June 12, 2009

Senate Finance Committee passes fiscally responsible budget

The Senate Finance Committee has approved a fiscally responsible budget for the 2009-2010 budget year that borrows less, has more protection for the Rainy Day (savings) Fund and is closer to balancing recurring and nonrecurring expenditures. The plan, as amended by Senate Republicans, also cuts several of the governor’s proposed tax hikes, including one on cable television boxes and a measure to increase taxes on business phone rates.

“Given the extraordinary difficulties and unpredictable economic times, this was a good effort towards balancing our budget without increasing taxes on our citizens,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge).

The vote came after Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz told lawmakers that there was a continued decline in Tennessee’s revenues in May. Goetz said sales taxes collected in May were 11 percent lower than the yearly average of 7 percent and franchise and excise tax collections were down 40 percent for the month. Goetz said the revenues fall short of the governor’s revenue predictions for the budget, which were based on the most optimistic end of the state Funding Board’s predictions. The Funding Board consists of the state’s top economic advisors.

“This is a ‘truth or consequences’ budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “We must face the truth about our budget and the serious economic condition of our state or we will face even more serious consequences next year. There is a big risk if the legislature acts as if there is not a problem. This is painful. We do not relish it but you cannot spend what you do don’t have. You cannot borrow what you cannot afford to repay.”

The plan prioritizes education by fully funding the Basic Education Program, the state’s funding formula for K-12 education. Pre-K would be kept at the same level of funding under the plan. It also funds Tennessee’s higher education at the highest level of funding to draw down approximately $500 million in federal stimulus available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition, it fully funds lottery scholarships to provide students with the opportunity to receive a college education.

On job growth, the legislation fully funds the economic development projects set to establish manufacturing facilities in the state including Volkswagen, Hemlock and Wacker. The bill also fully funds the Haywood County megasite and Solar Farm in West Tennessee under action taken on the measure on Friday.

Republicans say a list of capital projects will be restored if state fiscal stabilization funds from the federal stimulus package are available or if other federal reimbursement match increases free up state dollars. Last year, the legislature appropriated cash to fund the projects. However, the governor held them after revenues plummeted. This year, he proposed the $168 million in cash previously approved by the legislature for those projects be used to plug the gap in the state budget. In turn, the governor recommended the state incur debt to fund the projects.

The action will keep Tennessee from putting these building projects on the state credit card at a time when economic conditions are unstable. The plan uses the debt service on those bonds, at $23 million per year, for other critical budget purposes like helping the most vulnerable citizens in Tennessee, mentally ill and dependent and neglected children in need of services.

Other highlights of the budget, SB 2355, include:

  • Keeping the employee pension fund actuarially sound
  • Not accelerating the number of employee positions cut from the governor’s plan
  • Keeping the state health insurance program fully funded
  • Funding unemployment benefit increases and extended benefits

“Tennessee cannot act like Washington and just print more money,” Norris continued. We must act responsibly as stewards of the people’s money. We must take a fiscally responsible approach to make sure we can weather any further deterioration in our economy.”

Legislation advances in Senate Finance Committee to set up Silver Alert System to locate missing seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias

Legislation creating a “Silver Alert System” that would work like the “Amber Alert System” to help locate missing individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias has advanced in the State Senate with approval by the Senate Finance Committee this week. The bill, SB 532 sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), calls for local law enforcement agencies to coordinate with non-profit organizations such as “A Child is Missing” or the “Alzheimer’s Association” to aid in their efforts to put the program in place.

“We already have much of the framework through the Amber Alert Program to put a Silver Alert Program in place,” said Senator McNally. “Like the national Amber Alert program, this bill calls on local law enforcement agencies to work in tandem with the media and transportation officials in alerting the public of a missing senior.”

The bill defines “missing senior citizen” as a person 60 years or older whose “whereabouts are unknown” and who has “an impaired mental condition as determined by a local law enforcement agency.” The Silver Alert would be triggered if that missing person is believed to be in danger because of environmental or weather conditions or is thought to be unable to return to safety without assistance.

Approximately 100,000 Tennesseans and as many as 5.2 million persons nationwide are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The Silver Alert system is working in eight states and has resulted in the safe return of a majority of those reported.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has reported that six in 10 of those with Alzheimer’s disease will wander away and become disoriented. Half of those who wander are found within five miles of their home. Of those not found within 24 hours, half will be seriously injured or die.

“There is a critical 24-hour time period in which to locate missing seniors,” added McNally. “The Silver Alert program is designed to disseminate quickly descriptive information about the missing person so that citizens in the affected area can be on the lookout for the endangered person and notify local law enforcement with any relevant information.”

“This legislation brings a community to the aid of our seniors in such a crisis to take advantage of the short window of time needed to bring these vulnerable citizens home to avert a tragedy,” McNally concluded.

Senate Finance Committee approves legislation to form
Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance

Language in bill keeps Ethics Board independent

The Senate Finance Committee has voted to merge the Tennessee Ethics Commission and the Registry of Election Finance, keeping the boards independent but under one umbrella named the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance. The measure, if approved by the full Senate, continues the commission and provides that all ethics provisions remain in tact.

A separate bill to continue the Commission in its current form was taken off notice in the House of Representatives. The Commission will expire July 1 unless other legislative action is taken.

“The language of the bill provides that there will be two boards that are still independent,” said Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), who sponsored the legislation. “Not one law or one rule is abolished or diluted under the bill. This legislation allows the two boards to share resources, which will save the state money.”

The Bureau will be composed of two independent divisions, the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance and the Tennessee Ethics Commission. It will be governed by a board of directors composed of six members of the Registry of Election Finance and six members of the Ethics Commission. The Bureau will remain attached to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Dick Williams, State Chairman of Common Cause, a watchdog agency for matter pertaining to open government and ethics, agreed with Ketron that the bill did not weaken current ethics legislation. “This is a good way to handle a situation of concern to everybody,” said Williams.

Resolution sends message Tennessee does not want to house GITMO Detainees

The Tennessee State Senate voted this week to oppose bringing any detainees now housed at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility into any Tennessee prisons. The Resolution, SJR 381, is sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).

“This is just an action to prevent the transfer or release of known terrorists into our backyard in Tennessee,” said Senator Tracy. “Our citizens are opposed to bringing these detainees into our state.”

The bill expresses opposition to the utilization of any local, state, federal or private jail, prison or detention facility in Tennessee. A copy of the resolution will be sent to President Barak Obama and each member of Tennessee’s Congressional Delegation.

“This resolution is meant to send Congress a message that we do not want them housed in our state,” Tracy added. “I am pleased it received overwhelming approval in our State Senate.”

The resolution was approved by a vote of 29 to 1. The bill is still pending action in the House of Representatives.

Senate passes and sends to governor legislation preventing any locality in Tennessee from becoming a “sanctuary city” for illegal aliens

State Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) won passage this week of legislation preventing any city in Tennessee from becoming a “sanctuary city” for illegal aliens. A “sanctuary city” is a term given to a city in the United States that follows certain practices to protect illegal aliens. Thirty-eight cities in the U.S. have been recognized as sanctuary cities, but many sources have identified over 200 city or county governments nationwide as having practiced such policies.

The measure prohibits local governments or the head of such localities from passing any ordinances or policies that allows for a sanctuary city to be located in Tennessee. The bill is designed to be a pre-emptive strike to guard against the adoption of any policies to protect those who are in the United States illegally. It also urges the State Attorney General and local governments to pursue any federal funds allocated to combat illegal immigration.

“This legislation will prevent any town from even considering becoming a sanctuary city,” said Senator Tracy. “There is a high cost to illegal immigration for our cities, counties and state. I am pleased this legislation was approved.”

The bill, SB 1310, now goes to the governor for his signature.

State Senate passes and sends to governor bill to extend service of school buses

The State Senate has approved legislation sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) authorizing local education agencies (LEAs) to extend the use of school buses for two more years as long as they do not exceed 200,000 miles and meet certain safety requirements. The legislation, SB 23, gives school boards more tools to plan their transportation budget needs.

“This bill saves local governments money while enhancing safety for students riding the buses due to increased inspections for these vehicles,” said Senator Yager. “It is a win-win situation for all concerned.”

Currently, education boards may use a school bus for 12 years, at which time the Commissioner of Education may grant waivers for an additional three years on a year-to-year basis upon meeting the requirements similar to those of conventional school buses. Under the bill, LEAs would be authorized to ask for a waiver to use a bus up to 17 years, as long as it does not exceed the 200,000-mile cap and is inspected at least twice annually. The inspectors could mandate needed repairs.

Any bus reaching the 200,000 limit would have to be replaced within 90 days. The local agencies would be required to maintain records of all actions and safety inspections performed on the bus from its in-service date for the Tennessee Department of Safety.

“School buses are built to last a long time provided they are serviced regularly,” added Yager. “I am pleased we came to a resolution on this legislation that will help our local governments in planning their transportation needs and makes sure we put safety first for our students.”

Bills in Brief

Election Commission — Two new Republican commissioners were added to the Tennessee Election Commission after the nominees were confirmed in a joint legislative session of the General Assembly this week. The move to place the two members, Kent Younce of LaFollette and Judy Blackburn of Morristown, on the Commission honors a long-standing state law to give the majority party in the Tennessee General Assembly a one vote edge on the State Election Commission. Republicans took control of both houses of the State Legislature as a result of the vote last November. Blackburn is the first woman in Tennessee history to serve on the State Election Commission.

Tennessee Transportation Infrastructure Fund — Legislation that would provide a vehicle for local governments to finance and complete local transportation projects was approved by the full Senate this week. The bill would give local governments the option of applying for a low interest loan for eligible infrastructure projects with flexible repayment terms. The State Transportation Infrastructure Fund would also let Tennessee make application for a portion of $200 million in stimulus funds recently made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The bill, SB 2120 sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), now goes to the governor for his signature.

Jobs / Climate Change — The State Senate voted this week to approve a House Joint Resolution stating Tennessee should only combat global climate change and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases if a plan for doing so were structured in a manner to promote jobs; avoid imposing higher energy prices; reward early adopters of efficient practices and technologies; monitor and prevent “emissions leakage”; and champion and ensure the continued global competitiveness of American industry. Tennessee has already lost 106,600 manufacturing jobs since 2000. Manufacturing accounts for $40.9 billion of Tennessee gross state product. The resolution, HJR 323, was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown)

Family law / soldiers — A bill that would allow military personnel who have child visitation rights under a divorce decree to petition the court to transfer those rights to a relative when he or she is sent overseas cleared the full Senate this week. The bill, SB 1267 sponsored by Senator Dewayne Bunch (R-Cleveland), authorizes a court to grant a parent’s petition to assign visitation rights to a relative if the court finds that the visitation would be in the child’s best interests. The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

Tennessee declares state’s sovereignty — The full Senate voted to approve a resolution claiming Tennessee’s “sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” The proposal, HJR 108, is designed to send Congress a message that the federal government has overstepped its Constitutional bounds by mandating a massive amount of federal policies upon the states in violation of the Amendment. The language of the Tenth Amendment is clear and concise that the federal government’s powers are limited to a specific set of activities. Twenty-eight states have approved similar resolutions.

TVA / ALCOA — Legislation was approved this week in the State Senate urging the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Board of Directors to enter into a long-term contract with Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). The resolution, SJR 622 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), sends a message to Congress and the TVA that Tennessee believes it is critical to finalize this contract. Approximately 500 jobs are dependent on restarting the smelter at Alcoa, which is in turn, dependent upon completion of a competitive long-term power contract. The bill calls for the resolution to be delivered to TVA’s Board of Directors and each member of the Tennessee Congressional delegation.

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