Local legislators disagree about mechanics of $4M state fund

David Floyd • Oct 1, 2019 at 8:00 PM

State Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, has some lingering questions about a $4 million state fund included in the budget for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

“I still don’t have answers as far as what projects are in that fund, where are they allocated to go, why are they chosen or how are they selected, what is the process for those to be awarded,” Lundberg told the Johnson City Press on Tuesday. “I haven’t heard, at least yet, any satisfactory answers.”

The fund drew Lundberg’s attention after State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said during the grand opening of a new Isaiah 117 House location in Washington County in September that the local nonprofit would receive an additional $75,000 grant from the state.

The Tennessean, which reported first on the details of the money and the inquiries related to the fund, said in an article on Tuesday that the $4 million fund has surprised some Tennessee lawmakers and that leaders in the state legislature are evaluating its purpose.

Lundberg said he and Hill’s brother, Rep. Timothy Hill, R- Blountville, had previously sponsored a portion of the state budget that provided a $100,000 grant to the Isaiah 117 House, which offers a home to children who are waiting for placement with a foster family.

“Typically when we budget money for grants, also in there is how those grants are going to be awarded and what the process is,” Lundberg said. “I have never seen that happen where a legislator just says, ‘Hey, I’m awarding a grant.’ We just don’t have that authority normally.”

Hill said Tuesday that the $4 million funding pool received unanimous approval from both bodies of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Reading from the state appropriations bill, Hill said the money is set aside for “the sole purpose of making rural and community grants for capital expenditures, repairs, maintenance or operations to local governments or non-profit, public safety, library, community or recreational service entities.”

He said the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration, Stuart McWhorter, is in charge of approving the grants before they are disbursed and that representatives don’t have direct influence over how the money is spent.

“We make suggestions and put in letters of support and talk with the department and make the case of, ‘Hey we really think that this is an important thing in our district or community that needs to be funded,’ and give the reasons why and the rationale,” he said.

Hill said the additional $75,000 grant he’s hoping to make available to the Isaiah 117 House has not been officially approved by the department’s commissioner, but it is something that has been in the works “for some time now.”

“I’m actually continuing to have conversations to finalize it, finish it up hopefully here soon,” he said.

Hill said his constituents sent him to Nashville to keep government as small as possible and to “get their money back.” The money for the Isaiah 117 House would be another way of accomplishing that, he said.

Calling the Sullivan County senator “rogue” and “well-heeled,” Hill said Lundberg is trying to steal money that belongs in Washington County.

“At the end of the day he needs to ... stay out of Washington County’s affairs, keep his nose at home and stop messing with children who are awaiting foster care,” he said. “Because his meddling very well could cost them much-needed funding and that’s unacceptable.”

Asked for his response to Hill’s comments, Lundberg said he’s looking for transparency in state government.

“I hope the Isaiah houses do well in Washington County, Sullivan County and Greene County,” Lundberg said. “I just want a government that’s responsive and transparent for everyone.”

Lundberg said outlines for the grant process are never included the state budget. He questioned whether the Department of Finance and Administration has a process to go about awarding these grants.

“This is rather troubling in the way this has gone about,” Lundberg said. “I obviously fully support Isaiah House, its mission and what it does but also think we need a clear and transparent government.”

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