Senator Mark Norris
9A Legislative Plaza,
Nashville, Tennessee 37243-0232
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©2017 Mark Norris
April 18, 2015
State Senators approve balanced budget in preparation to adjourn 2015 legislative session
As the Tennessee General Assembly prepared to enter the final week of the 2015 legislative session, state senators acted on the state budget bills. The Senate voted 32 to 1 to approve Senate Bill 1399, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which funds state government for the 2015-2016 fiscal year that begins July 1. The $33.79 billion balanced budget invests primarily in education and workforce development, while continuing a thoughtful approach to making government work more efficiently and effectively. The appropriations bill, which assumes a conservative three percent revenue growth rate, expands by only 2.3 percent.
“This budget invests in Tennessee’s future by focusing on education and jobs,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “We have made significant progress over the last four years moving Tennessee forward, and this budget will continue to us move full speed ahead.”
The budget reflects an additional $200 million in budget reductions. Norris said strategic cuts have allowed the Governor and the General Assembly to shift money realized by the savings to improve education and increase opportunities for more high quality jobs. With this budget, Governor Haslam and the General Assembly will have reduced government spending by $450 million.
“We all hear from constituents who talk about reducing the size of state government,” Norris said. “We have been doing that for the last four years and continue to do it here. It is a remarkable accomplishment.”
At the same time, state spending on K-12 education over the past four years has increased at a rate more than double the national average. The proposed budget includes nearly $44 million in new money to account for growth in the Basic Education Program, $100 million for increasing teacher salaries and $5 million to create the Educators’ Liability Trust fund to offer liability insurance to teachers at no cost.
Other highlights of the budget include:
The budget also reflects $300 million in improvements due to Franchise and Excise tax collections exceeding estimates in an unusual one-time event along with other revenue collections and program savings. The budget amendment proposes to use the funds as follows: $120 million for a new Tennessee State Museum which will be matched with $40 million in private donations; $57 million for economic development projects to help bring more high-quality jobs to Tennessee; $40 million to complete renovations of the Cordell Hull building; $12 million for maintenance and improvements to higher education facilities across the state; $5 million to fund new equipment in Tennessee’s Colleges of Applied Technology to meet job training demands across the state; and, $1.9 million for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to fund adolescent residential alcohol and drug treatment grants.
The budget provides for an additional $76.5 million for the Rainy Day Fund, bringing the total reserve to 5.48 percent of state revenues. This is the highest level since 2008. The Rainy Day Fund acts as the state’s savings account in case of an emergency and helps ensure the state’s financial stability with credit rating agencies.
Tennessee’s sound financial practices have earned the state top-notch credit ratings with Wall Street rating agencies. This credit rating helps determine how much interest state and local governments must pay when they borrow money to fund projects such as new schools and roads.
Community College Reconnect Grant Bill meets final approval
The State Senate approved major legislation sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) on Monday which will launch a pilot program to help adults complete their degree in Tennessee’s community colleges. Senate Bill 605, which is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, establishes a Community College Reconnect Grant which is a last-dollar scholarship to adults who want to return to community college and complete their associate’s degree in applied science.
“This will be of tremendous benefit to citizens across the state who want to complete their associate’s degree,” said Senator Green. “Besides the personal benefit this bill provides for citizens and their families, it will boost our efforts to attract new and better paying jobs. We know that to be successful on our “Drive to 55” we must bolster our focus on the recruitment, retention and completion of adults in with post-secondary degrees or certification.”
Under the bill, adults who meet all of the qualifications can enroll in a Tennessee public community college in the 2016-2017 academic year. Key qualifications to receive the grant include Tennessee residency for at least one year preceding the date of application for the grant; completion of at least 30 hours towards completing an associate of applied science degree; and, an adjusted gross income of less than $36,000. Grant recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA and enroll in at least 9 semester hours in the fall and spring semesters. In order to fund this program, there will be a one-time expense to the lottery fund of $1.5 million, which will cover roughly 800 recipients.
The funds for the bill, which is also sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville, Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), are included in the appropriations bill approved by the Senate on Thursday.
Senate Approves Several Key Bills as General Assembly prepares to close 2015 Legislative Session
The State Senate approved several key education bills this week as the General Assembly prepares to close the 2015 legislative session. This includes Senate Bill 1021, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), which encourages and authorizes Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to adopt as their course of instruction in character education the Congressional Medal of Honor Character Development Program. Under the bill, the program could be adapted for the appropriate grade levels and integrated into a number of academic subjects including government, history, sociology, language arts, leadership and mathematics. Tennessee requires character development as part of the academic standards.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Character Development Program has been endorsed by a number of school systems across the nation, but Tennessee was the first state to endorse its use statewide under legislation sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) and approved by the General Assembly last year. The curriculum includes the six characteristics promoted by the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients: courage, commitment, sacrifice, patriotism, integrity and citizenship. The program is provided free online and accessible by any public school.
Individualized Education Act – Members of the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation this week to give parents of children with special needs the flexibility to direct their child’s funding to the school’s courses, programs and services that best fit the student’s needs through an Individualized Education Account (IEA). Senate Bill 27 is named the “Individualized Education Act” and is designed to help children with the most severe disabilities whose current school situation is not meeting their needs. In order to be eligible to participate in an IEA, a student must have an individualized education plan (IEP).
“While public schools generally work well with these special needs children, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for some of these families,” said Sen. Gresham, who is sponsoring the bill. “Many of these families are financially burdened due to the cost of caring for their children. The burden financially prohibits many parents from being able to seek alternative arrangements for their child if the current school system is not working for them. This program is designed to help these families lacking options.”
GED / HiSet / HOPE Scholarship — Students who score a minimum of 15 on the HiSET test would be eligible for the HOPE scholarship under legislation sponsored by Sen. Gresham and approved by the Senate Finance Committee this week. Senate Bill 624 also revises the required GED score under the HOPE scholarship eligibility requirements to conform to the scale used for the new version of the test, setting a score of 170 to qualify.
The legislation authorizes a student who met the GED, HiSET, ACT and SAT test score requirements to be awarded a HOPE scholarship in the 2014-2015 academic year for the 2013-2014 academic year provided that the student is not otherwise ineligible for the scholarship and is enrolled in the 2014-2015 academic year in an eligible postsecondary institution.
HOPE Scholarships / Military Children — Another bill which passed this week addressing HOPE Scholarship eligibility specifies that dependent children of members of the Armed Forces and the Tennessee National Guard must qualify as in-state students at the time of application, rather that at the time of enrollment. Senate Bill 461 closes a loophole so that children who move due to their parent’s deployment or reassignment would not be penalized and charged out-of-state tuition in Tennessee’s colleges and universities. The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville).
Sex Offenders / Correctional Officers — Correctional officers who are convicted of having sexual contact with prisoners would have to register as sex offenders under legislation approved by the full Senate. Senate Bill 853, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), closes a loophole in the law that has allowed these officers to be free from the Registry requirement that is mandated for other sexual offenders. The proposal was brought to Overbey by representatives of the Sheriff’s office of Davidson County who felt that the loophole needed to be closed. “These correctional officers are there to guard and protect,” Overbey said. “This conduct is unacceptable and should be treated like other sexual offenses in the severity of the crime.”
Biosimilars / Prescription Drugs – The Senate adopted a minor amendment and sent to the governor legislation that would reduce healthcare costs for patients using prescription drugs. Coined “biosimilars,” these drugs have the same effectiveness as name-brand drugs but are biologically different. Because they are legally in a different category from chemical pharmaceuticals, they are not covered under the current generic substitution laws; so the law needed to be updated to include them. Senate Bill 984 provides for the substitution of interchangeable biological product for the name brand product and addresses the communication required by a pharmacist to the prescriber of what product was dispensed when there is an approved substitute the first time the medicine is dispensed. Allowing for the substitution of FDA approved interchangeable products will significantly decrease the cost to consumers. While there are no currently FDA approved interchangeable products, the first biosimilar was approved on March 6, with four other applications pending.
Health Care Costs / Medication Therapy Management — Another measure seeking to control the cost of healthcare urges the Bureau of TennCare to incorporate Medication Therapy Management (MTM) into its healthcare delivery system. Senate Joint Resolution 104, sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), aims at improving patient outcomes, while controlling costs. “We’ve seen a great increase in costs in the prescription drug program,” said McNally. “Unfortunately that is not being driven by an increase in charges at the local pharmacy, but by prices charged for some of the new medications to treat some of the viral infections, such as Hepatitis C, and an increase in the cost of generic drugs.” Medication therapy management is a term used to describe a broad range of health care services provided by pharmacists, the medication experts on the health care team. It helps patients get the best benefits from their medications by actively managing drug therapy and by identifying, preventing and resolving medication-related problems. Medication-related problems and medication mismanagement are a massive public health problem in the United States. Experts estimate that 1.5 million preventable adverse events occur each year that result in $177 billion in injury and death.
Resolution Calls for Medicaid Block Grant — State Senators have approved a resolution sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally urging the United States Department of Health and Human Services to approve a block grant to Tennessee for Medicaid funds. Senate Joint Resolution 103 states such action would join federal and state funds to enable citizens in the state with incomes of less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line and persons covered under the existing TennCare II waiver, to obtain health insurance coverage without increasing the federal debt and within existing state funds. “The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care, as amended has created an inequity when persons between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for federal subsidies to obtain health insurance coverage but persons with incomes below 100 percent are ineligible for those subsidies and are left to differing coverages of the Medicaid system,” the resolution notes. “The block granting of federal Medicaid funds would be revenue neutral to the state and to the federal government in the present and in the future without increasing the federal debt.” In the 1979-1980 fiscal year, Medicaid cost Tennessee $116,000,000. TennCare now costs the state approximately $3,400,000,000.
Tennessee Drivers Licenses – State Senators voted this week to increase the time period a driver’s license is valid from five to eight years. Senate Bill 209, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), would cut the wait time at the state’s driver’s license centers, as well as provide greater convenience to license holders. The move means the state would issue approximately 900,000 licenses per year, instead of the current level of 1.5 million.
Achieving a Better Life Experience Program — The Senate acted this week to approve a bill establishing a “Achieving a Better Life Experience,” or the “ABLE” program in accordance with federal legislation that was passed this past December. Senate Bill 1162, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), authorizes the State Treasurer to establish the ABLE program to offer tax advantage investment plans consistent with the law for disabled individuals to pay for expenses including but not limited to education, housing, transportation, employment, employment training and support, assisted technology, personal support services and funeral and burial expenses. The purpose of this legislation is to encourage and assist individuals and families to save private funds to support individuals with disabilities. The private funds saved through the ABLE program would supplement benefits provided through private insurance and medical benefits, supplemental social security income, the accounts beneficiary income as well as other sources to help these citizens with essential needs of life.
Diabetic Supplies / Sales Tax – State Senators voted on Thursday in favor of legislation that would exempt from the state and local sales tax the sale of diabetic testing supplies. Senate Bill 33, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would exempt lancets, test strips for blood glucose monitors, visual read test strips, and urine test strips from the sales tax in line with other exemptions for medical purposes.
Justice for Rape Victims—Legislation which aims to provide justice for victims of rape has been approved on final consideration. Senate Bill 981, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), sets up procedures for the collection and storage of rape kits and requires law enforcement agencies to submit kits to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) for testing within 60 days. It also directs the Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council to develop a model policy for law enforcement agencies for responding to reports of sexual assault and requires law enforcement agencies to adopt a written policy on responding to reports of sexual assaults. The General Assembly approved legislation last year to require all local law enforcement agencies to inventory back-logged rape kits across the state. Last September, the TBI reported 9,062 kits remained untested statewide. In 2013, Memphis reported an initial backlog of 12,000 kits which now has been reduced by over 5,000.
Elected Attorney General — State Senators approved a resolution on Tuesday that would allow Tennessee voters to decide if they want to popularly elect the state’s attorney general (AG). Senate Joint Resolution 63, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), begins the process of amending the State Constitution, which if approved, would go to voters in the 2018 general election. Unlike any other state, Tennessee’s AG is appointed by the justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court for a term of eight years. The resolution calls for the AG to serve a six-year term, but would limit it to two consecutive terms. It requires approval by the 109th General Assembly currently in session, and the 110th which will take office in 2017, before going to voters in a statewide referendum in 2018.
Healthcare / Veterans — Legislation sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville) designed to better support the healthcare needs of military men and women across the state was approved by the Senate on Wednesday. Senate Bill 1016 authorizes healthcare providers who are in the National Guard to provide volunteer clinic services in a Tennessee military armory for veterans in need. This provides healthcare services to veterans and other persons who lack health insurance at a free clinic operated on the site of an armory. Currently, no authorization is in place that allows these military members to provide such care. The new program will be referred to as the Mission Tennessee for Veterans Program.
Veterans’ Courts — A successful Veteran’s Court pilot program will be extended across Tennessee under legislation sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) which received State Senate approval on Thursday. Senate Bill 711 increases the assessment fee charged to convicted DUI offenders to fund the expansion of the courts. The state currently operates veterans courts in Shelby County, Montgomery County and Davidson County which have given service members in Tennessee the option of pursuing treatment and recovery programs, rather than incarceration.