Some contend legislators’ pet project money depends on gas tax support

The latest version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed 2017-18 budget earmarks $23.5 million for “legislative initiatives.”  The Tennessean notes that’s an increase from $8 million last year for lawmaker pet projects, spurring “some legislative insiders and some prominent Republicans” to contend the money will be distributed to lawmakers supporting the governor’s tax package, including fuel tax increases, over those who did not.

Defenders of the fund say the increase had nothing to do with getting lawmakers to approve the governor’s signature legislation for the year and more to do with a projected surplus of more than $1 billion and revenue growth approaching that same amount… (A) spokeswoman said any insinuation that the special fund’s increase was tied to the IMPROVE Act is false.

“The governor recognized early on that the FY 17-18 budget would have more flexibility than it typically does, and that’s reflected in his proposal, which identifies additional funding for lawmakers,” Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said.

But others vehemently disagree, arguing that money in the state budget, as well as the legislative initiative fund, will be handed out to those who helped the governor shepherd through the tax hike.

…The discussion of which legislative initiatives will get funded began last week, with House GOP leadership and Republican members on the chamber’s finance committee gathering Wednesday evening inside Speaker Beth Harwell’s conference room for more than two hours.

“There was never a communication or discussion (that) this person supported the governor’s legislative things and this person didn’t so we’re going to fund this one or we’re not,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, who was one of nearly a dozen lawmakers at the meeting…. “It was mainly, ‘Is this something that we can do and should do based upon the criteria that the group set together?’ “…The criteria, he said, were largely based on whether the initiative had a local, regional or statewide impact.

…The list of projects is long: The Senate has more than 300 proposals, while the House has just over 200.

…Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who is chairman of the Senate budget committee, said although the money has been set aside for lawmakers to use for initiatives they would like to see funded, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily use it all…. Discussing behind closed doors which proposed projects or ideas get funded, Watson said, is “the democratic process.”

…“This is a payoff process in a way that I have never seen before in my entire life,” said one of the 35 Republicans to vote against the IMPROVE Act.


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