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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.

Press Releases

Rep. Swafford Wants Turner To Apologize For Racial Comments

Press Release from Rep. Eric Swafford, R-Pikeville, March 24, 2010:

(March 24, 2010, NASHVILLE) – Representative Eric Swafford (R-Pikeville) stood up for millions of Tennesseans Monday evening on the floor of the State House of Representatives, asking Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner to apologize for racial comments made to the media earlier that day. A newspaper quoted Turner as saying, “I think some of the people who are against Obama are just against Obama because he’s African-American.”

Representative Swafford took issue with the comments Monday night, saying the millions of Tennesseans who oppose the government takeover of healthcare are genuinely concerned about the issue. He stated, “This is an issue people are truly passionate about. They are taking time out of their day to call their Congressman, their United States Senator—some of them took time off from work to go to Washington, D.C.—because they are genuinely passionate about this,” he continued. “It is unfair and offensive for them to be called racists simply because they disagree with an out-of-control, out-of-touch policy crafted by the tone-deaf Democrats in Congress.”

A transcript of Representative Swafford’s remarks on the House floor is below.

“Ladies and gentleman, I think it’s a shame that when conservative Tennesseans on principle disagree with the federal government takeover of their healthcare, and our citizens take their time, energy and effort to contact their elected representatives, and all that one member of the Democrat leadership in this House can do is call those individuals racists. I am referring to some statements made by a gentleman that is my friend who I have asked to apologize for those comments. Ladies and gentlemen, calling one and a half million [… interrupted …] to imply that one and a half million Tennesseans who voted for someone other than our President are racists or to imply that individuals that disagree with a federal government takeover of our healthcare system, to imply that they disagree with that because they’re racist is simply preposterous. And again I would ask my dear friend to apologize for those comments.”

Please click here to view the video of the remarks.

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Health Care War in TN Going Nuclear

Tennessee Republicans demanded Tuesday that House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner apologize for implying that opposition to federal health care legislation may be driven by racist disdain for President Obama.

They could be waiting a while, however, because later in the afternoon Turner said he has “nothing to apologize for.” And House Democratic Leader Gary Odom issued a press release afterward accusing Republicans of “hypocrisy” and “intentionally (taking Turner’s comments)…out of context for the purpose of political grandstanding.”

The spat arose from Turner’s comments during a press conference at the state Capitol Monday, when, standing with Odom, Turner rebuked Republicans for pushing bills advocating “state sovereignty and all that.”

“They’ve done that on a lot of issues,” Turner told reporters. “All of the sudden, we have a black man elected president, and everybody wants to start acting like something’s wrong with our country. I think we need to go back and take a good, hard look at this. I didn’t agree with a lot of the things George Bush did, but I didn’t want to secede from the Union.”

Republicans took umbrage with Turner’s assessments of opposition to Obama and his health care agenda. Three House Republicans — Reps. Jason Mumpower, Glen Casada and Mike Bell — declared to reporters during a press conference they called at noon Tuesday that the Old Hickory Democrat’s comments were inaccurate and inappropriate, and called on other Democrats to denounce him.

“When someone disagrees with the president, all that Chairman Turner and Tennessee Democrats know to do is name-call — in this case, to call people racist,” said Mumpower, R-Bristol. “Democrats don’t have any substance to their discussions or their arguments, all they like to do is name-call and point fingers.”

Bell, R-Riceville, is the chief House sponsor of the “Tennessee Health Freedom Act,” which passed last month in the Senate 26-1. Bell said state residents “from Mountain City to Memphis” have contacted his office to tell him they oppose the federal health care legislation.

“They oppose (it) not because our president is an African American,” said Bell. They oppose it “because they are angry at an oppressive federal government that is overreaching its bounds.”

“We’re a free a country — at least I hope we still are a free country,” Bell added. “And people want to be free to choose to participate in a federal program, or to keep their private insurance. That is what the anger is about.”

Casada found Turner’s implication “offensive,” too, and said he’s getting calls and emails from Tennesseans angry that an elected public servant “would raise and wag his finger and call you racist and call me racist just because you don’t agree with his big government policies.”

“Chairman Turner needs to apologize,” said Casada. “This type of demeaning people to try to put them down has got to stop.”

TNGOP Chairman Chris Devaney on Tuesday also joined the chorus, sending a letter to state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester to “immediately ask Rep. Turner to apologize for his personal attacks on the vast number of Tennesseans who do not agree with his Democratic Party’s agenda for our country.”

Responding to Republican calls for him to express remorse, Turner told TNReport he has no plans to retract his comments. Regarding those angered by his sentiments, Turner said “maybe they got a guilty conscience.”

“Anybody who would honestly say that some people are not against (Obama) because he is an African American, I think they’re living on a different planet,” said Turner.

In a press release that outlined a six-point list of what he called “examples of Republican political activities in our state (that) should never be forgotten,” Odom declared, “I find it remarkable that House Republicans would condemn the use of racial overtones in political debate, when you consider recent Republican activities in our state and our country.”

The list went on to point out instances of alleged racism within Tennessee’s Republican party, including a former GOP Party Chairman “sending out Christmas music entitled “Barack the Magic Negro'” and a Republican Senate staffer sending out a “photo composite that pictured all of the U.S. presidents but depicted President Obama in a black background with only two white eyes.”

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report. She can be reached at Mark Todd Engler can be reached at