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.)

Featured News Tax and Budget

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.

Environment and Natural Resources Tax and Budget

State Golf Courses Still Laying Up Short of Profitability

A foursome of Republican lawmakers made headlines recently after a Nashville television station revealed they’d spent a leisurely legislative-day afternoon this spring out on the links.

In fact, a lot of golfers who might not realize it are shooting publicly subsidized  rounds when they tee off at courses owned by the state government, according to a recent report by a spending watchdog group.

Taxpayers, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research says, are getting clubbed for a portion of the greens fees.

Since TCPR began scoring the financial performance of state government-managed golf spots five years ago, the public has sunk nearly $7 million down the hole.

That may seem like a lot of green, but government administrators are quick to extol the management of their facilities. And one of the most worthwhile aspects of the tax-funded greenskeeping, they say, is that three government courses have won prestigious awards for going environmentally green — even as their budgets have spent years in the red.

Last month Fall Creek Falls Golf Course was awarded designation as a “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary” for meeting “specific criteria in the areas of environmental planning; wildlife and habitat management; outreach and education; chemical use reduction and safety; water conservation; and water quality management.”

During the last budget cycle at Fall Creek, lawmakers teed up $731,000 for the golf course to operate. However, the facility is expected to only generate about $478,000 in revenue, according to numbers provided by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which manages the course.

By taking measures to qualify for the environmental sustainability award, the course will save about $1,400 in lawn care costs and reduce water usage by 16,000 gallons a year, according to TDEC.

Two other courses that have previously won the international Audubon award also operate at a loss. In the FY2008-09 budget year, Harrison Bay dropped $20,482 more than it earned in revenue and Paris Landing closed out $59,959 in the rough.

Tennessee is home to 11 state-owned golf courses. The government spent about $8.5 million last year on the facilities, while collecting only $6.9 million from users – a loss to taxpayers of about $1.6 million, concluded TCPR’s 2010 “Pork Report.”

“It’s not fair for Tennessee tax payers who don’t golf — many of them can’t golf — to subsidize those who choose to golf,” Justin Owen, acting executive director for the Nashville-based group, said.

Courses handicapped by low revenues ought to at least be charging user fees a fair ways closer to profitability, said Owen. And if the government can’t operate the facilities in the black, the fiscally sub-par courses should be sold off or leased out so the private sector can take a swing at running them, he said.

Jim Fyke, Department of Environment and Conservation commissioner, acknowledged in an interview with TNReport that “golf is in a tough time right now.”

“I’m not going to tell you golf courses, in immediate times, are going to start to make money,” said Fyke. He added that the Audubon award is “a feather in our cap when we’re getting our negative publicity on our lack of play at these courses.”

Furthermore, said Fyke, the courses are closer to solvency than the TCPR study suggests. All but three of golf courses are destination locations, or “hospitality centers,” situated near state-owned inns, restaurants, camp grounds, swimming pools, hiking trails, and marinas that attract visitors, he said.

Add up the costs of tourists’ golf fees, lodging, food and other expenses, and the recreational hubs are 99.1 percent solvent, said Fyke.

“It’s really, I think, a little bit unfair to single (golf courses) out,” he said.

Two Republican legislators, Rep. Joshua Evans of Greenbrier and Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, also looked at slicing the facilities this spring, proposing that the state lease or sell any courses that under-perform for two years straight.

The measure was never heard in committee.

Lawmakers tentatively agreed to get rid of two courses next year, anyway. The Legislature OK’d one-time funding for Old Stone Fort and T.O. Fuller golf courses in the latest budget, but will force the facilities to close when that money runs out in 2011 unless the General Assembly calls a Mulligan.

Courses handicapped by low revenues ought to at least be charging greens fees a fair ways closer to fair market value, said Owen. And if the government can’t operate the facilities in the black, the fiscally sub-par courses should be sold off or leased out so the private sector can take a swing at it, said Owen.