Budget fight shuts down Tennessee government
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Residents hoping to get driver's licenses and summer tourists looking for information ran into "closed" signs Monday, the first day of a partial government shutdown while the Tennessee legislature tries to resolve the state's budget.
For weeks, lawmakers have haggled over proposed taxes to help resolve an $800 million deficit in the budget that was to take effect Monday. Their negotiations were continuing.
But because lawmakers missed a deadline, Gov. Don Sundquist was allowed to fund only essential services through Friday. About 22,000 of the state's 42,000 employees were placed on unpaid leave -- and Sundquist, a lame-duck Republican, claimed they were paying the price for the lawmakers' indecision.
Those on leave included most employees of the Department of Tourism, which shuttered the state's 13 welcome centers for the July 4 holiday week.
"Annually, we have 14 million people coming through those centers, and this is our most busy week," tourism commissioner John Wade said.
With the restrooms locked at the Tennessee Welcome Center at the Georgia border, dozens of travelers in need ran to the trees in back Monday.
"It will hurt their state budget more to have these places closed," said Ruthann Jaquette, traveling from Michigan to an Atlanta baseball tournament with a group of boys who joined the sprint to the woods.
'Just more lost revenue'
The closures could cost the Tennessee Aquarium about 3,000 weekly visitors who are normally steered there by welcome centers, said Cindy Todd, a spokeswoman for the Chattanooga attraction.
"This is the biggest week of the entire year for us. The timing couldn't be worse," she said. "This is just more lost revenue for the state."
It's also peak time for state parks, which remained open with small crews. Road projects were stopped as the Department of Transportation operated with 100 of its 4,500 employees.
State historians said the last time government services were scaled back this far happened when Tennessee fell to Union forces in the Civil War.
Joey Frank Jr., 21, had his brother drive him to renew his license in Nashville but they found only a "closed" sign. Told that legislators had failed to pass a budget, Frank said, "They can't manage their money so they shut down everything and it affects us."
At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, few classes were held Monday after the first summer session was cut short Friday due to the budget impasse.
At the McClung Museum, a closed sign hung on the front door. "If you are from Tennessee, we hope you will remember this situation at the polls in November," the sign read. "If you are a visitor from out of state, we apologize."