412 budget changes sought

Senators' proposals would add $2 billion to plan; House hasn't yet filed amendments

NASHVILLE - While legislators disputed what should be classified as "pork barrel spending" last week, state senators filed amendments to the state budget that would add more than $2 billion in expenditures to what Gov. Phil Bredesen has proposed.

From Knox County, the most prolific filer of amendments has been Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, with 21 individual amendments for a total of more than $19 million. Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, had four for a total of almost $8 million. They also are jointly sponsoring an amendment to give the Knoxville Zoo $5 million.

In the House, specific budget amendments have not been filed yet, but House Majority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, is floating the idea of letting each legislator pick special projects for state funding in his or her district.

For veteran legislators, that would be a return to bygone days when a chunk of state money was routinely set aside for what Odom calls "community enhancement projects." That most recently occurred in 1998, a year before a state budget crisis developed and ended the practice.

Odom says, for example, that each of the state's 99 representatives could be assigned $100,000 to allocate as they wish in their House districts, while senators would get $300,000.

The total would be less than $20 million, "a drop in the bucket" in the overall budget plan this year and not enough to interfere with separate plans to reduce the state sales tax on some grocery food items.

But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said such a move would be "pure pork" spending and that "that's not going to happen in the state Senate if I have anything to do with it."

Ramsey said, however, that he could support special projects with statewide or regional benefit. And several Republican senators have filed multiple budget amendments that would benefit specific local groups.

Perhaps the most unusual amendment comes from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge. It amounts to a compromise between the idea of helping local groups and the desire for statewide impact.

McNally proposes to allocate $6,698,675 that would be available to all small museums, libraries, volunteer fire departments, senior citizens centers, historic sites, child advocacy centers, and "recreation and community facilities" across the state.

The amendment calculates, for example, that there are 731 volunteer fire departments statewide, and if all take up the offer, each would get more than $1,000 apiece.Each fire department would have to fill out an application and later report back on how the money was spent.

Another example: $1.5 million would be allocated for child advocacy centers, an average of $50,000 if all 30 seek the grants.

Libraries and museums could get an average of $2,100 each, senior citizens centers $2,500, and local recreation and community facilities $1,700.

"That (amendment) is put in as an alternative, if we wind up going to local or district projects, also known as pork," said McNally. "This would provide better control over it, and certainly it would be a fairer system."

McNally says he personally prefers to see surplus money go toward education, assuming appropriate accountability, or tax reductions.

Still, the Finance Committee chairman also has filed four individual project amendments, the largest a proposed $1 million appropriation to the Lenoir City Utilities Board for sewer system improvements. They are "placeholders," he said, in case the Legislature winds up moving toward substantial funding of individual projects.

Burchett said he doubts lawmakers will actually see any special project money.

"I'd personally rather see a reduction in the sales tax," he said.

"But when people ask you to put in for those special projects, you always try to accommodate them," said Burchett, adding that he gets more request than most because he is chairman of the Knox County delegation and has a seat on the Finance Committee.

Although the Senate deadline for filing budget amendments was Thursday, decisions on state spending have been postponed until after a May 7 meeting of the State Funding Board. The board will review April revenue receipts and make final recommendations on how much money will be available to spend in the coming year.

McNally says his guess at the moment is that about $126 million in recurring new revenue will become available for the base state budget, plus about $170 million that would be available on a one-time, or "nonrecurring," basis.

That's in addition to expected extra money that Bredesen has already allocated in his $27.5 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Legislators also have the option of revising the governor's proposal to free more dollars for projects they prefer.

Senators filed a total of 412 individual amendments to the state budget that would spend $1,437,606,072 on a recurring basis and $649,987,065 on a nonrecurring basis, according to Senate Finance Committee staff. That adds up to $2,087,593,137.

The totals include amendments to cover the cost of implementing legislation that has been filed but not yet adopted. In some cases, legislators also have filed amendments that duplicate one another.

Senate committees filed another batch of amendments that would spend another $135 million.

Most of that - $95.2 million in bonds - comes from a proposal by the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Woodson. If ultimately enacted, the amendment would provide $30 million for a music center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; $17.2 million for improvements to the Blount County branch of Pellissippi State Technical Community College; and $48 million to build a new library at the UT Chattanooga campus.

Tom Humphrey may be reached at 865-342-6397.