Where did the money come from? TN lawmakers split on funding promise to local non-profit

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)– Republican lawmakers are split after a local representative pledged state dollars to a non-profit that helps children transition into foster care.

Now, those funds could be in jeopardy.

The controversy, first reported by The Tennessean, began after Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) announced last month at a ribbon-cutting in Washington County that Isaiah 117 House would be receiving a $75 thousand grant.

The pledge prompted lawmakers to look into a little-known line item and re-examine how those funds would be distributed.

“It raised a lot of questions for not just me but a number of folks,” Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said. “Where did the money come from?

He said the state awarded a $100 thousand grant to Isaiah 117 House this past summer and there was no mention of the $75 thousand Hill promised in the budget.

“Frankly, it turns out he [Hill] is awarding a grant that does not exist,” Lundberg said.

Hill said he planned to get the money from a $4 million Economic Community Development fund that was approved by both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly with unanimous support last budget cycle.

“We have months and months of hearings and if there are individuals who have hurt feelings or get upset because I found a line item in the budget that can help my district–too bad,” Hill said in an interview with News Channel 11.

Lundberg said the funds indeed exist but the process for awarding them has yet to be created.

“The state has not accepted a single application for it. Cities and counties across the state are going to want to get their share of that,” Lundberg said. “We don’t just arbitrarily write checks of taxpayer monies without a process.”

Hill said it’s the job of lawmakers to advocate for dollars for their district.

He said criteria for the money is laid out in the appropriates bill, which also requires all ECD grants to be approved by the commissioner of the Department of Finance and Administration.

Asked if it was premature to announce the grant before it had been officially approved, Hill said, “I don’t believe so because I had been in talks with the folks to work to secure these dollars and everything was on track until the political games started.”

The back and forth has gotten the attention of top lawmakers.

In a statement, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s (R-Oak Ridge) Communications Director Adam Kleinheider said the Isaiah 117 House is a worthy cause but furthered, “Sen. Lundberg and others are asking questions and working hard to make sure there is a clear and transparent process to apply for these grants so that worthy causes across the state have a fair shot at these dollars.”  

Kleinheider also said, “After concerns were expressed, the lieutenant governor made some preliminary inquiries and communicated his preference to the administration that the money not be used for any legislative pork projects.”

The new House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) also issued a statement:

When I became Speaker-select, I was made aware of a rural grant appropriation that was part of the budget. At the time, I was unaware of any issues related to this budgeted item. Over the last three weeks since becoming Speaker, the governor’s office has reached out to my office. We are currently gathering additional information on this troubling issue. It is my understanding there may have been an appropriation request but nothing has been approved. I will continue to work with Lt. Governor McNally, Governor Lee, and his Administration to determine what happened and to ensure similar issues do not arise in the future.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton

Hill said there’s a chance Isaiah 117 House will not receive grant money from the ECD fund. He said, if that’s the case, he’ll seek other funding avenues.

Ronda Paulson, the founder of the non-profit, said in a statement, “We appreciate all support from our community whether it come in the form of a grant, community giving, or a lemonade stand.”

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