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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.