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Opposing budget aims may complicate end of session

Tue, 06/09/2009 - 12:06am
ERIK SCHELZIG - Associated Press Writer - Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The completion of this year's legislative session is being complicated by competing budget goals from opposite sides of the aisle.

Democrats want to make fewer cuts than fellow Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen has proposed, while Republicans support even deeper ones.

"There's a little irony I suppose that the Republicans in the House and Senate seem to agree with the governor more than Democrats in the House do," Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said Monday.

But House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said his members just want to explore all alternatives before agreeing to more than 700 layoffs and deep cuts in mental health and children's services.

"They obviously don't care about the same things we care about," said Turner, of Old Hickory. "There's a lot of people being hurt in this budget."

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin said his members tell him they have "heartache" over where state finances will stand after the federal stimulus money runs out in two years.

"There's some members that are talking deeper cuts this year, so we don't go out two years and crash," Casada said.

Both House caucuses have been holding closed-door meetings to discuss budget alternatives.

Casada said he expects Republicans in the Senate to use their 19-14 majority to pass a version of the spending plan that their members in the House will try to emulate. The GOP holds a 50-49 edge in the lower chamber.

"There's going to be a large number of Republicans that will support something that has some good cuts," he said.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said he would like the Senate to send the House a budget on Thursday, but that could be delayed by Senate Republicans.

"I believe there to be an amendment being proposed by the Senate Republicans that would make some substantive changes in the governor's proposal, and we haven't gotten it yet," Kyle said.

State Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz, who spoke to the Democratic gathering, said he has been asked most about the proposed cuts in services.

Under Bredesen's spending plan, the Mental Retardation Services Division and the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities would experience the bulk of the layoffs, with a combined 552 positions eliminated.

House Minority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said the governor's budget doesn't reflect any savings from a federal court ruling earlier this year that allows the state to check the eligibility of 150,000 TennCare recipients, and to remove any who don't qualify for the state's expanded Medicaid program.

"How much money is that going to free up?" Odom said.

Goetz said it's unclear how much savings the checks could bring from the $1.2 billion the state pays for the program. And he said lawmakers shouldn't make any plans based on the ruling because state attorneys told the judge in the case that it was uncertain what the effect of the eligibility checks would be.

"It would be disrespectful to the court to go in and say: 'Well, we thinking we could save X-amount of money as a result,'" Goetz said. "We just don't know."

Republicans, meanwhile, are raising concerns about $38 million in new revenue Bredesen has proposed to raise through a legislative package that includes taking over business tax collection from local governments, imposing a sales tax on cable boxes and raising the tax on long-distance calls for businesses to 9.25 percent.

Bredesen wants to spend most of that money to avoid having to cut 361 positions in the Department of Children's Services.

Turner said he expects Republicans to fight those tax adjustments, even at the cost of state workers' jobs.

"As long as we don't tax the rich, they don't care," Turner said.

Ramsey said it may make sense for the governor to just focus on finding the necessary support among the majority of Republicans and a few Democrats to get the spending plan approved.

"If they wait to get all Democrats in the House happy with this budget, we'll never pass one," he said.

Turner said he doesn't believe the situation is as simple as the Senate speaker put it.

"I think what he said goes for his side of the aisle, too," he said.

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