(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), January 16, 2015 — The 109th General Assembly has begun as state lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to take the oath of office, elect officers and organize the business of the 2015-2016 legislative sessions. Families and friends crowded the Senate chamber and watched proudly as 17 of the State Senate’s members took the oath of office, which was the first order of business during the organizational session. The Senate Majority Caucus welcomed four new members to the Tennessee Senate: Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) and Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield).
The second order of business was the election of Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey. Ramsey who also serves as Speaker of the Senate, is serving his fifth term as Lt. Governor of Tennessee.
“To the people of Tennessee, I stand before you once again determined to keep the promise of prosperity that you deserve,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey, after being re-elected. “Tennessee’s reputation and accomplishments tower above every other state in the union. Tennessee truly is the best state in the nation in which to live, work and raise a family.”
General Assembly re-elects State Treasurer and Comptroller
The opening week of the 109th General Assembly was also marked by re-election of two of the state’s constitutional officers, the treasurer and comptroller of the treasury. The state’s constitution provides that the legislature selects the offices in a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives during the organizational session of each General Assembly.
Elected and sworn in were David Lillard as State Treasurer and Justin Wilson as Comptroller, both who are serving their third term in these positions. The comptroller audits state agencies and county governments to ensure they are run well. The treasurer keeps track of the state’s coffers, its investments and its pension funds.
While the Treasurer and Comptroller serve two-year terms, the third constitutional officer, Tennessee’s Secretary of State, serves a four-year term. Secretary of State Tre Hargett is beginning his third year of that term after being elected by the General Assembly in 2013. The three constitutional officers serve on several key boards together, such as the State Building Commission, which maintains all state-owned public buildings; the Funding Board, which helps guide budgeting; and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which helps provide citizens with affordable housing.
“I am very proud of the work our constitutional officers have done over the last six years,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “They have made many major improvements to make Tennessee state government work more efficiently and effectively which benefits all Tennesseans.”
Budget, Healthcare, Education, Jobs are Top Issues in 2015 Legislative Session
With organizational tasks out of the way, the General Assembly can now get to work on the issues facing Tennessee. Although state spending in a tight budget year will be the predominant driver for legislative action, other top issues on the legislative agenda in 2015 are jobs, education, public safety and legislation stemming from the ratification of the constitutional amendments passed by voters in November.
The first issue which lawmakers will tackle, however, is healthcare as Governor Bill Haslam has called a Special Session to consider his plan to expand Medicaid coverage to about 200,000 adult Tennesseans utilizing federal funds authorized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Article III, Section 23 of Tennessee’s Constitution gives Governor Haslam the authority to call the “extraordinary” session through a proclamation. It also states that the General Assembly “shall enter on no legislative business except that for which they were specifically called together.” The special session, which is the 58th in Tennessee history, is set to begin on February 2.
The State Funding Board met in December to reevaluate Tennessee’s economic condition and set a new growth rate of 2.6% to 3% upon which the 2015-16 budget year will be based. This compares to an estimated growth rate of 3.85 to 4.2% last year and equates to approximately $300 million in new revenues.
“Rising healthcare costs to the state’s TennCare program combined with inflationary growth for the state’s Basic Education Program present budget challenges for Tennessee in 2015,” said Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). “This is compounded by sluggish revenue growth that shows the state, as well as the nation, are still recovering economically. These factors make it very difficult to find discretionary money for other needed improvements.”
Some of the other issues on tap for this year include:
- Taxes — Even though it is a tight budget year, expect broad discussion of legislation to provide tax relief to Tennesseans, including proposals to phase out the state’s Hall Income Tax.
- Jobs — On the jobs front, legislators will continue efforts to create new and better paying jobs in Tennessee. Over the past several years, the General Assembly has made great strides in preparing students for the 21st century marketplace and in creating a business-friendly climate which draws new and better paying jobs to our state. These efforts include passage of a number of job creation initiatives such as tort reform, unemployment reform and workers’ compensation reform.
- Constitutional Amendments — Voters ratified four new amendments to Tennessee’s Constitution during the November 4 elections spurring new legislation regarding three of them for the 2015 legislative session. This includes legislation to restore commonsense protections for abortion; action calling for appellate judges to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature; and a measure giving veterans groups the authority to conduct an annual “game of chance” fundraising event for charitable purposes.
- Education – Among key K-12 education issues on tap this year is the evaluation of Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math in Tennessee. The standards, which are currently in force in 43 states, have come under fire by various groups. In October, Governor Haslam appointed advisory teams to review Tennessee’s current standards and gather input to make recommendations to two committees, which will then propose changes to the State Board of Education. In the meantime, legislation has been proposed that would give the task of recommending new standards to a new Tennessee Standards Commission. A separate bill has been filed that would end the current Common Core State Standards and calls upon the State Board of Education to adopt new “Volunteer State” standards. The General Assembly will also consider requiring high school students to pass a civics test before graduation and scholarship vouchers for low income students in the state’s worst performing schools.
- Crime / Human Trafficking — The General Assembly has made considerable progress in fighting meth, prescription drug abuse, gang violence and human trafficking over the past several years but expect legislation to protect the public to continue in 2015. This includes legislation calling for improved training for law enforcement officers and other officials who investigate or prosecute human trafficking, as well as those who provide assistance to victims of the crime. Also expect legislation to be debated to curb domestic violence.
Redesign of General Assembly’s State Website Provides Greater Transparency of Legislative Process
As the 2015 legislative session opens, citizens can access more information about the issues and proceedings through a redesigned and improved General Assembly website. The redesign represents a substantial effort to make the website more usable, accessible and informative.
The new format supports all major mobile devices for streaming video, as the site will shrink, bend or move to adapt to the screen size. This improvement provides desktop content to users with smaller screens such as iPhones, iPads and Android devices.
In addition, a new content sensitive search engine makes it easier for users to navigate the site. Other improvements include a new web design feature which lets the general public set up an unlimited number of lists in the “my bills” application. This allows users to keep up with the latest developments on issues of importance to them. Action history flags highlight which chamber took action to make it easier to track bills through the legislative process.
The main page features the current schedule of meetings, giving citizens easy access to live video streaming of meetings. The website also provides access to previous meetings which are archived on the site.
“The Tennessee General Assembly offers extensive information through our website,” said Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). “The redesign is full of enhancements that make the site more customer-focused and friendly than ever before. As technologies have advanced, so has our ability to bring government directly into the homes of our citizens. The new improvements provide greater transparency about our 2015 proceedings than in previous history as we continue to work to give the public more information about their state legislature.”
The General Assembly has received awards and national recognition for their website, including the Online Democracy Award and the Digital Governance Award. The website can be accessed at: http://capitol.tn.gov/
In addition, Tennessee’s public broadcasting stations (PBS) will continue live and tape-delayed broadcasts of legislative meetings. Citizens can check with their local public television station for the weekly schedule of legislative coverage.
Legislators, Cabinet Members, Supreme Court Justices, Constitutional Officers and Attorney General prepare to pack meals for Tennessee Food Banks
Members of the Tennessee General Assembly, the Governor’s cabinet, and the Supreme Court will join the state’s constitutional officers and the Attorney General in a major effort to restock Tennessee’s food banks. The “Campaign Against Hunger” event, which is sponsored by state lawmakers in conjunction with Outeach, Inc, will take place on Friday, January 16 at 10:00 am in the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville.
“As we prepare to tackle public safety, education and workforce development issues, it is important to remember that hunger is a factor,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) who, as Chairman of the Council of State Governments last year, led national efforts to combat nutrition and food insecurity. “Food insecurity has been shown to be closely related to health problems, including an increased risk in the development of chronic diseases. It can cause impairment of psychological and cognitive functioning among children and studies show that those who are seeking employment can be negatively affected in their search for work if they, or their family, are hungry. We hope that this project is only the beginning of widespread support by the public for addressing hunger in our state, which not only positively impacts the lives of individuals, but of our state as a whole.”
The group will package approximately 50,000 meals for food banks serving all 95 Tennessee counties. Norris said the event is timely as stock in the pantries is usually low after the holiday season.
“We are very grateful to the Tennessee General Assembly for putting a spotlight on food insecurity in Tennessee,” said Estella H. Mayhue-Greer, President and CEO of the Mid-South Food Bank. “The nutritious meals they will provide to food banks across the state are important to our mission to end hunger in our state.”
“The Wall of Faces” Recognition Presented to Tennessee Senators
Tennessee State Senator Mark Green today honored his colleagues in their joint efforts in putting faces with the heroes of Tennessee’s fallen listed on “The Wall” – the Washington, DC memorial constructed from black polished marble with the names of 58,300 men and women whose ultimate sacrifice was in service for the United States during the Vietnam War.
Senator Green, a US Army Veteran, joined fellow Tennessee Senators to locate photographs of the 1,295 Tennesseans who are listed on the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. A national effort, “The Wall of Faces” was launched in June 2014 to collect personal photos of these veterans to be used in a multi-media exhibit at the VVMF Education Center for permanent viewing by visitors and a digital version at the organization’s website.
“Last June when we kicked this effort off, our heart’s desire was to put a face to a name of those Tennessee citizens who gave the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam,” observed Green. “Each one of these individuals is more than a name on a wall. They were someone’s son, daughter, husband, wife, the star football player from high school, and so much more.”
All of Tennessee’s State Senators joined Senator Green in informing citizens across the state of the 580 names without a picture available for inclusion in the new memorial in DC. However, one senator went above and beyond the rest.
“Today, we recognize Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) for locating more pictures than any other senator. Chairman Crowe found 23 pictures of fallen veterans from his district,” noted Senator Green as he and his colleagues presented a framed print depicting a man paying his emotional respect as he leans against The Wall.
“I am humbled to have participated in such a unique project that pays tribute to our Vietnam Veterans,” said Crowe. “Such a small gesture will leave a lasting impression for generations to come.”
Mr. Rice joined Senator Green in presenting Vietnam Veterans Association certificates to Senator Crowe and the others recognized for their outstanding efforts to collect photographs: Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who collected twenty-two and Senator Ken Yager of Kingston, who collected sixteen.
“I am extremely proud to be a part of this project,” commented Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, “Honoring those individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our freedom is a high calling. I appreciate the work Senator Green has done to make sure these fallen veterans continue to be honored and remembered for generations to come.”
Currently, a virtual “Wall of Faces” is available for viewing at www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces. Photographs collected across the nation are displayed with a profile of each serviceman or woman available. Veterans’ whose photographs remain unavailable have only their names displayed.
Senator Ken Yager remarked, “Honoring our veterans and their families is such a wonderful part of serving the people of Tennessee. I appreciate the response from family and friends of these valiant veterans.”
Additional photographs may be submitted to www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces. Copies of the photos can be mailed to: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Attn: Call for Photos, 2600 Virginia Avenue, NW, Suite 104, Washington, DC 20037.
“Preserving our history to teach our children of their family’s sacrifices and our nation’s greatness is an added benefit,” commented Senator Green.