The fund-education-before-everything-else bill is part of the "Tennessee Trust" initiative, a series of issues many House Republicans campaigned on last fall.
House GOP Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, as well as state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, are among the bill's supporters.
"The initiative would ensure that the education budget received the focus, consideration and dollars it deserves," said a House GOP Caucus news release touting the bill. "Republicans contend that funding education as proposed ... is a more fiscally sound alternative to the governor's plan, which funds education last, through a quarter of a billion dollar tax increase (through the governor's proposed 40 cents per pack cigarette tax hike)."
But the bill's Senate sponsor, state Sen. Paul Stanley, R-Memphis, encountered a legislative glitch in the measure plus opposition from Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz.
The legislative glitch was uncovered by the state's Fiscal Review Committee, which said the bill would cause a $177 million shift from other programs to fully fund higher education.
"In addition to a reduction in expenditures for other state programs in this amount, the state could lose significant federal funding for other functions of state government due to state's reduced ability to match federal funds," a Fiscal Review Committee statement said.
Current law requires that the budget for Tennessee's state government be set up in four parts: a budget message, state-levied taxes, detailed budget estimates, and then complete drafts of the budget appropriations.
Goetz told the Senate Finance Committee that Stanley's proposed education funding bill reminded him of the debate lawmakers went through with TennCare, the state's Medicaid program that used to consume funding at a higher rate than other state programs.
"You had a group of people who said health care is what we ought to fund to the detriment of other priorities," Goetz told lawmakers on the committee. "There's a difference between priorities, it seems to me, and exclusivities if you will. ... This administration and all prior administrations in my 20-some odd years of being around up here ... have in fact put money into education first but then had to balance that against the other requirements. We have legal obligations we are required to meet."
The current budget process, Goetz stressed, balances the state's priorities.
"I look at the congressional system and frankly don't find much to admire where they have 11 or 12 different appropriations bills each year," he said. "It is unbalanced and often doesn't work. ... We are better served by having a single appropriations bill that allows us to have priorities but doesn't create exclusivities."
Stanley offered an amendment to take higher education out of the bill, but it was not adopted by the committee.
"If education is first, education is first. It seems odd to me that we're going to say education is first but not higher education first," said state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis.
Stanley emphasized the bill backs up the point that lawmakers are serious about education.
"We talk a lot about putting education first. ... We do little fundamentally to put that in a concrete perspective," Stanley said.
The Senate Finance Committee deferred further action on the bill until May 1, while the measure is scheduled to be considered by the House Education Committee today.
For more about the bill, go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on "Legislation." The bill's number is SB 0180.