April 23, 2009

Senate Finance Committee approves legislation to maintain Tennessee’s dedicated road fund

Tennessee’s road needs were debated on Capitol Hill this week in two key committees of the State Senate. The Senate Transportation Committee voted to send Governor Bredesen’s budget plan to incur $350 million in general obligation bond debt to the Finance Committee without recommendation for passage and with a request the Finance Committee look at other avenues for funding bridge repair needs. In the meantime, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill that maintains Tennessee’s dedicated road fund by prohibiting the diversion of gas tax money through the state’s budget or appropriations bill.

The bill approved by the Finance Committee, SB 1309, would require authorization through separate legislation to divert gas tax revenues that are dedicated for road funds. The measure would put Tennessee back in the position it was prior to 2004 and restore the appropriate checks and balances to ensure that any diversion of the funds are fully meted out through the normal legislative process. Currently, the dedicated road fund can be diverted through a line in the appropriations bill, which is a much easier route to raid the funds.

“People need to know that when they fill up their gas tanks that the 21.4 cents they have been told is going to go for transportation will be used for the purpose that is intended,” said Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), who is sponsoring the bill. “It is very important that we keep our dedicated road fund intact in order to maintain our road system without the need for incurring debt or increasing the gas tax.”

The Department of Transportation only spends the funds that are available through its dedicated revenues, gas taxes and highway user fees, and federal funding. Called “dedicated funding,” since users pay for the roads through gas taxes and fees, a portion of the gasoline tax also goes to cities and counties in Tennessee to fund local roads. This dedicated revenue system was put into place when the gas tax was raised to fund the road program. Over the last several years, however, $280 million in road funds have been funneled from the gas tax to meet other state government expenditures.

“We have a covenant with our citizens that the gas tax charged by the state at the pump is dedicated to transportation-related purposes and not something totally unrelated,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “It is such an important principle in some states that it is provided for in their Constitutions. If we hadn’t taken that money, we probably wouldn’t have the administration today proposing to go out and borrow $350 million more for bridges that could presumably been paid for with funds that were diverted for other things.”

Governor Bredesen’s budget calls for the state to incur $350 million in general obligation bond debt to repair structurally deficient bridges, a major departure from Tennessee’s current “pay-as-you go” system for building roads. The last road debt payment was paid in 1987 after Governor Lamar Alexander retired a mounting transportation debt and embarked on an aggressive road-building program. Tennessee has continued to build roads on a debt-free basis since that time.

Complicating the issue has been a shaky Federal Highway Trust Fund that has caused grave concerns about the state’s ability to keep up with transportation needs. According to Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely, the federal government has reneged on the amount of money promised to Tennessee over the past four years.

“The federal government has not exactly had a good track record of sending us what they told us they would send,” said Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey at last week’s meeting of the Transportation Committee. “They have rescinded several different times. It concerns me that we sell these bonds based on the fact we are suppose to get $40 million from the federal government and then three years down the road that either drops down or completely goes away. Then we will be responsible at that time to take the money out of the general fund to pay for the debt.”

Many legislators are also concerned about the ability to contract with builders for the road and bridge repairs due to influx of projects as a result of the stimulus funds. In fact, the Finance Committee signed off on an expansion request plans to contract the stimulus money coming into the state as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which will be let on May 8th and June 12th.

The state receives $600 million each year in revenues from the gas tax. The request for $350 million in general obligation bonds is in addition to the $572 million the state will receive over the next two years in federal stimulus funds.

Texting while driving bill receives final Senate approval

The full Senate voted 22 to 6 on Thursday to approve legislation that would ban “texting while driving.” The bill, SB 393 sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), prohibits sending or reading text messages on public roads and highways while the driver is operating a motor vehicle in motion.

“Over two-thirds of those under the age of 24 who were polled have admitted to sending text messages while driving,” said Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), sponsor of the bill. “That is a very scary proposition for the safety of our roads. Studies show that drivers of any age who text behind the wheel swerve out of their lane, with many running into head-on traffic. This is a basic safety measure that aims to protect the drivers and all others who travel our roads.”

Law enforcement officials say the bill specifically banning texting will give them the tools to enforce banning this form of distracted driving. Under the legislation, a violation would be a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $50.00. The legislation also prohibits the Department of Safety from assigning a point value for the driver’s license suspension or revocation for violation under the proposed law.

“Texting is an extremely dangerous form of distracted driving,” Tracy added. “When drivers take their eyes off the road to read or send messages, they pose a great danger to all who cross their path. Hopefully, this measure will provide the warning needed to help stop this practice and in turn, it will make our roads safer.”

Video prompts legislators to push legislation to divert
family planning funds from Planned Parenthood to public clinics

Several State Senators held a press conference this week to announce plans to pursue legislation ensuring that family planning funds go to public women’s health services providers before private applicants are considered. The action comes after a video was released showing violation of state law by Planned Parenthood of Memphis, a private provider that receives public funds for family planning services.

The video shows a 14-year old girl being advised by a Planned Parenthood employee to lie to court authorities regarding the alleged father of her child who the youth said was 31. The court can approve an abortion for a minor without consulting a parent.

The video tape shows the likelihood that the Planned Parenthood employee obviously understood that the age difference between the minor and the alleged father would constitute the crime of rape in Tennessee.

“It is amazing that this organization had an employee that advised this 14-year old to break the law,” said Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), sponsor of the bill. “She was encouraged to commit perjury.”

“Our intent was to bring this up next year,” said Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey. “But because of what’s happened here, now is the time to bring this measure forward.”

Approximately $1.1 million in Title 10 funds are provided to Planned Parenthood for women’s health-related services like family planning, birth control, and exams. Although current law bans the use of the money for abortion, the Title 10 funds supplement the organization’s operations. The lawmakers believe other government-related health services like the public health departments, or government-associated medical clinics could provide these services.

“The legislation says you must exhaust all other avenues in the public sector before moving to private providers,” said Senator Diane Black, co-sponsor of the bill. “This makes sure that public money goes to enhance services in our public health departments and public hospitals.”

The proposal, SB 470, will be heard in House and Senate Committees next week.

Senate Judiciary Committee approves two bills protecting crime victims

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved two strong crime bills this week aiming to protect victims of crime. The first bill, SB 1531, would increase the minimum age of the Class D felony offense of child abuse and child neglect or endangerment from six to eight years or age or younger. Under present law, it is an enhancement to Tennessee’s child abuse and child neglect law if the victim is six years of age or less. This bill would enhance penalties against those who commit child abuse and child neglect in cases where the victim is eight year old or younger.

“Eight-year olds are no match for adults who wants to overpower them,” said Senator Tim Burchett, sponsor of the bill. “This legislation protects children by making sure their abusers are kept behind bars for a longer period of time.”

The second bill, SB 1684 sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), creates the Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification System to provide victims of crime with access to timely and reliable information about the custody status of offenders in county jails.

This bill authorizes victims of crime and other concerned citizens to register for immediate notification of an offender’s release, transfer, or escape. The information kept in the notification system would be available 24 hours per day via telephone, Internet and electronic mail.

The system would be funded by money collected from a $1.00 litigation tax on criminal charges. Additionally, this bill authorizes funding of the system by grants, donations, gifts, and appropriations.

Bills in Brief

Home health care — The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee has approved legislation to allow home health nurses or aides to accompany a recipient outside the home during the course of delivery of prior-approved services. The bill, SB 851 sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin), allows aides or nurses to accompany their patients to such places like the doctor’s office or church. Currently services are banned unless they are in a hospital or at home. Additional visits or hours of care would not be approved for coverage, and services would be limited to what the recipient would be entitled to if provided exclusively at the recipient’s place of residence.

Restaurant Menus – The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee also approved a bill, SB 1092 sponsored by Senator Paul Stanley (R-Germantown), to ban local governments or their boards from imposing requirements on restaurants to provide nutritional information on menus. The concern is that some communities will impose different standards and significantly increase costs to small restaurant owners. In March, Davidson County’s Metro Board of Health voted to enact guidelines on providing nutritional information to customers for certain restaurants, even though Congress is considering the Federal LEAN Act. That act would implement a national standard generally accepted by restaurant owners to provide nutritional information to customers. Adopting a county-by-county approach to the disclosure of nutritional information increases costs to restaurants, many of whom are small business owners.

Utilities / Gas Companies — Members of the Commerce Committee have approved the Natural Gas, Conservation, and Annual Rate Review Act. The bill allows share- or investor-owned gas companies in Tennessee to implement a decoupling mechanism regarding the rate billed to customers that would separate their fixed cost from that which is passed through the product they sell. Currently when customers get their bill it is volumetrically priced, meaning the fixed price is incorporated in with the cost of the product. Decoupling would allow these companies to implement a conservation program to encourage energy efficiency with their customers. The bill, SB 1375 sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), also allows them to opt into an annual rate review mechanism which would be a streamlined rate review process.

Animal fighting – The full Senate voted 27 to 0 to increase the penalty for being a spectator at an animal fight. Under current law, the penalty for being a spectator at a dog fight is a Class B misdemeanor, and for other animals, it is a Class C misdemeanor, which only carries a $50 fine. This bill, SB 537 sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), increases the penalty for spectators at all animal fights to a Class A misdemeanor. Animal fighting has other crime implications like gambling, drugs, and organized crime. Other states like North and South Carolina have driven animal fighting, like cock fighting, to Tennessee due to increased penalties imposed in their states.

Veterans / Education – A study of tuition relief program for veterans would be established under legislation meeting the approval of the Senate Education Committee this week. The bill, SB 1693 sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) requires the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) with the assistance of the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), the University of Tennessee (UT), and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC), to look at programs that have been enacted in other states and report back on the feasibility of establishing such programs in Tennessee.

Safe Haven / Infants – The full Senate has voted to add fire stations and police stations to the list of locations that newborns can be taken by distressed mothers without fear of prosecution for abandonment. Currently, the infants must be taken to a hospital or 24-hour emergency clinic. This legislation, SB 1714 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), adds fire stations and police stations as well. The goal of the safe haven legislation is to set up a system that focuses on saving the baby’s life, rather than the mother’s liability.

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