Budget hearings, health care and anti-crime legislation highlight Capitol Hill Week

(NASHVILLE, TN), February 16, 2012 —  Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as State Senators examined the budgets of 10 agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills.  Passing a responsible state budget which meets the needs of Tennesseans and creating an optimal business climate to boost job growth top the list of legislative priorities this year. 

The budget hearings are part of the process of reviewing how taxpayer dollars are spent to examine whether the money is being used efficiently and effectively to meet the state’s goals for each department or agency.  Particular scrutiny is given to any proposed cuts or recommendations for improvements sent to the legislature by the Governor.  The hearings will continue through March 13 until the budgets of all agencies all departments have been reviewed.  Adoption of the budget is traditionally one of the last bills to be passed before adjournment. 

In other news on state finances, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Finance Chairman Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) announced Tennessee has refinanced $449,070,000 in General Obligation Refunding Bonds, generating $37 million in savings for the state.  The goal of this refinancing was to achieve debt service savings over the life of the debt equal to 4 percent of the present value of the refunded bonds.  The State surpassed this goal, achieving 7.46 percent present value savings totaling $34,031,900.  The savings were realized proportionally over the life of the refinanced debt. 

Tennessee Senators join as amicus parties in challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate in White House Health Care Plan

In other action, 77 Tennessee lawmakers announced this week that they are joining the State of Florida, 25 other states, and the National Federation of Independent Business in filing as amicus parties (friends of the court) challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).  The individual mandate, which is the centerpiece of the new law, is the requirement that almost all people in the United States buy health insurance or pay a penalty to the IRS for failing to do so. 

The brief was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in preparation for the oral arguments scheduled to begin on March 27. Governor Haslam also announced his support of a separate brief filed by the Republican Governor Public Policy Committee (RGPPC) arguing against the constitutionality of the White House health care plan.

“The White House plan will stifle innovation and actually increase the cost of insurance,” said Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville).  “It is time that states push back to let Washington know that we are not going to stand by idly when this healthcare law so blatantly infringes on the constitutional rights of the states and the personal freedoms of our citizens.”

“This is one of the most important issues to be considered by the Court in our lifetime,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).  “States’ rights, individual liberties and our ability to keep the federal government from infringing those rights are at stake.” 

“Our personal health care decisions should be managed by us and our health care providers, not politicians and bureaucrats in Washington,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).  “Never in our history has the U.S. government required its citizens as a condition of residency to purchase a particular product from a private company or government entity.”

The case is especially important to Tennessee and several other states because these states have enacted Health Care Freedom Acts.  The Tennessee Health Freedom Act, passed in 2011, provides that every person in the state is free to choose, or not choose, any mode of securing healthcare services and to purchase, or not purchase, health insurance, without penalty or threat of penalty.  Tennessee asserts this right to protect the freedom of its citizens under the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution, a principle that was emphasized in the amicus curiae brief filed with the Court.

Anti-Crime package continues to advance through General Assembly

Governor Bill Haslam’s anti-crime bills continued to advance through the legislative process this week, including a measure increasing penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders.  The “Repeat Domestic Violence Offender” bill would provide at least 45 days in jail and a fine ranging from $350 to 3,500 for those convicted of a second offense for domestic violence.  In addition, the bill strengthens penalties for a third or any subsequent offense to 120 days in jail and a fine ranging from $1,100 – $5,000.

The legislation, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), aims to curb the growing problem of domestic violence in Tennessee. Tennessee is ranked fifth in the nation for women murdered by men as a result of domestic violence.  Overbey said he sponsored the legislation at the request of Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who is responsible for assisting Governor Haslam with passage of his legislative priorities.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee where Overbey told committee members that he will continue to work with state and local officials to offset the cost of housing prisoners who receive the mandatory jail time.  The Governor included $780,000 in his proposed budget to pay for the legislation. 

“When I first, at Senator Norris’s behest, took the bill, I took it at a time when there wasn’t a fiscal note,” said Overbey.  “I was enthusiastic to sponsor the legislation because this is a tragic and growing problem in Tennessee that needs to be addressed.   I will continue to work with mayors, sheriffs, district attorneys and Governor Haslam as we work towards a solution to offset the costs of housing offenders in local jails.”

Gang Violence – The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved  Senate Bill 2252, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which bumps up  penalties by one classification if “a crime of force or violence is committed while acting in concert with two or more other persons.”  A person robbed by a gang has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death.  The bill, which must now receive approval by the House of Representatives, is pending action in the House Finance Committee. 

Corrections —   The full Senate also approved Senate Bill 2248 giving the State Department of Corrections the authority to supervise probation and parole services to provide a seamless one person contact for offenders throughout the entire criminal justice system.   Studies show that this is the optimal model to increase effectiveness in helping to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill.) 

Drug Abuse – Two bills aiming to curb drug abuse were approved by the full Senate this week dealing.  The proposals, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) are also part of the Governor’s public safety package.  One bill deals with the purchase of amphetamines for the purpose of making meth.  Senate Bill 2235 makes it a misdemeanor to “attempt to purchase” and “attempt to sell” amphetamines for a non-medical use or unlawful purpose, including the manufacture of meth, leaving a felony as the punishment for completing the act. 

The second measure adds numerous opiates, depressants, stimulants and narcotics to Schedule I through V of the Controlled Substances Schedule. Senate Bill 2230 also adds Tramadol and Carisoprodol to Schedule IV of the Controlled Substances Schedule.  A controlled (scheduled) drug is one whose use and distribution is tightly controlled because of the potential for abuse. 

Constitutional Resolution seeks to give charitable veterans groups ability to raise funds as other 501 (c) (3) organiations

A resolution seeking to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to allow 501 (c) (19) charitable veterans groups to raise funds, in the same manner as other 501 (c) (3) charitable organizations, was heard this week by the full Senate on first reading.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City). 

Crowe said veterans groups were left out of the Constitutional Amendment approved by voters in 2002 that allowed charitable groups registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501 (c) (3) organization to conduct an annual fundraising event.  That Amendment, which also allowed for a State Education Lottery, authorized only such games as raffles, reverse raffles, cakewalks, duck races and cake wheels, as long as the games have been previously approved by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. 

Senate Joint Resolution 222 requires that any funds raised by the games go to purposes that benefit the community, veterans or retired veterans.  Games like bingo, pulltabs, punchboards, video lottery games, and instant and on-line lottery games would continue to be illegal, as well as other games of chance associated with casinos, slot machines, and roulette wheels.

The Resolution is required to be read three times before a vote is taken.  It must be approved by both the 107th General Assembly, currently in session, and the 108th, which will take office in 2013, before going to voters in a statewide referendum in November 2014, where it must receive a plurality of votes cast in the race for governor. 

 “This is the first time since the Constitutional Amendment was passed that action has been taken to allow veterans groups to participate in these fundraising events,” said Senator Crowe.  “I continue to hear from veterans about the need to change this so that they, too, can raise funds through such events as raffles.  These veterans groups do a lot of good community service work, and I am proud to join with my colleagues to find a way to help them in their efforts.”

Issues in Brief

Hospitals – Members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted this week to continue the hospital assessment adopted last year to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts to Tennessee hospitals.   The hospitals asked the General Assembly to enact the coverage assessment for another year in order to raise $450 million in state funds to draw down $870.5 million in matching federal funds.  The assessment is used to draw down federal funds available through a Medicaid match program approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  It will continue to provide the critical dollars necessary to provide hospitals a portion of their unreimbursed TennCare costs.  A few examples of programs, in addition to the reduction in payments to hospitals and health professionals, that would be affected without the assessment are: critical access hospitals; the Graduate Medical Education program; 8-visit limit imposed on outpatient services, x-rays, and physician office procedures; various therapies; and, the enrollment cap for the medically needy.  Senate Bill 2766 is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville). 

Virtual Capitol Tour – Tennessee’s Secretary of State would be authorized to produce a virtual tour of the state capitol, capitol annexes and grounds and to publish it on the General Assembly and Secretary of State’s websites under legislation approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. The legislation also authorizes the state’s librarians to distribute to any public or private elementary, middle, junior high or senior high school the virtual tour on electronic media.  Senate Bill 3194, which is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), aims to give students and others who cannot go to the Capitol for a variety of reasons, an opportunity to see where their government is housed by remote access.

Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL) — Similarly, Secretary of State Tre Hargett who presented his budget in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, told State Senators that the state’s Electronic Library is receiving over 33 million Internet searches a year.  The electronic library is an online collection of more than 400,000 resources, with over 150,000,000 articles, videos, e-books, podcasts and other reference materials available to any Tennessean with Internet access. TEL is used by over 100 libraries across the state and saves Tennessee schools and libraries about $94 million a year to purchase the resources that are available to them free of charge.

Electronic Fraud Hotline — The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation calling for an electronic hotline for citizens to email any reports of fraud or abuse in state government spending.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), adds electronic notifications to the current telephone hotline authorized under the Advocacy for Honest and Appropriate Government Spending Act. 

Voter ID – Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee this week that 1.5 million copies of the state’s new voter identification requirements have been distributed to citizens to educate them on the new law.  Hargett appeared before the Committee to present the budget for the Secretary of State’s office, which includes the Division of Elections.  “I want to compliment you and Election Coordinator Mark Goins for the time and effort you put in since we implemented this bill,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).  “I think you have looked under every rock possible to find ways to create greater awareness and eliminate confusion about the new law.”    

Severe weather preparedness — The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and National Weather Service (NWS) are promoting preparedness for families, individuals and businesses as the state observed Tennessee Severe Weather Awareness Week.   TEMA has announced the release of a new mobile, smartphone application, Ready TN.  The application helps citizens know the hazards in their community and the preparations they should take to be ready for any emergency.  The application provides location-based information on severe weather, road conditions, open shelters and local government contacts.   Preparedness tips for specific hazards and checklists for emergency kit items are also provided in the application’s content.   The Ready TN smartphone application is currently available in the Android Market by searching for Ready TN.  The application is under development for use on the Apple iPhone.

Tennesse’s Day of Prayer – The first Thursday during the month of May will become “Tennessee’s Day of Prayer” under Senate Bill 2516 approved by the State Senate this week.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).

Safety information / Car crashes — The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 2236 requiring local law enforcement agencies to send information regarding car crashes in their jurisdiction to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security through an electronic reporting system by 2015.  Currently, there are 500 police agencies of which 260 use the Department’s electronic TITAN system which is provided to them free of charge.  Tennessee Highway Patrol Colonel Tracy Trott told lawmakers the measure would give them complete data so they can take a proactive approach to reduce the number of crashes and reduce fatalities.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).

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Posted in Weekly Review

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