Budget, lottery legislation keeping parties polarized

By Thomas Wilson

   House committees have shut down with lawmakers focusing primarily on the state budget and legislation to create a state lottery system.
   At least one upstate lawmaker is unwilling to pass Gov. Phil Bredesen's budget unless some relief is granted to local governments where revenues are being cut to help balance an estimated $640 million deficit.
   "I am likely voting against the governor's budget because I think it hurts Carter County," said Rep. Jerome Cochran, R-Elizabethton, via telephone from Nashville on Tuesday.
   Specifically, he feels the probably six-figure loss in state shared revenues to Elizabethton and Carter County was not acceptable. Cochran also said he would oppose any move by the governor to make the nine percent cuts permanent budgetary reductions after the 2004 fiscal year.
   "We're not cutting the money; we are just sending it over to TennCare," said Cochran, who continues to advocate reforming the state's health care system.
   "Before we do any kind of reforms we are just going to throw money at the problem," he added. "I'm not comfortable with sending any more money over there without knowing how they are going to fix it."
   Gov. Phil Bredesen's $21.5 billion budget proposal includes a nine percent cut in funding for agencies and departments across the state. State revenues from sales tax and the Hall income tax shared with cities and counties are among the dollars expected to be taken from local coffers. Cochran said he expected Bredesen's budget proposal to come before the full Senate on Monday night.
   The budget has forced the demise of East Tennessee State University's football program. ETSU President Dr. Paul Stanton made the decision to abolish the program, citing the university faced a $7.5 million cut in state funding from last year's budget. Cochran felt the decision to abolish the program at ETSU was directly correlated to the anti-income tax sentiment in Northeast Tennessee during the past four years.
   "I am very disappointed by that," said Cochran. "I feel it is disingenuous on the parts of some higher educators who claim they are being put out and unable to fund universities when they derive taxpayer benefits."
   Legislation creating a state lottery corporation known as the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation passed the House last week. The corporation would be a quasi-public instrument, not a state agency or department.
   The House Budget Subcommittee on Monday approved a proposal would give qualifying students (those with a 3.0 grade-point average and 19 ACT score) $3,000 to attend a public or private four-year institution and $1,500 to those at two-year community colleges.
   Cochran said he voted against the corporation at the time because educational criteria and funding appropriations with the lottery system were not being spelled out. He also said the implementation bill was essentially stripped of many Republican added amendments including one of his that would have nullified eligibility of non-U.S. citizens from winning prizes in the Tennessee lottery.
   Lottery legislation was quickly being drawn and passed along partisan lines, Cochran said.
   "That amendment was tabled and we even introduced several portions out of the lottery in educational nature," he said. "They stripped the various republican amendments out of there."
   Tennessee isn't the only state suffering from budget deficits. According to the National Governors Association's Fiscal Survey of States released in November, 37 states were forced to reduce their enacted budgets by about $12.8 billion in fiscal 2002. The survey found 26 states have made program cuts that include Medicaid, K-12 and higher education, transportation, aid to local governments, and health and human services for the current fiscal year with more expected for FY2004.
   The survey also found 15 states are calling for tax increases of approximately $14 billion in FY 2004, primarily in sales, personal income and corporate taxes. Hawaii, Vermont, and New Mexico were the only states with proposed tax reductions, according to the survey.