Tenn. lawmakers OK budget, extend jobless benefits
By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II The Associated Press
NASHVILLE — Thousands of Tennesseans will get an extension of their unemployment benefits under the $30.78 billion state spending plan that received final approval Saturday from the General Assembly.
The Senate voted 32-0 to approve the budget that the House adopted a day earlier on a 96-0 vote.
The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 also includes $71 million for disaster relief from recent storms and flooding and a hospital assessment fee supported by the industry that is expected to raise $449 million next year. It is designed to draw another $871 million in federal matching funds.
A balanced state spending plan is the only legislation that the General Assembly is required to pass each year under the state constitution.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville thanked his Democratic colleagues for making it a unanimous vote.
“This has been a real labor of love to get the budget where we are today,” Norris, a Republican, said. “We have collaborated a great deal on getting where we are.”
Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville agreed. “I’m excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish, there’s been a spirit of cooperation, we’ve all worked well together,” she said.
Passage of the budget measure seemed in jeopardy when lawmakers couldn’t reach agreement on extending the benefits, which ran out in April for about 28,000 jobless people in Tennessee after state officials didn’t change the law to comply with new federal standards. The extension would pay for up to 20 more weeks of unemployment benefits.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey was among those against the extension. But in the end, the Blountville Republican acquiesced and on Saturday voted for the legislation that extends the benefits.
“Philosophically, I’m adamantly opposed to this,” he said. “But ... I don’t see the economy turning around anytime soon. And there are members of our caucus who represent counties that have 15, 20 percent unemployment rates. People truly are looking for jobs.”
The spending plan includes about $3 million in state funds to help draw about $60 million in federal money.
“There’s a tsunami in some folks’ lives,” said Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville. “This will help them.”
Harwell said members of both parties talked to Gov. Bill Haslam about the benefits.
“I think there was initially more support in the House than in the Senate, and the governor sat down and talked with both leadership teams, both Democrats and Republicans, and genuinely came to the conclusion that this was a wise and important step for the state to take,” she said.
The Republican governor told reporters later Saturday that the collection of unpaid fines will help the state pay for the extended unemployment benefits.
“There are a lot of folks in our rural areas who are hurting,” he said. “In the end, we thought it was a great way to address what we thought was a need.”
The spending plan contains a 1.6 percent raise for state employees, their first pay hike in four years.
It also includes $45 million in funding for Higher Education capital projects; $33 million for TennCare services such as labs, X-rays, dental care and transportation; $21 million for state building maintenance; $20 million to allow lottery scholarships to be used during summer school, and $16.5 million to issue bonds for the potential expansion of the Hemlock Semiconductor plant in Clarksville.
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