Legislative Work in Progress

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This column is a work in progress about the wondrous workings of our State Legislature. By the time you read it, the lawmakers may have completed their work for the year, and you'll know just how much sausage, and of what varieties, they have made.

But as of this writing over the weekend, the sausage-making process is riddled with gristle, and the final outcomes are in doubt. The size and shape of additional funding for public schools, a cigarette-tax increase, and sales-tax relief on food are the three big issues in the hopper. And while they are somewhat intertwined, it's useful to look at each of them in turn.

Public-School Funding : The good news is that both the House and Senate, by large, bipartisan majorities, have approved a $500 million increase (from $3.1 billion this year) in public-school funding over time. The increase takes the form of a revamping of what's known as the BEP that would raise the share of teacher salaries borne by the state from 65 to 75 percent on average and add more money for students deemed to be at risk or who are English-language learners (ELLs). At the same time, the convoluted BEP formula for allocating all the money among school systems would be made much simpler and fairer.

But even with robust state revenue growth and an additional $211 million from the 40-cent-a-pack increase (to 60 cents) in the state's cigarette tax that Gov. Phil Bredesen has recommended, increasing BEP funding by $500 million in a single year is more than the traffic will bear. So the increase is due to be phased in, and that's where the going gets sticky.

Bredesen has recommended funding all of the at-risk and ELL increases in the fiscal year ahead but only going halfway (i.e., to 70 percent) in raising the state's share of teacher salaries at a total cost of just under $300 million. Leaders of the Democrat majority in the House are backing the governor's approach. But Senate Republican leaders, starting with the chairmen of the Senate's finance and education committees, Randy McNally and Jamie Woodson, believe they have bipartisan support for funding 58 percent of the increase in all categories this year.

The reason for the odd percentage is to keep the total cost of this approach about the same, but the allocations among school systems would differ markedly. For example, under the McNally-Woodson plan, Knox County schools would get about $12.1 in additional state funding compared to $9.5 million under the Bredesen plan. But for every winner, there's a loser, and the wrangling among legislators over which way to go could get intense. When fully implemented, the BEP revampments would yield Knox County schools $27 million in new state funds, which represents a 22-percent increase that significantly exceeds a 15-percent statewide boost and thus redresses inequities in the present formula that have worked to Knox County's disadvantage. However, it may take another two to three years for full funding to occur, and the implementation timetable could be jeopardized if Bredesen doesn't get the 40-cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase he's seeking.

Cigarettes Taxes: On a cliffhanger 17-16 vote, the Senate last Thursday approved the 40-cent increase earmarked for education. However, Sen. Rosalind Kurita managed to get another two cents added to the tax for funding trauma centers. The House had been poised to concur in the 40-cent increase later that same day, but the Kurita measure traumatized House Democrat leaders into postponing the vote because rank-and-file supporters began balking. Until they finally mustered enough votes late Monday evening to conform to the Senate's 42-cent increase, all bets were off on funding even this coming year's BEP enhancements. That's because in the legislature's fickle scheme of things, two of the Democrat senators who supported the increase are absent this week as Sen. Jerry Cooper goes on trial for bank fraud and Sen. Doug Jackson goes on vacation. Without their votes, there's no way the Democrat leader, Sen. Jim Kyle, could have replicated the majority he obtained last week for anything approaching a 40-cent increase.

Sales-Tax Relief: Over Bredesen's objection, majorities in both the House and Senate appear poised to approve some reduction in the state's six-percent sales tax on grocery foods. But the two bodies are at odds over what form it should take. With Republicans in the lead, the Senate is likely to declare a one-time moratorium on the grocery tax for the month of December. Conversely, House Democrat leaders are bent on providing a permanent one half-cent reduction in the tax. Either approach would cost the state about $40 million in revenues for the fiscal year ahead. But the Senate version could be covered on a one-time basis from the huge surplus the state has rung up in the current fiscal year whereas the House version would represent a permanent drain on the state's revenue base that could impinge on school funding and who knows what else in subsequent, leaner years.

Bredesen has said he could live with the onetime reduction, and it's ironic that stalwarts of his own party in the House are bucking him to make it permanent. Getting this collision course resolved is another potential stumbling block to bringing the legislative session to a conclusion by week's end.

For all the machinations, leaders of both parties are to be commended for the extent to which they've collaborated with the governor toward making this a landmark year for education funding.

â" Joe Sullivan

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