June 18, 2009

Legislature passes budget before adjourning 2009 legislative session

The Tennessee General Assembly wrapped up the 2009 legislative session this week after passing a budget and approving a major new charter schools law. The $29.6 billion balanced budget comes after the unprecedented loss of over $1.2 billion in revenue in Tennessee due to the state’s declining economy.

The appropriations bill amends the governor’s budget to reflect a more fiscally responsible budget that better plans for difficult economic times, borrows less, has more protection for the Rainy Day (savings) Fund and is closer to balancing recurring and nonrecurring expenditures.

“This was the most difficult year I have ever been through with the tremendous loss of revenue in our state this year due to the economic downturn,” said Finance Chairman Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). McNally is a 30-year veteran legislator who has long been one of the state’s foremost authorities on the state budget.

Senate Republicans worked to reduce the overall budget by $40 million and won passage of several other fiscally sound provisions included in the bill like one calling for the impoundment of $55 million in case the state falls short of estimates at the close of the 2008-2009 budget year. The provision calls for the governor to identify reductions if revenues fall short and to utilize those impounded funds so the state can close the books without having to dig deeper into the Rainy Day Fund. The Rainy Day Fund will be essential next year if the economic conditions worsen and when federal stimulus money dries up.

Other budget provisions included in the final version of the bill adds back $5 million in support grants for mental health, $4.9 million in grants for the coordinated school health program and $4.5 million more for the Department of Children’s Services to help dependent and neglected children.

On bonds, the governor had asked the legislature to authorize $350 million in bonds for bridge work and repair this year. Senate Republicans won approval of a much more cautious approach to the bond authorization as reflected in a provision to incur only one-forth of those bonds this year. The portion, which is $87.5 million, would only occur if there are not additional highway flex stimulus funds available. If stimulus money is available the bond authorization would be cancelled, under the bill. The General Assembly will take a year-to-year approach to phasing in the remainder of the four-year bond authorization to make sure the revenues are sufficient each year to pay for the bond plan.

Senate Republicans also made sure that language was placed into the bill requiring legislative oversight of any budget expansion requests. This will assure federal expenditures of $5 billion in federal stimulus dollars coming into the state have the appropriate legislative checks and balances required by the state’s Constitution.

It has been the practice in recent years that when the General Assembly is out of session expansion request, also called supplemental appropriations, are recognized and acknowledged through a signature of the Senate and House Finance Committee Chairmen and sent back to the administration who dispenses the funds. New language included in the bill takes the next step in the direction of clarifying a better procedure and is in accordance with the Constitutional requirement.

“We will continue to work on that process,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris. “I raise it to give the taxpaying public assurance that it is truly teamwork, the executive branch has a lot of discretion in this state, the legislative branch also has responsibilities and we will endeavor to exercise it appropriately.”

Another change implemented by Senate Republicans requires the administration to notify each entity receiving non-recurring money in writing that their funds will expire in 2009-2010 or the subsequent year.

“The notification gives the appropriate notice to these entities receiving this non-recurring money that they need to seek alternative funding in future years,” added Norris.

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.

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

Public charter school bill approved as legislature closes 2009 session

Major education reform legislation that strengthens Tennessee’s public charter school law was among the final bills approved by the General Assembly as the 2009 session wrapped up this week in Nashville. The legislation, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) widens eligibility, clarifies funding and addresses rules for renewal of the public charter schools.

Previously, Tennessee had one of the most restrictive public charter school laws in the nation. The bill also puts into place a process so the best practices gained from the “laboratories of learning” go into traditional school programs.

“A one size fits all strategy for education shortchanges students and their families,” said Woodson. “Effective and accountable public charter schools are a vital component to a broad strategy to offer excellent public education for the children of our great state.”

Charter schools are public schools that are given flexibility to operate without the constraints of some of the rules and regulations normally imposed on traditional schools. In exchange for this flexibility, they are held accountable for performance through a charter, which is an agreement between the local education agency (LEA) and the charter school. It requires a strenuous approval process by the LEA and an equally tough renewal process of the charter every five years.

The legislation, SB 2133, addresses four provisions in the current charter school law.

  • Eligibility — Currently, public charter school enrollment is limited primarily to failing students and those from failing schools. This legislation permits “at-risk” children (as defined by free and reduced-price lunch) to attend charter schools in those systems that have 14,000 or more students and three or more schools which do not meet adequate yearly progress benchmarks. In addition, school boards can opt by a two-thirds vote to allow students who are “at risk” to be eligible to attend charter schools.
  • Caps — Currently public charter schools are limited to 50 statewide, with a cap of 35 in Memphis and 20 in Nashville. This bill says that converted charter schools do not count against the cap, clarifying in law what the Attorney General has already opined. In addition the number of charter schools statewide would be limited to 90.
  • Renewal process – Currently, the charter agreement between the LEA and the charter school is renewed every five years. This measure would change the renewal period from five to ten years, with an interim report every five years. It also establishes the required documentation needed during the renewal process.
  • Funding – Currently a public charter school receives the per pupil expenditure of state and local dollars. Although it mentions appropriate federal dollars, interpretations vary from one LEA to the next. This legislation defines the state and local charter school facilities funding responsibilities and clarifies the LEAs must allocate all appropriate federal funds, including Title I and ESEA funds, to the charter schools.

“We now have a much improved public charter statue which provides on strong option in our portfolio of strong public choices for Tennesseans,” Woodson concluded.

General Assembly passes legislation strengthening Crooks with Guns Law

The final day of the legislative session also included approval of legislation cracking down on violent crime in Tennessee that builds on the “Crooks with Guns Law” passed during the last General Assembly. The bill, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) adds attempted first degree murder to the Crooks with Guns Law.

“Tennessee ranks second in the nation in the number of violent crimes,” said Senator Norris. “This legislation would work to keep those offenders off the street where they are no longer a danger to the public.”

Sixty-seven percent of those convicted of violent crimes are re-arrested within three years of being released from prison. The recidivism rate increases to 80 percent when you move past that three-year marker.

The original “Crooks with Guns” legislation made it an additional offense to be armed with a firearm when committing a list of dangerous felonies like aggravated and especially aggravated kidnapping, burglary, stalking, carjacking, voluntary manslaughter, and certain drug crimes.

“Protection of our citizens should be one of our first priorities,” added Overbey. “These are not petty criminals. These are offenders that have no fear of using a firearm to kill their victim in commission of a crime.”

The bill, SB 672 , would add a minimum of three years to the sentence of a violator who possesses a firearm during the commission of attempted first-degree murder, to be served after the underlying offense. If a violator possesses a firearm during the commission of the attempted first-degree murder and has a prior felony conviction, then a mandatory minimum of five years would be added to the sentence.

In addition, if a violator possesses a firearm during the commission or an attempt to commit a dangerous felony or attempting to escape, then a mandatory minimum of six years is added to the sentence to be served after the underlying offense. A prior felony conviction from this would add 10 years onto the sentence.

The General Assembly also approved another bill aimed at keeping repeat violent criminals convicted of aggravated burglary behind bars longer by counting each felony committed within a 24-hour period as a separate offense.

Under current law, with few exceptions, felonies committed within a 24-hour period constitute one conviction for the purpose of determining prior convictions by the court. This bill, SB 2115 also sponsored by Norris and Overbey, requires all aggravated burglaries a defendant commits within a 24-hour period to be counted as separate prior convictions for purposes of determining whether the defendant is a multiple, persistent, or career offender under the Criminal Sentencing Reform Act.

Both of these bills aim to provide safety to our citizens by keeping these violent repeat offenders locked up,” Norris added. “We must make public safety a priority of state government so our citizens feel secure in their own communities.”

Bills in Brief

Small business investment — Legislation to establish “The Tennessee Small Business Investment Company Credit Act (TSBIA)” was approved during the final hours of the 2009 legislative session. The bill is an effort to provide benefits to small, medium-sized, and start-up businesses that do not enjoy the same economic development incentives that have been provided to the larger companies that invest capital in Tennessee. The proposal, SB 1203 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would channel $120 million to local businesses for expansion and working capital to increase jobs immediately. Insurance companies have large pools of untapped capital. The TSBIA is a mechanism to entice these companies to invest that capital in Tennessee small businesses.

Silver Alert System — 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 was approved by the General Assembly and sent to the governor for his signature. 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. 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.

Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance — The General Assembly 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, SB 162 sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), provides that all ethics provisions remain intact. The Commission would have expired on July 1 unless other legislative action was taken.

Funds / Planned Parenthood – Legislation to ensure that family planning funds go to public women’s health services providers before private applicants was approved during the last week’s action. The bill 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. 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 legislation, SB 470 sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), says you must exhaust all other avenues in the public sector before moving to private providers.

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