Report from Nashville

Budget is the challenge as session winds down

Doug Overbey speaks at the legislative coffee

Senator Doug Overbey speaks at the legislative ...

Joe McCord at the Legislative Coffee

Balancing the budget was the woe of the day for legislators at the Chamber of Commerce Legislative coffee recently.

State Sen. Doug Overbey, State Rep. Joe McCord and State Rep. Bob Ramsey shared their thoughts on the remaining challenges in this legislative season.

Ramsey spoke of the progress regarding Pellissippi Parkway, said the initiative to elect school superintendents had died in subcommittee and shared thoughts on a number of topics before having to leave for another commitment.

“I appreciate all of you being here,” he said. “I appreciate your support and input.”

Overbey praised Ramsey. “Bob Ramsey is doing a very good job. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the House, and he has brought high marks,” Overbey said.

Overbey said it appeared the congressional body will have to look at between $161 million and $306 million in additional budget reductions.

“Those will have to come from 20 percent of the state budget. It’s not going be pretty, in fact, it’s going to be ugly, and every constituent is barraging us with emails saying, ‘Don’t cut my area.’ There’s not a good way. What is not being talked about is any sort of tax increase,” he said.

Overbey said it was sobering news. “But this is a long-term proposition for state government to try to continue to match recurring revenues with recurring expenses so we don’t get in the hole we were in 1998, 1999 and 2000,” he said.

McCord said that while Tennessee’s budget woes were tough to hear, other states such as California are worse.

“We are in better shape, fiscally, than almost any state. Imagine what the chamber breakfasts must be like in other places around the country,” he said. “It’s almost worse in every other state.”

McCord said lawmakers must be cautious in how they handle the current crisis. “As bad as it is, it will come back. We have to be very careful we don’t make a bad situation worse, and I think everyone is cognizant of that.”

In a weekly report May 28 from Ramsey issued via the Blount County Chamber, Ramsey said the State House of Representatives took action on Senate Joint Resolution 127, a pro-life proposal, for the first time in the constitutional amendment’s long history. “The proposal, which passed, aims to restore to the people of Tennessee their rightful authority to regulate abortion through their elected representatives, with an overwhelming 77-21 vote,” he said.

“The constitutional amendment is in response to the 2001 Tennessee Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood vs Sundquist, when the court created a right to unregulated abortion,” wrote Ramsey. “The decision also prohibited the Tennessee legislature from enacting regulations governing abortions, arguably making Tennessee the most liberal state in the nation with regards to abortion laws.”

“Lawmakers have fought since 2001 to pass SJR 127, believing Tennesseans should be allowed to weigh in on the issue.”

On May 28, Overbey issued a weekly report detailing the governor’s revised budget plan as it was expected to be presented to lawmakers later this week.

A preliminary overview of the plan shows proposed cuts of $111.7 million from the revision presented earlier this year for the current fiscal year, and $161 million in the 2009-2010 budget year which will go into effect on July 1, he said.

The new budget amendment comes after the State Funding Board adjusted downward its previous estimates for total state taxes over the next 14 months, due to a more dramatic decline in revenue collections than previously anticipated, Overbey said.

“The cuts are needed to balance the state’s budget despite the influx of over $5 billion in federal stimulus funds over the next two years,” Overbey’s report said. “Most of those funds are required to be spent for specific purposes like energy-saving initiatives, road construction and education, with only a small portion available to help economically distressed states meet their budget needs.”

The administration’s amendment includes abolishing 717 filled state government positions and 676 vacant jobs. The reduction in state employees would save the state an estimated $30 million. State employees cut under the plan would be offered a severance package that includes tuition assistance of up to $5,400 per year and a cash payment, the senator said.

The budget is typically among the last bills passed by the legislature before adjournment. The Senate Finance Committee will carefully review language in the amendment next week and make any needed changes before the bill goes to the full Senate for final consideration, Overbey said.

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