April 9, 2009

Budget Hearings begin as more grim news on state revenues is delivered to lawmakers

Budget talks continued to dominate discussions on Capitol Hill this week as committees in the State Senate began hearings on the spending proposals of various departments and agencies of state government. The budget and revenues to finance it remain the biggest challenges facing the General Assembly this year, as lawmakers also look at how federal stimulus funds will impact the ongoing expenses of state government after the money is spent.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee continued to hear grim news this week about state revenues with March collections falling $106.2 million short of budget estimates. March is the eighth consecutive month this fiscal year in which sales taxes and corporate income taxes have recorded negative growth over a year ago and the thirteenth negative growth month for sales tax collections out of the last fifteen months.

Year-to-date collections for eight months were $698 million less than the budgeted estimates, leaving the state well on the way to being over $1 billion short by the end of the fiscal year at the current rate of deterioration. Although $2.1 billion of the $5 billion in stimulus funds may help Tennessee in various ways over a two-year period and delay painful cuts for a year, only $1.6 billion of those dollars are available to help balance our budget over the next two years and assist state agencies to transition to smaller budgets in the future. One of the more dramatic examples of this is the higher education budget. When federal stimulus money ends 21 months from now, Tennessee’s colleges and universities will suddenly need to operate with about $182 million less in state funding than they had under proposed 2009-10 budget year.

Senate Education Committee members have requested that the heads of the three boards that govern higher education present plans on how they will phase in the 15 percent in cuts that will be needed by 2012 when the stimulus money ends. Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) has formed an internal study committee to conduct a thorough review of the state’s proposed budget for Tennessee’s higher education agencies.

“It is always important to take a thoughtful and thorough look at the budget for our college and universities,” said Gresham. “We need to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of these dollars to give our students the best opportunity possible for a world class education. However, it is a tremendous challenge this year as we consider how the $470 million in stimulus money will have an effect on our ongoing operations when the money stops in 2011.”

Bills approved by State Senators honor those in military service and their families

Three bills were approved by State Senators this week which honor those who protect and defend Tennesseans in armed service or aim to help their families. The first bill, which was approved by the full State Senate, would honor soldiers who die in the line of duty. The legislation requires that, if members of the Tennessee National Guard die in the line of duty, the Governor shall proclaim a day or mourning in their honor and the names of the deceased members shall be recorded in the journal of the Senate and House of Representatives. The legislation, SB 1647 sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), also requires that the flag be flown at half-mast to honor these soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice for their state and country.

Department of Military Adjutant General Gus Hargett told members of the State and Local Government Committee, who were reviewing his budget, that Tennessee has the 6th largest National Guard in the U.S, with a 72 percent re-enlistment rate.

The second bill, SB 1997 sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), would help children of military personnel transition from school to school when moving out-of-state. The legislation, which was approved by the Senate Education Committee, calls for Tennessee to join the Interstate Compact on Education Opportunity for Military Children which was implemented by the Council of State Governments (CSG) in partnership with the Department of Defense. Senator Norris is Vice-President of CSG.

“This legislation implements a uniform policy to resolve the special problems with varying educational requirements that military families face in moving from one state to the next,” said Senator Norris. “The frequent moves that children of military personnel make too often lead to uneven standards that cause a delay in their promotion to the next grade. We need to address the factors that attribute to these students getting lost in the system.”

The four areas addressed by the compact are enrollment, placement, eligibility, and graduation requirements. Most military children will be in six to nine different school systems during their lives from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Because of the numerous moves, usually during a school year, there are often problems with the transfer of records, graduation requirements being different, being excluded from extra-curricular activities, redundant or missed entrance/exit testing, and kindergarten and first grade entrance age variations. The Compact, which has already been adopted by 14 states, helps to address these issues.

“Military children, like their parents, make many sacrifices in service to their country,” Norris added. “This legislation will help these children succeed, which also alleviates the concerns of their parents, some of whom are serving in combat. I am pleased the committee has approved this legislation.”

A third bill, SB 1420, honoring the service of those in the military makes it easier for those overseas to access and return the necessary documents to vote absentee. In the last election, many Tennesseans in military serving overseas requested that they be allowed to send their scanned document by email because they did not have access to a fax in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill would allow Tennesseans serving in the military overseas to scan an absentee request or change of address form and attach the document to an email to be sent to the their county election office to make it easier for them to vote. Currently, only a fax is allowed.

The local election office would still compare the signature of the voter before mailing the ballot. The bill is sponsored by State and Local Government Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).

“These men and women who are fighting for our freedom should be afforded every opportunity to vote,” said Ketron. “The legislation still maintains the safeguards to make sure the ballot is protected, while making sure that their vote is not lost due to slow mail that often accompanies service overseas.”

Energy Efficient Schools Initiative reports progress to Senate Finance Committee

The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee heard testimony this week from the new Energy Efficient Schools Council, an initiative pushed by Senate Republicans and approved last year. The program was set up to help schools save money on their energy bills to bolster capital needs for K-12 schools.

The Council consists of energy experts, including members from TVA and Oak Ridge Laboratory, who laid out a plan to distribute $90 million in grants and loans to schools for conservation. The Council is also exploring how to tap into federal grants from TVA and the Department of Energy that are available for such “green energy” programs.

One hundred of Tennessee’s 136 school districts have already applied for grants under the new initiative, totaling $152 million in requests. Most of these requests include energy-efficient heating and cooling needs and roofs. The Council maintains that those needs and changing schools to high-efficiency lighting will be the primary focus in the first phase of the grants.

The schools would receive $22 per student, under the plan, to make energy-efficient upgrades. In addition, the schools will also have the opportunity to apply for loans. The Council maintains that moving to high efficiency lights and energy-efficient heating and cooling offer the best opportunity for return on the dollar due to the effectiveness of the savings received from installation of these products. The program is expected to result in millions of dollars in savings on energy bills each year if the schools implement the upgrades and utilize some of the best practices for energy conservation.

The program was implemented using excess funds form the constitutional amendment creating Tennessee’s lottery scholarship program adopted in 2002. That amendment listed K-12 construction as the first purpose for excess funds, new Pre-Kindergarten classes as the second, and after school programs as the third.

Tennessee Transportation Infrastructure Fund would
help finance and complete
local road projects

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) is sponsoring legislation that would provide a vehicle for local governments to finance and complete local projects. It was approved this week in the Government Operations Committee. The bill would give local governments the option of applying for a low interest loan for eligible infrastructure projects similar to the Clean Water Revolving Fund that helps communities improve water supplies.

The state formed an infrastructure bank in 1998 within the Department of Transportation to capitalize on funds available for pilot projects. However, only one project has been financed by the bank since that time, even though there are still funds available.

This legislation would set up a 7-member board appointed by the Commissioner of Transportation, Treasurer, the Senate and House Finance Committee Chairmen, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House to assist in financing qualified projects.

Norris, who serves as the Chairman of a Transportation Funding Advisory Council for a national state government organization stated, “We are looking for alternative transportation funding initiatives. This provides us with an innovative way of funding local projects.” Norris went on to say that the idea of an infrastructure fund was initially put in the state’s long-range transportation plan and approved by the Senate Transportation Committee when he was the chairman.

Thirty-three states have infrastructure banks, with two-thirds having a board which is responsible for project approval and oversight. The bill, SB 2120, now goes to the Senate Transportation Committee for approval there.

Legislation approved by Senate requires drivers’ license exams be given in English

The full Senate has given final approval to legislation, SB 11 by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), requiring drivers’ license exams be given in English. The measure, which seeks to make sure that immigrants know how to read the road signs, was approved by the State Senate in the last General Assembly but did not win House approval.

The bill has an amendment to allow for the test to be administered in Spanish, Japanese, Korean and German to accommodate those nationalities with manufacturing facilities in Tennessee. Ketron said he introduced the bill after a tragic accident occurred in his district involving a licensed driver who did not know how to read the road signs.

Legislation would protect credit card customers from unfair late fees

The Senate Commerce Committee this week approved legislation, SB 2084 sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville), that would protect credit card customers from being charged a late fee if they have mailed their payment on time. The bill requires a credit card company to credit a payment made to a consumer’s account on the date the payment was postmarked if sent via the U.S. Postal Service.

“It is not right for credit card consumers to pay late fees if the payment is sitting on the desk of an employee of the credit card company or if it arrives late due to slow mail,” said Burchett. “Many Tennesseans have faced these charges, even though they made their payments on time.”

Violation of the proposed law would constitute an unfair and deceptive act or practice under the Consumer Protections Act. This means, if convicted, the credit card issuer may be subject to injunctions, civil penalties and civil damages, including treble damages.

“Consumers should not have to pay for the mistakes of others when their efforts can be proved by a postmark,” added Burchett. “This legislation protects credit card customers from this unfair practice.”

Legislation approved by State Senate addresses “cyber-bullying”

The State Senate has approved legislation that would addressing the growing concern of “cyberbullying.” The bill, SB 113 sponsored by Republican Caucus Chairman Diane Black (R-Hendersonville), broadens the Class A misdemeanor offense for harassment to include maliciously intimidating a person by any means of communication and causing them to be frightened or emotionally harmed. This includes bullying by e-mail or over the Internet.

Black said she brought the bill to the legislature after looking into cases in her legislative district where students were being harassed through Internet communications. Local law enforcement maintains that the current law did not have enough teeth to tell the person doing the cyberbullying that it was against the law.

Technology has now given way to cyberbullying, which challenges the traditional schoolyard bullying. New studies have found that approximately 30 percent of students in grades six through eight reported they recently had been cyberbullied or had cyberbullied another person at least once.

Black also won passage of anti-bullying legislation in 2005 that requires schools to put into place a policy for education and prevention of bullying. That law also implemented penalties for those who continue to bully another student despite those preventative measures.

Second Amendment rights bills advance

Several bills protecting citizens’ second amendment rights advanced on the Senate floor and in committees this week. This includes one to allow citizens with handgun permits to carry their weapons into establishments that sell alcohol. The bill, SB 1127, allows law-abiding handgun permit holders to “carry” into restaurants or other establishments serving alcohol as long as the owners of the premises have not posted notification that they are banned.

Those who are in possession of a handgun are already prohibited from consuming alcohol or face a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a $2,000 fine and up to 11 months and 29 days in jail.

A second bill, which received approval by the full Senate, would delete the current requirement for a gun buyer to provide a thumbprint as part of the background check process. Tennessee is the only state in the nation that requires a thumbprint from gun permit applicants. Since the 1998 enactment of Tennessee’s conceal and carry law, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has only asked for one thumbprint due to a challenge from a person who was denied the right to purchase a firearm and that print was smudged and unusable. The bill, SB 554, is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

The full Senate also approved a measure to clarify that neither the state nor an instructor or employee of a department-approved handgun safety course is authorized to require an applicant for a handgun carry permit to furnish or reveal private identifying information. This includes information regarding any handgun the applicant owns, possesses, or uses during the safety course, or the serial number of the weapon. The bill, SB 32, was filed in response to an incident late last year, when the Department of Safety sent letters to all firearms instructors requiring them to complete and return a roster of students and to provide information on each student including the name of the firearm owner, the name of the student using the firearm, and the make, model, and serial number of firearms used. Senator Jim Tracy (R-Murfreesboro) is sponsor of this legislation.

Bills in Brief

Felons / Voting Right — Legislation requiring that a convicted felon must pay all court costs imposed before being eligible to have their voting rights restored advanced in the Senate Finance Committee this week. Currently, a person convicted of a felony must be pardoned, discharged from custody or supervision, and have paid all restitution to the victim of the offense to have their rights of suffrage restored. This legislation, SB 440 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would add the payment of fines incurred as a result of the felony as a condition for restoring the right to vote.

Wine / Shipping – The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee approved legislation, SB 166 by Senator Paul Stanley (R-Germantown) to allow consumers to ship wine from wineries to their homes. Currently, it is a felony under Tennessee law to transport wine across state lines. This legislation allows wineries to ship up to three cases of wine per year to Tennessee consumers provided they have license.

Ethics / General Assembly — Legislation that would end the rights of a member of the General Assembly to receive healthcare benefits if convicted of a felony was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. The bill, SB 2205 sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would require the state to end the benefits upon conviction or upon a plea of guilty, if the charges are in relation to the member’s official capacity as a legislator. The family members eligible for benefits are not included under the bill. The General Assembly has already passed similar legislation ending legislative pensions for those convicted of a crime in relation to their official capacity as a member of the General Assembly.

Online Sunshine — The full Senate gave final approval to legislation expanding a pilot program utilized in Knox County that brings sunshine online on the Internet. The bill, SB 832 sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), uses technology to set up an online forum for elected officials to communicate outside of public meetings but within the bounds of the state’s Sunshine law. Under the bill, elected bodies could set up websites where they can post messages to one another. These “conversations” would be available for the public and the media’s viewing.

Child Mortality – The full Senate voted this week to adopt SB 810 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) that clarifies the meaning of “near fatality” to allow the state to track the number of serious or critical medical conditions that result from child abuse or child sexual abuse. Federal legislation calls for the tracking of near fatalities in child abuse cases for reporting purposes. This legislation adopts that language defining near fatality as a “serious medical condition or injury as reported by a physician” so that there is full disclosure.

“2-1-1” — The Senate Commerce Committee has approved a bill putting into place a “2-1-1” advisory council to advise and assist the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) in establishing statewide standards that will ensure that the citizens of Tennessee are served by an efficient and effective 2-1-1 service. The “2-1-1 service” is a statewide phone number that connects Tennesseans with community services and volunteer opportunities. The legislation to create an Advisory Council, SB 1210 sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), will ensure that the quality of service is raised to an even higher level.

Electric coops – The full Senate passed legislation this week to allow municipal and rural electric companies to join together to provide electric generating capacity to consumers. Currently they can only provide those services separately. This measure, SB 1089 sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), gives the localities the flexibility to form a cooperative so they can provide wholesale electric power and energy services to customers.

Charitable clinics – Charitable healthcare clinics that receive a nominal fee would receive protection from liability for civil damages under legislation approved by the full Senate on Thursday. The legislation, SB 1907 sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), seeks to help the clinics find volunteer healthcare providers at a time of high unemployment when these facilities are receiving an influx of new patients. Currently only free clinics receive the immunity.

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