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The Pork Not Chopped

Tennessee Republicans this year had a window of opportunity to trim $23 million from the budget’s pork-barrel buffet that’s annually lain before them in the late hours of the legislative session.

But as often happens, the home-cooked political victuals proved too toothsome to pass up. They opted instead to heap their plates and hand taxpayers the tab in advance of hitting the exits and heading for yonder hills, dales and campaign trails.

Late in April, GOP lawmakers in both the House and the Senate appeared to identify more than a dozen local projects deemed worthy of consideration for removal from the state’s $31.5 billion budget.

As legislators entered the final stages of drafting the spending plan, bickering broke out over the relative merit of a series of “local projects” that had somehow meandered into the funding mix– despite a supposed informal “agreement” to spend taxpayer dollars solely this year on projects with obvious statewide or regional impact. At one point, the Senate even voted to cut $22 million worth of local pork that had crept into the budget after their brethren in the House had cut $1.8 million in suspicious spending they’d sniffed out.

But it was all just a show, little more than political theater. Ultimately, after an all-too-surreal House-Senate conference committee hearing, only $1 million in spending previously on GOP lawmakers’ wish lists was no longer in the final budget document.

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, admitted that the late-stage discernment of waste in the budget ultimately amounted to legislative “gamesmanship” — that, truth be known, there wasn’t much taste on anybody’s part for reducing tasty government handouts sure to wow the folks back home when it comes time for incumbents to brag on what they brung em’.

“It always happens at the end of the year. These are the things you just have to work out and take care of,” Sargent told TNReport.

Nevertheless, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who presides over the Tennessee Senate, said he doesn’t think voters of a fiscally conservative bent ought to be of a mind to make the GOP’s big-spenders pay come election time.

Ramsey, a “huge believer in preserving history, preserving our roots,” suggested it’s natural to make taxpayers pick up the slack when private-sector fundraising for cultural-heritage conservation comes up short.

“I think that fits right into my basic philosophy in general,” said the Blountville auctioneer, who often sells himself as a friend of Tea Party conservatives.

Still, Ramsey conceded not everyone may agree with every aspect of discretionary government spending in the coming year’s budget, especially when you get down to details.

He acknowledged that one of his own rather infamous pet projects — the Birthplace of Country Music Museum — probably “sounded awful” to those of a mind to zero in and identify the particulars of potential government waste. But GOP legislators even in the House rallied around the proposal to capture $500,000 from taxpayers’ wallets to help fund the $13 million as-yet-unfinished tourist trap located in Bristol, Virginia, just across the street and the state line from Bristol, Tennessee.

House Democrats had something of a field day ridiculing the fact that Republicans were willingly sending Tennessee tax dollars to Virginia. Later, though, their leadership acknowledged the outrage was calculated more to raise awareness of their own projects that didn’t get funded than any principled stand against spending money outside state borders.

“That never would have happened in a Democratic administration — at least not until we took care of our own projects first,” conceded House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

Ramsey noted, though, that what is, or is not, a “local” project is mostly a matter of perspective.

“You can argue the same thing of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis: Doesn’t help the state, it only helps Memphis. You could argue that Stax Museum (of American Soul Music) doesn’t help the state — it only helps Memphis,” said Ramsey.

During House floor debate on the museum, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, argued that taxpayer resources allocated toward tourism is almost always money well spent.

“I live in the center of tourism — the most active tourism area in the state of Tennessee, and we understand that,” said Montgomery. “We understand, too, that when you spend money on tourism it is a proven fact that every dollar you spend will get you $13 in return. Sometimes it is even more than that.”

But to the Tennessee Beacon Center’s bacon detector, things really aren’t all that complicated: If it looks and smells like pork, it probably is.

“It was sort of surprising that he came out with $500,000 for the museum in Bristol. And I think the most egregious part of it is it isn’t even in Tennessee, and this shows that taxpayer waste doesn’t even stop at the state line,” said Justin Owen, president of the free-market think tank that each year takes it upon itself to root out unnecessary and ill-advised government spending in the Volunteer State.

To be fair, Owen noted, the Legislature also voted to cut taxes this year — including reducing the sales tax on food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent, lowering the tax on inheriting wealthy estates and eliminating the tax on gifts. The reduction in the food tax will cost the state $22 million in “lost revenue.” And duly elected spenders of state taxpayer dollars will have about $95 million less to play around with after the three-year phase-out of the inheritance tax. Eliminating the gift tax will cost government an estimated $15 million annually.

But, clearly, the temptation to spend recklessly doesn’t stop at the party line either.

“Republicans spend just like Democrats. When you’re in control, you’re going to spend money,” Owen said. “There’s an incentive there to spend taxpayers’ money on things that really don’t benefit taxpayers as a whole, that go to benefit a select few.”

The Beacon Center’s 2012 Pork Report, due out later this month, takes special care to identify “tourist-related pork” and what Owen terms “corporate welfare,” like tax incentives for private businesses, including breaks for filmmakers shooting in Tennessee.

Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this report.