of Franklin. “Let’s cut the pork and make government smaller with no tax increase.”

Lawmakers expect to adjourn for the holiday weekend and pick up on budget talks next week.

Ramsey said he and his caucus will stay “as long as it takes” to pass a budget without Williams’ fish hatchery. House Democrats say they expect to spend at least another two weeks at the Capitol hammering out a budget.

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Carter County Fish Hatchery a Flop Among Republicans

House Speaker Kent Williams says a $16.9 million trout hatchery in his home district would help boost the local economy, but lawmakers who live nearby think the idea sounds a little fishy.

Calling it “fish pork,” several legislators in Upper East Tennessee districts say there is no space in the state budget to fund special projects during tight economic times. Building a fish hatchery in Carter County is simply a pet project for the independent Speaker of the House of Representatives that he’ll then use to bait voters come election time, Williams’ rivals in the chamber charge.

It’s a move they say will leave cash-strapped Tennessee taxpayers on the hook to pay the tab.

“We have lots of fish farms in East Tennessee. They’re called rivers and lakes and streams,” said Rep. Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican who neighbors Williams’ district. “We don’t need to spend $16 million on, truly, a version of fish ‘pork.'”

For his part, Williams says a facility in Carter County would become a stimulator for the economy of Upper East Tennessee, an attractant to boatloads of tourists, not unlike a similar facility in Texas that the speaker says lands 80,000 visitors a year.

“Why shouldn’t Carter County and upper East Tennessee just get just a little chunk?” said Williams, who added that other areas have benefited from economic developments when the state attracted companies like Volkswagon or Hemlock Semiconductor.

“It’s not like we’re asking for $500 million. It’s a little chunk. And I don’t know why I’m getting so much resistance on it,” he said.

In addition to the schools of fishermen who’ll be reeled in not just by the hatchery but also the nearby rivers and streams to wet their lines, the planned aquatic learning center will help educate swarms of visiting students from regional school systems. All those visitors would in turn chum the economic waters with tourist dollars at restaurants, shops and lodging, claims Williams.

But Lundberg thinks Williams is telling fish stories — that in fact the hatchery wouldn’t make that big an economic splash. The primary beneficiaries of all the new trout swimming in nearby waters will primarily be local recreationalists, he said. And while the prospect of catching a few more lunkers for creel and skillet on a weekend outing no doubt sounds nice, he said it’ll hardly heat up the local economy.

Republicans also point out that Williams’ “little chunk” looks more like a pretty good sized hunk when considering some of the much cheaper projects GOP lawmakers have also announced they’ll be tossing back instead of keeping onboard next year’s budget, including $5 million for a National Civil Rights museum and $4 million for construction work at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis.

State officials don’t know what kind of economic impact to expect, either.

“There’s no way to know. We’d probably project 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a year,” said Bart Carter, TWRA fisheries manager for the northeast region. Another agency official, TWRA Assistant Director Nat Johnson, said tourist numbers could be as high as 60,000 visitors based on attendance numbers at a similar facility in Athens, Texas.

Athens is less than 100 miles from the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington metroplex, which has a population — around 6.5 million — greater than the entire state of Tennessee.

The Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association said their region now has the fastest growing economy in the state. According to 2008 data, the last year available, the state showed the largest economic growth statewide with $640.64 million in travel-related spending in the eight-county area. Carter County, with population of 59,000 people, collected $31.2 million in travel-related expenditures.

The whole idea of spending money on the fish-hatchery project at this point in time makes Justin Owen’s head swim.

“This is a prime example of government gone wild,” said the policy director for the Tennessee Center for Public Research. He added that the Tennessee Constitution “doesn’t say anything in there about hatching fish.”

“What the Speaker calls a capitol project is really code name for pork-barrel spending,” said Owen, who this week launched a Facebook event page urging lawmakers to “Say No To Fish Roe.”

“He’s flat out saying by virtue of him being Speaker he can redirect money to his district,” Owen said.

Gov. Phil Bredesen added the fish hatching capitol project to his budget earlier this month. The plan, which is close to the Independent speaker’s heart, was tacked onto a long list of amendments to the Democratic governor’s $28 billion spending plan.

The state now owns and operates 10 fish hatcheries across the state, including two others in nearby Buffalo Springs and Erwin. If the state OK’s building the facility in Carter County, hatchery operations would be run by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and supported through licensing fees and federal funding, according to the governor’s budget office.

The hatchery, which would create some 22 jobs, needs another $16.1 million in funding this year to get off the ground. About $800,000 for planning and architecture work was paid for by the state last year, according to the administration.

If passed, the remaining funding would depend entirely on whether Tennessee receives some one-time federal dollars expected to top off at $341 million.

Democrats so far are including the project in their budget proposals, but House Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Old Hickory, wouldn’t say how far the party would go to support the Speaker’s project.

House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower — who, like Lundberg, hails from Williams’ neck of the woods — would not go so far as to say the idea is dead in the water. But he reiterated the GOP line that this year “is not really the time for earmarks of any type.”

“What we need to do is pass a budget that includes no new taxes, and make sure we keep expenses under tight control,” said the Bristol Republican.