State legislature wasted time, opportunity

June 14, 2010 9:49AM

Research associate for the Tennessee Center for Policy Research Jeff Poole explains how the state government’s costly budget talks fail to maximize savings for taxpayers, despite abandoning the proposal for a fish hatchery in House Speaker Kent Williams’ district. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel. By Jeff Poole Tennessee state government now has an operating budget for the next fiscal year, but not before legislators wasted untold time and treasure in crafting it. They waited until per diem payments were no longer available before reaching an agreement and ending the session’s business. On days like this, one must wonder how a part-time legislature would perform. Would they act with a sense of urgency as some lawmakers in other states? With $98,000 currently spent each week on legislators’ per diem payments alone, not counting their salaries and other costs of running state government during a legislative session, think of how much could be saved. The General Assembly put on quite a show these past few weeks. Gov. Phil Bredesen did not help. The governor claimed to have cut everything possible from his budget proposal, yet at the same time he threw in a plan to spend $16 million of taxpayer money to build a fish hatchery in House Speaker Kent Williams’ district. Bredesen and Williams claimed the fish farm would create jobs, and they were right. The boondoggle would have created 22 positions, which would have cost taxpayers over $750,000 per job. They also claimed that it would spur tourism in the area, basing their estimates on a similar fish hatchery outside Dallas, which attracts nearly 60,000 visitors per year. They failed to mention that Dallas has a population of 6.5 million people – more than the entire state of Tennessee. The fish hatchery proposal was eventually scrapped after budget negotiations ground to a halt, but only after heavy exposure to the public and thousands of wasted tax dollars on the debate. Even though the fish hatchery never saw the light of day, the General Assembly still missed out on countless other opportunities to cut spending. For example, the state owns 11 golf courses, none of which made a profit for the state last year. Lawmakers could have relieved taxpayers of that financial burden by selling them all, but they did not. Additionally, they could have halted expansion of the government-run pre-kindergarten program, which has consistently proven ineffective. Instead, lawmakers chose to throw another $83 million at the failing project. Numerous government functions, such as drivers’ license renewals, could have been turned over to Tennessee businesses, cutting millions of dollars from the state budget, but lawmakers failed to address these opportunities to save. Unfortunately, there is not much glitz in responsibly performing the essential functions of government. Saving a million here and a few hundred thousand there is less flashy than a new, shiny Cadillac fish hatchery that will get you noticed around town. Too bad elected officials’ misplaced priorities wound up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars with little to show for it. At least lawmakers didn’t hit taxpayers with the $157 million in tax increases the governor originally proposed. Then again, if they fail to rein in spending year after year, they may have no choice but take the governor up on his offer next time around. Jeff Poole is a research associate at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy organization.