January 21, 2012

This was the first time in Tennessee history that Republicans held the redistricting pen. Communities of interest, the Voting Rights Act, the state and federal constitutions all hung in the balance. We championed the principle of “one person, one vote,” and created the first new majority-minority district resulting in more opportunities for African-American representation in the Senate than at any time since Reconstruction. In short, as the sponsor of the redistricting legislation, I worked with many on both sides of the aisle who, together, endeavored to render a plan that is not only legal but fair. To the best of our ability, this was done. History was made, and history will be our judge.

Mark

 

 

 

Budget and jobs headline 2012 legislative agenda/
Legislature adopts plan for House, Senate and Congressional Districts

The second session of the 107th General Assembly began on Tuesday, January 10, with a full array of issues on tap for 2012. Tennessee’s budget and job creation, however, will be the predominant drivers for legislative action. Evidence of this came as Governor Bill Haslam’s announced an aggressive legislative package. The Governor’s priorities include proposals designed to move Tennessee forward as the number one location in the Southeast for creation of high quality jobs through economic development efforts, meaningful education reform, a more efficient and effective state government, and improved public safety. 

Redistricting — The legislature wasted no time in getting down to business as lawmakers passed redistricting plans for the Tennessee Senate, House of Representatives and U.S. Congress. It is an arduous task that is required every 10 years after the census is completed. Early passage of the redistricting plans was designed to give potential candidates sufficient time to review district lines before the April 5 filing deadline.

The purpose of redistricting is to assure citizens equal representation. This right is rooted in both the federal and state constitutions and has been repeatedly ruled upon by the courts over the years, setting additional standards that must be followed regarding minority district representation. The most famous of these rulings is the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Baker v. Carr case, which laid the foundation for the “one man – one vote” standard required in redistricting nationwide.

In September, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey invited State Senators, as well as members of the public, to submit plans regarding district lines. Information was posted on the General Assembly’s website regarding the court and constitutional requirements. Only one congressional proposal, however, was submitted to the working group that drew a concept map that preceded the legislation submitted. Committee meetings regarding the redistricting legislation were open to the public and video streamed live. 

Speaking on the Senate Districts Plan, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said, “What we are required to do is to make a good faith effort to be fair and legal. The objective in exercising that good faith is to come up with 33 single-member, contiguous districts that comply with the State Constitution, the federal Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. That is why this is so difficult. We are balancing those competing interests.”

Norris sponsored all three of the redistricting bills in the State Senate. The final vote on the Senate redistricting bill was a bi-partisan 21 to 12 for passage.

Tennessee has a total population of 6.34 million citizens (up from 5.6 million in 2000), making the number of citizens per district to strive for 192,306 for each of the 33 State Senate districts and 64,102 for each of the 99 districts in the House of Representatives. TheU.S. Congressional districts are simply divided by 9 among the state’s total population for an ideal number of 705,123 citizens in each district.

The plans can be viewed on the General Assembly’s website at: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/senate/redist/redistricting.html

Under Democrat majorities, every redistricting plan constructed landed in court and was thrown out as unconstitutional – in 1972, 1976, 1982 and 1992. Only the 2002 plan went unchallenged, but has since been called vulnerable to court challenge.

Meth bill tightens loophole in the state’s Registry  

The Senate Judiciary Committee debated legislation that tightens a loophole in the state’s Meth Registry. Senate Bill 2190 adds those convicted of promoting the manufacture of methamphetamine and those who initiated a process intended to result in the manufacture of meth to the state’s Registry. In addition, the legislation requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to collect an identification number from those listed on the Registry so innocent citizens with similar names and birthdates do not run into a roadblock when they purchase pseudoephedrine.

Methamphetamine is a powerfully addictive and illegal stimulant commonly known on the street as “Meth,” “Speed,” or “Crank.” The highly addictive drug can cause serious irreversible damage to the body of the user. It can also cause severe damage to the environment due to the toxic chemicals used in “cooking” meth. Tennessee reported 2,082 meth lab incidents in 2010, which is up 41 percent from the previous year. 

The state’s Meth Registry was created by the General Assembly in 2005. Currently, 2,800 people are listed on the registry with 100 newly convicted persons added each month. That number, however, is expected to rise rapidly as a result of the “I Hate Meth Law” passed by the legislature last year. The law went into effect on January 1.

A vote on the bill was deferred until next week as lawmakers continue to look for the best identification method to ensure that innocent citizens who share the same name or birth date as an offender will not be denied purchases under the NPLEX system. 

Tennessee’s finances are sound says State Comptroller Justin Wilson

Tennessee is in “good sound fiscal condition” according to State Comptroller Justin Wilson, who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week to deliver his “State of Fiscal Affairs” report.  Wilson cited a balanced budget, low debt, a sound retirement plan, manageable retiree benefits, and a solvent unemployment trust fund as reasons that the state’s finances are in good shape.

“Not many states can say that,” Wilson said.  “This is a good place to be.”  He attributed the “willingness of the General Assembly to enact budgets that have forgone, reduced or eliminated expenses and services,” as another reason for Tennessee’s good financial standing.

Tennessee’s budget is nearly $32 billion, of which $11 billion is derived from state taxes and approximately $13 billion from federal revenue.   Wilson said the uncertainty in Washington regarding federal budget cuts leaves effects to state budgets largely unknown.  Governor Bill Haslam has made contingency plans to ensure that the state can operate efficiently if drastic federal cuts are made.  Local governments have also been advised to plan for reduced funding scenarios if they depend heavily on state and federal funds.

Wilson said the General Assembly must continue to reduce expenses, and the administration should increase the efficiency of state government operations in anticipation of the tough financial challenges Tennessee is likely to face in the future.

“Projected increases in state programs are growing faster than optimistic revenue increases that we project,” Wilson said. “The cost of items like the state insurance plan, TennCare, and required pension costs are rising faster than optimistic revenue expectations.”  This is in addition to any future legislative initiatives in which the General Assembly may want to enact that requires new spending, according to Wilson.

Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan (BEP) consumes about $3.8 billion, or 37 percent of state tax revenue, according to the report.  Wilson recommended a review of the formula to make it more transparent, verifiable and understandable.  “In its current state, the BEP is none of these,” added Wilson.

“As we continue to implement and evaluate education reform programs, we should focus on the integrity of the funding process,” said Wilson.
 
Future financial challenges cited in the Comptroller’s report to the Committee include:

  • Continuing to reduce expenses and create efficiencies;
  •  Funding increases already projected and planning for federal mandates, such as President Obama’s healthcare plan;
  • Making capital improvements and rebuilding the state’s reserves;
  • Maintaining strong credit ratings and a manageable state debt; and,
  • Improving financial reporting.  

Several of the state’s financial reporting software and computer operating systems that were put into place under previous administrations have been plagued with implementation issues, delays and other problems, including the Edison and TRUST systems. The TRUST system is used by the Department of Revenue, while Edison is the state’s computerized payroll and accounting system.  

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris took note of the irony regarding the state’s flawed software system named TRUST.   Norris is sponsoring legislation creating a new gift certificate program authorizing the sale of $35 gift vouchers for cultural and specialty earmarked license plates.  He postponed action on Senate Bill 353 last year due to the flawed system.

“It should be easy for folks to write checks to the state for plates that more than pay for themselves and add revenue to the coffers,” said Leader Norris.  “But we can’t trust TRUST.”

The specialty license plate program generates in excess of $4.5 million annually for the Tennessee Arts Commission which is the lead agency championing Tennessee’s cultural heritage and presentation of performing, visual and literary arts. Seventy six percent of its budget is funded by the specialty plate program. 

Issues in Brief 

CPR / Education The Senate Education Committee has approved legislation calling for schools to include hands-on practice in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) programs. The current wellness curriculum in schools require CPR training. Senate Bill 1680, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), ensures that this training includes hands-on practice as well. The training for CPR is often provided by local emergency personnel who give demonstrations for the students and the opportunity to practice the life-saving skill.  

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