Funding for Jackson Theatre yanked from Haslam’s budget
By Kristen Swing
What appeared to be a done deal came undone last week as state legislators passed a budget that did not include Gov. Bill Haslam’s requested $500,000 for the renovation of the old Jackson Theatre in Jonesborough.
Earlier this month, local leaders as well as state Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) and state Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) announced the half-million in funding for the Jackson Theatre after Haslam put it in his supplemental budget to be approved by the legislature.
On April 17, that money was pulled from the budget. Rumors are rampant that the theater funding was yanked as possible retribution for Hill’s unexpected change in voting last month in regards to a bill to put wine in grocery stores.
As chair of the Local Government Committee, Hill cast the tie-breaking vote to kill the bill in March after previously voting in subcommittee in favor of the bill.
He did so in front of House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville), a strong supporter of the bill who was expecting Hill’s continued support of the measure.
Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe would not say specifically what he was told caused the loss of the theater funding in the budget, saying only that he had heard “multiple rumors and stories centered around actions in the House” that may have caused the money to be pulled.
“When the governor puts something in his budget, it is very unusual, at least for this governor, for an item to be deleted altogether. The governor and legislature have an understanding,” Wolfe said. “For this to have happened was a highly unusual event.”
Hill wholeheartedly disagreed, saying the supplemental budget proposed by a governor is hardly a “done deal.”
“It’s a proposal. Stuff is put in and pulled out all the time,” Hill said in a phone interview Monday morning. “The way it goes is the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.”
Still, both Hill and Crowe sent out press releases earlier this month announcing the $500,000 allocation to the theater after it was inserted by Haslam into his supplemental budget.
Hill said he does not believe the loss of the funding for the theater was some kind of political retribution.
“Political retribution is usually done in the realm of politics, not policy. Funding for the Jackson Theatre is a matter of policy,” he said. “The reason I was given that it was taken out was because they want to fund statewide projects. The Jackson Theatre was too local. It was funding for just one town.”
All does not appear to be lost in getting funding from the state to reinvent the Jackson Theatre.
“It is my understanding that in light of the funds being pulled from the state budget, the governor is going to honor that commitment by allowing us to apply for and hopefully receive an ARC grant for the same amount of money,” Wolfe said. “We have to submit an application and go through somewhat of a process. It’s not as immediate of a resolution, but we are not unappreciative and we intend to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Hill also confirmed plans for Jonesborough to be awarded a grant to fund a portion of the renovation project.
“(Harwell), at my request, spoke to Mayor Wolfe from my cell phone last week and assured him the money will be coming,” Hill said. “It won’t happen as quick. It’s kind of the scenic route, but it will be coming.”
Again denouncing rumors that his actions related to the wine-in-grocery-stores bill had anything to do with the theater money being yanked, Hill said his relationship with Harwell remains a good one and likely helped secure the plan to get Jonesborough the grant funding for the theater.
“I stood clearly 3 inches from the Speaker when she told Mayor Wolfe it wasn’t funded because it didn’t have statewide impact,” he said. “I like to think the relationship I have with the Speaker has helped get the grant money for the project. She wouldn’t have helped us get that money (if the relationship was bad). And if there was a problem, she certainly wouldn’t be speaking to me.”