State budget up for vote
NASHVILLE -- Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly were poised to vote on the state's annual spending plan following a breakthrough in negotiations.
The Senate was scheduled to vote on the budget plan this morning and the House Finance Committee voted late Wednesday to advance the plan to the floor.
The stalemate between the two chambers was broken after independent House Speaker Kent Williams agreed to delay a fish hatchery project in Carter County, while Senate Republicans agreed to restore funding for an infant mortality prevention program.
Williams, of Elizabethton, said he and Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville met and worked out a deal that will also give a stipend to state employees if revenues continue to improve.
"I felt once we set down face to face we could iron things out," Williams said. "We just haven't had an opportunity to do that. I think we've pretty much nailed it down."
Ramsey held a news conference a couple of hours later and said some negotiations were still ongoing but that both sides had reached a consensus.
Williams said the finance chairmen from both chambers, as well as a member of the administration, also attended the meeting. Both men said lawmakers are close to wrapping up this year's session.
"I think we have a chance to finish up Saturday," Williams said. "It's past time to go home."
The hatchery has become a hot topic mainly because Carter County is home to Williams, who drew the ire of Republicans when he banded together with all the chamber's Democrats to win the top leadership post by a single vote.
Williams was later stripped of his right to run for re-election as a Republican because of the maneuver.
Republicans strongly oppose the hatchery, and Democrats have said the GOP stance is payback against Williams.
Minutes from a State Building Commission meeting in October show Ramsey voted for the design of the hatchery. He said Wednesday that he never opposed it, but just doesn't "want it built at this time" because of the state's tight budget.
Williams said he and Ramsey did discuss revisiting the issue.
"We have an agreement that if the economy grows at a rate that exceeds our estimates, then we will address it again next year," Williams said.
As for the budget compromise, funding would be restored for the Office of Children's Care Coordination, which seeks to reduce Tennessee's infant mortality rate. The state gives the program -- established by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2004 -- $4.5 million annually, which is matched by federal funds.
Other provisions include a relief program for Tennessee flood victims and the stipend for state employees if the state's revenue exceeds $50 million.
"I think we'll reach that this month with the preliminary projections," Williams said.
Ramsey said lawmakers are also considering how much money to give the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which has requested $5 million for renovations.
"We're going to sit down and look at exactly what needs to be done," he said.