Just when you thought the curtain was falling on the funniest show in town, state lawmakers have donned their big red clown noses again for a grand finale that's certain to make you bust a gut.
It's time for the ever-popular budget high jinks, in which the entire legislature takes the stage to posture and squabble at taxpayer expense — even as their constituents suffer from catastrophic floods in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Isn't that hilarious?
In their latest gag, Senate Republicans threw a monkey wrench into the session by arguing among themselves secretly for a month, then offering their own budget plan. Backed by the right-wing candidate for governor, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, this plan rejected all Gov. Phil Bredesen's tax and fee increases and made deep new cuts in social services instead.
Included in the wasteful spending targeted: Programs trying to improve Tennessee's tragically high infant mortality rate.
Tennessee has the fourth highest infant mortality rate in the U.S. But the state's made progress since Bredesen started the Office of Child Care Coordination in 2004 to ensure the money is spent wisely. Republican senators would eliminate that office.
"The infant mortality programs will cease to exist. When they cut our office, they cut all that money," says its director, Bob Duncan. "The numbers we're seeing are headed in a positive direction. We don't want to stop that momentum that's taking place."
To balance their budget without Bredesen's modest tax hikes, the senators gorged on $340 million in new federal stimulus money that hasn't yet been approved by Congress — all while Ramsey campaigned vowing to give Washington the boot.
Pressed on this apparent hypocrisy, Ramsey clarified: He hopes Congress never sends the cash. He hates Washington, you know.
"There is a possibility that Tennessee will get the federal money if the Democrat-controlled Congress votes to appropriate it," he said. "I hope they don't. We have been responsible in Tennessee, and, unlike other states, we don't need it to balance our budget."
But he said that "should the money be appropriated, the Senate will set priorities" — his euphemistic way of saying we'll spend it like drunken sailors during Fleet Week.
That settled, Ramsey and the Republicans abandoned budget talks and departed for a little vacation from pressing public matters. Ramsey went campaigning. Legislators left behind merrily collected $185 a day in meal and motel money and held long, pointless arguments on the House floor.
When Democrat Rep. Johnny Shaw offered a resolution praising Obama's aid to flood victims, Republican Bill Dunn amended it to thank a host of others too, pushing the president down to the measure's 11th clause. A chagrined Shaw dropped the whole idea.
After an hour of argument, the House voted 67-27 to praise Arizona for its law against illegal immigration. Who cares if it damages tourism in Tennessee?
For days, House Democrats barred reporters from a meeting room and bickered about the budget. Eventually, they held a press conference but still didn't give any real specifics till days later. Turns out their plan wasn't all that new anyway, though it did restore the GOP's $1,000-$3,000 pay cut for 30,000 public school teachers.
House Speaker Kent Williams trolled the hallways for reporters to listen to his defense of a giant pork-barrel project in his district. From the federal largesse, he demands $16 million for a fish hatchery, one he says will inexplicably attract so many tourists it'll transform Northeast Tennessee's economy. Press wags are calling it Disney World North.
"There's hundreds of millions of dollars spent on capital improvements. Why shouldn't East Tennessee get something?" said Williams, undeterred in his quest to become the House's Captain D. Nothing says "family vacation" like the finer points of aquatic weed control. "It's time we got a little something up in East Tennessee. We've got a $28 billion budget and we can't get $16 million for East Tennessee? This project's going to be a tremendous asset for a small community. It's going to create a lot of tourism."
But critics predict the hatchery would mainly benefit people in Williams' district who like to fish.
"Fish — it's the new pork," joked GOP Rep. Jon Lundberg.
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