Rep. Ralph Cole discusses views on state budget

By Bob Robinson
Star Staff

   State Rep. Ralph Cole (R-Elizabethton) told the Elizabethton Rotary Club yesterday that he predicted there would be a train wreck with the state budget.
   "Now, that train wreck has occurred," referring to a growing state revenue shortfall attributed to a slumping economy.
   Over the weekend, Rep. Cole said he received a letter from the Commissioner of Finance and Administration which indicated the state's revenue shortfall was growing and could possibly top $1 billion.
   "Legislators, last year, over-appropriated by $200 million. For the first time in the state's history, revenues are less than the year before," Rep. Cole said.
   A member of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Cole said it was a mistake for legislators to use the $560 million in tobacco settlement monies to try to balance the state budget.
   "None of the money went to health care, where it was intended, or to tobacco farmers. Only $2.5 million went to the 3,000 cotton farmers in Tennessee to fight the bollweevil."
   Rep. Cole said options being tossed around to offset a state revenue shortfall include:
   * Eliminating state-shared taxes with cities, totaling $700 million. This would prompt a "significant" property tax increase, according to City Manager Charles Stahl.
   * Using the $60 million highway fund for other purposes, the state would stand to lose $180 million in federal revenue.
   "In 1990, the state revenue shortfall was worse than it is now. Some school systems had to close."
   In the past decade, legislators and the executive branch have worked to reduce the state budget, increase fees and combine departments of state government to reduce expenses, he said.
   "The closing of Roan Mountain State Park didn't save the state any money, however."
   When legislators convene in Nashville on Jan. 8, the stalemate between the Senate and House on new sources of revenue is expected to continue. Rep. Cole predicted legislators will not raise taxes.
   "The sales tax is a regressive tax and eight states bordering Tennessee already have lower sales tax rates than does Tennessee," Rep. Cole said. Most, if not all of these states, however, do impose a state income tax.
   On his relationship with Gov. Don Sundquist, Rep. Cole said any legislator who "doesn't get along with the governor is not representing the people."
   "Gov. Sundquist has been good to us." Rep. Cole gave the following examples of Gov. Sundquist's support:
   * $2.5 million for the First Utility District to expand water lines;
   * $500,000 each to Blue Springs and Hampton Utility Districts, the latter to provide water to residents of Tiger Creek;
   * $1 million to build 10 cabins and a conference lodge at Roan Mountain State Park;
   * Rights-of-way for five miles of the Elizabethton Connector;
   * Construction of 2.5 miles of U.S. 19E to West of Green Valley Road;
   * Construction of five miles of State Route 91 from Maury Price Road to Panhandle Road; and,
   * Preliminary engineering for 5.8 miles of State Route 361 (Dry Creek Road) to State Route 67 (US-321/Elk Avenue).
   According to Rep. Cole, Gov. Sundquist had approved the following projects, yet to be funded:
   * $300,000 to establish a campground at Sycamore Shoals State Park;
   * $2.8 million to construct a new building for Tennessee Technology Center and Northeast State Technical Community College students; and,
   * Funds to purchase rights-of-way for the proposed Gap Creek Road highway widening project.