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

(NASHVILLE, TN), January 13, 2012  – 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 this week.  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.  The U.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.

Governor Haslam’s Legislative Priorities Include Lowering Taxes on Food and Decedents Estates
 
Among Governor Haslam’s 2012 priorities is a proposal to reduce the state portion of the sales tax on grocery food from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent, with the goal of lowering it to 5.0 percent in three years.  The reduction of sales tax on food has been a goal of Republicans in the General Assembly for many years.

“I am very pleased to see this proposal included in the Governor’s legislative package,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), who has sponsored legislation to phase out the sales tax on food for more than a decade. “I support efforts to bring tax relief to Tennessee families and senior citizens through the reduction of sales tax on groceries and hope that we can eliminate it in the near future.” 

In addition, the Governor adopted another Republican initiative to lower or phase out the estate tax, which is commonly referred to as the “death tax.”  The Governor’s plan raises the exemption level to $1.25 million this year with the objective of reaching a $5 million level in subsequent years.   

Currently, the tax applies to estates worth more than $1 million.  Tennessee has a high inheritance tax which ranges from 5.5 percent to 9.5 percent, as compared to its neighbors.

“Retirees have told us that the death tax is a key reason for them relocating outside Tennessee,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).     “The inheritance tax places a heavy financial burden on family farms and family businesses.  This has been one of my priorities for many years as it and the Hall tax have hampered Tennessee’s opportunities.  I am very pleased that the Governor has made this step forward to address tax relief and to make Tennessee more attractive economically.”

Prescription Drug Abuse – Another key legislative priority for 2012 is curbing prescription drug abuse.  Tennessee ranks second in the nation in regard to the overutilization of prescription pain medications.  Governor Haslam’s legislative package addresses prescription drug abuse by utilizing the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database system more effectively and ensuring that healthcare professionals tap into the system when prescribing certain scheduled drugs. 

The General Assembly passed legislation during the 2011 legislative session cracking down on prescription drug abuse at pain clinics in Tennessee.  That law required the Department of Health, in concert with the doctors, nurses and physician assistants, to establish rules to govern the operation of clinics, including personnel, patient records, data collection and reporting, inspections, health and safety requirements and patient billing.

“It is important that we continue to take steps to address this huge health and public safety issue in our state,” said Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager (R-Harriman), sponsor of the legislation.  “This is a problem that has touched every Tennessee family.”

Statistics from the Tennessee Drug Diversion Task Force show that 56 percent of patients who receive opioid prescriptions have filled another opioid prescription within the previous 30 days.  Young adults ages 18 to 25 have the highest annual rates of prescription drug abuse.

Other proposals in the Governor’s package include:
• A plan to enhance the Department of Economic and Community Development’s FastTrack program by budgeting more for the grants and giving the department more flexibility in utilizing them to attract and grow Tennessee jobs.
• Gives local school districts more options in how they approach classroom instruction and teacher compensation
• Outlines Tennessee specific goals for measuring progress to replace the federal measurements as part of the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver request and better defines the scope and focus of the Achievement School District in supporting Tennessee’s lowest performing schools.
• Restructures 22 state boards and commissions to eliminate duplicative functions and provide more accountability and oversight of the agencies, which is the first step of an ongoing comprehensive review process.
• Imposes tougher sentences for certain types of gang-related crimes
• Proposes tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions
• Mandates incarceration time for repeat domestic violence offenders

“I am excited to work with Gov. Haslam to move Tennessee forward towards more jobs, less spending and smaller government,” said Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey.  “The governor has chosen his priorities well. This is a solid agenda that our unified Republican majority can proudly stand behind.”

Higher than Expected Revenues Help with Budget Challenges

With Tennessee facing significant budget challenges, the state received good news this week regarding state revenues.  For the eighth consecutive month, Tennessee’s growth rate has been 5.0 percent or higher.  December collections were $123.2 million more than the budgeted estimate. 

Year-to-date collections for the first five months of the 2011-2012 fiscal year were $194.2 million more than the budgeted estimate.  In December, the state’s Funding Board issued new revenue estimates for the 2011-12 fiscal year to be within the range of 3.9 percent to 4.21 percent overall, with growth of 4.2 percent to 4.58 percent in the general fund. The outlook would generate $177 million to $209 million above the Board’s previous estimates and would help soften the blow of more drastic cuts to the state’s budget.

Although the revenue increase is promising, it is important to note that the state is still not back to pre-recession 2008 collection levels on sales taxes. 

Tennessee has worked hard to ‘resize’ state programs and services to reflect a much smaller budget, especially with the uncertainty of potential cuts from Washington.  The General Assembly has cut $1.521 million from its budget in total reductions since the 2008-09 fiscal year.  In the previous three years, Tennessee had already reduced discretionary spending by 21 percent.

Governor Haslam is expected to present his budget to the legislature at the end of the month, and State Senators will begin hearings on details of the plan the first week of February.

Tennessee’s New Achievement School District Superintendent Talks to Lawmakers about Efforts to Raise Student Outcomes

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony this week from Chris Barbic, Tennessee’s Achievement School District Superintendent.  Barbic heads the state’s groundbreaking efforts to turn around the state’s lowest performing schools in order to ensure that all Tennessee students have the chance to receive a high quality public education that will prepare them to be college and career-ready. 

Barbic said the Department of Education will begin work by taking in and co-managing six schools under the Achievement School District (ASD) with expansion to 35 schools by year three.  Some of the schools will be converted to charter schools or non-profit organizations that will operate under the accountability measures set by the ASD.  The goal is to move those schools in the bottom five percent to the top 25 percent in five years. 

“We are going after something bold, but we believe that’s what the communities, kids and parents in these communities deserve,” said Barbic.

The Department of Education filed two waiver requests from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) regulations.  One of these is to redefine what constitutes a “failing school” under NCLB in Tennessee.  The proposal would define them as those schools in the bottom fifth percentile.  There are 85 of 1,700 schools in Tennessee that would meet that definition, most of which are high schools.  Sixty-nine of those schools are in Memphis, nine in Davidson County and seven in Hamilton County.

The ASD advocates a community transformation strategy to turn the schools around that begins with feeder schools to address the problem early in a child’s educational development.  They also plan a “wraparound” service to provide help outside of school. 

“This is not just a school problem,” added Barbic.  “This is a community problem.  If we are going to attack it meaningfully, we have to attack it that way.”

“I am enthusiastic about the potential for positive change,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham.  “These are exciting times for teachers, students and parents!”

AAA Commends Legislature for its Work on Road Safety

Tennessee has made significant progress in 2011 by addressing some of the most pressing road safety concerns according to representatives of the AAA Auto Clubs of Tennessee who testified in the Senate Transportation Committee this week.  Don Lindsey of AAA east Tennessee and Tim Wright of the AAA Auto Club South said, “You can be proud of the part you played in making Tennessee roads safer than in 2010.”

Lindsey said there were 946 fatalities in 2011, which is the lowest statistic in 48 years.  The number represents a nine percent reduction in fatalities.  Six of the 10 counties with the highest number of fatal crashes saw reductions last year. 

“I was very pleased that AAA State of Safety Report showed we have made great progress in making our streets safer,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).  “We still have much work to do, but we are moving in the right direction.”

Seat belt use is now at 87.4 percent according to the group.  There is still much concern regarding fatalities involving teen drivers, however, which increased in 2011 by 3.5 percent.  Lindsey said the graduated driving license system, ban on texting and seatbelt use will help to decrease the number of lives lost on Tennessee roadways. 

Tennessee crashes involving cell phone or two-way radio use saw an increase of almost 90 percent during the last five years.  In December, the National Transportation Safety Board released a recommendation for states to enact laws banning wireless device use for all drivers.  AAA claims that polls show that three in five Tennessee voters support a law restricting cell phone usage to just hands-free devices while driving (61 percent). 

On impaired driving, AAA reports 283 people died in Tennessee traffic crashes involving a driver with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher.  Their polls reflect that almost three-fourths of Tennessee voters favor an Administrative License Revocation System (ALR). 

Finally, AAA reported that federal funding for roads in states is still uncertain as Congress is now considering the eighth extension of SAFETEA-LU.  The road program is scheduled to end on March 31.  The U.S. Senate has advanced a bill reauthorizing the nation’s surface transportation system for two years with action expected in early 2012.  The U.S. House leadership has pledged to move a multi-year reauthorization bill in early 2012. 

Issues in Brief

Tennessee tops states for business – “Tennessee’s low cost of living, fourth lowest state and local tax burden and manageable budget gap places it first in this year’s tax and regulation rankings,” according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce report “Enterprising States 2011.”  The report said, “The home state of country music and Elvis’ Graceland has long been known for its business-friendly legislature and for how its Commissioners of Economic Development and Revenue work together to make this ‘no surprises’ regulatory policy possible.”

THEC — The Senate Education Committee heard testimony from Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s (THEC’s) Rich Rhoda regarding the capital funding formula for higher education.  THEC has recommended a $2.1 billion five-year plan, of which $1.8 billion would be derived from state funds.  They have recommended three outlay projects totaling $245 million, of which $205 million would be derived from state funds for the 2012-13 budget year and 55 maintenance projects totaling $84 million, for a combined total of $289 million.  Higher education has 58 million square feet of space in 2,200 buildings statewide.  The ambitious proposal has been sent to Governor Bill Haslam who will consider the matter as he unveils his 2012-2013 budget.   

STEM – The General Assembly’s first Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Caucus will meet on January 23.  The Education Caucus, which will be chaired by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Murfreesboro) will study how to promote proficiency in these subject areas in Tennessee schools.  Statistics show that students who perform better in math and science in elementary school have greater success in graduating from high school and college.  The Caucus is the first of its kind nationwide.  By 2014, three-fourths of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. will be in fields that require proficient math or science skills.  Tennessee must prepare students to compete successfully for these jobs.    

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