Lawmakers approve $32.4B spending plan - WSMV News 4

Lawmakers approve $32.4B spending plan

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee lawmakers on Thursday approved the state's $32.4 billion spending plan for the budget year beginning in July after failed attempts to increase the pay of teachers and state employees.

The House approved the measure 68-27 and the Senate voted 28-3 a few hours later in favor of the plan, which removes previously planned salary increases for teachers and state employees to make up for flagging state revenue collections.

The measure now goes to the governor's desk. Lawmakers hope to adjourn early next week.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the House presented proposals to give teachers and state employees one-time bonuses and contingency pay increases, but all those amendments failed.

In particular, Republican Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough sought to give a $500 bonus to all teachers and state employees who have at least three years of service, and a 1 percent pay increase for all teachers and state employees next year, contingent upon state revenue figures.

Gov. Bill Haslam had planned to give a 1 percent pay increase to state employees and 2 percent to teachers, but said he won't be able to because of the poor revenue collections.

After failing to gain support in a Republican caucus meeting before the full House met, Hill decided to withdraw the proposal on the House floor, but he vowed to continue looking for ways to give teachers and state employees pay raises.

"We're going to roll our sleeves up and try to find working reasonable solutions for teachers and for our employees," he said.

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, who presented the amendments for the Democrats, criticized Hill's Republican colleagues, who hold majorities in both chambers.

"Republicans sent a message that keeping their promise to teachers isn't a priority," he said. "They'd rather hoard money in reserve funds than pay teachers for the hard work they do each day."

Last year, Haslam pledged to improve the salaries of the state's teachers. He said he regrets not being able to give them raises next year, but also remains committed to increasing their pay.

"I think it's really important that they understand that this is the last thing we want to do," Haslam told reporters last week. "We're dealing with a very difficult budget reality."

House Finance Chairman Charles Sargent conveyed that sentiment Thursday before the vote on the budget, expected to have a shortfall of about $277 million.

"It's been a tough year," said the Franklin Republican. "But ...I think we've come up with a good conservative budget, working within our means."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters after the Senate vote that higher pay for teachers and state employees will be a priority next year.

"We want to do that," said the Blountville Republican. "There's no doubt in my mind that the No. 1 priority when we come back next year will be teachers and state employees' pay raises."

Lawmakers are required by the state constitution to pass a balanced budget each year.

While the plan doesn't give raises, it withholds a proposed 5 percent increase to state employees' health insurance premiums.

Haslam has said he expects about $73 million in new revenue growth for the remainder of this budget year that ends June 30, and roughly $300 million in new revenue growth for next year. In that budget, $62 million will go to education and $173 million to TennCare, the state's expanded Medicaid program that covers 1.2 million Tennesseans.

However, in the case of higher education, the state is eliminating a proposed increase of $12.9 million, which could lead to higher tuition at the state's colleges and universities.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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