Capitol Hill Week: General Assembly Begins Work of Regular 2010 Legislative Session

Capitol Hill Week

Contact:  Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email:  [email protected]  

     (NASHVILLE, TN), January 28, 2010 –   The Tennessee General Assembly returned to Capitol Hill this week to close out the Special Session on Education and begin the work of the 2010 legislative session.  Although the budget deficit will be the predominant driver for legislative action this year, other issues that will headline the legislature’s agenda are unemployment, job creation, and preparing for Congressional action on health care that could have a huge negative impact on the state’s finances in the future.   

Resolution would ensure future generations have the right to hunt and fish in Tennessee

     Action on the Senate floor this week included several bills pending from the 2009 legislative session.  One such bill approved by the full Senate gives Tennessee voters the opportunity to decide if the state’s Constitution should be amended to recognize that citizens have the right to hunt and fish.  The resolution was approved after all members of the Senate were added as sponsors of the measure.   An identical resolution was approved during the 2007-2008 legislative sessions by a simple majority, however, the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the succeeding General Assembly before it can be placed on the ballot in November 2010.

     “This resolution is critically important to the long term preservation of both our wildlife preservation efforts and our state’s great hunting and fishing heritage,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson.  “It will ensure that the state’s hunting traditions will be enjoyed by future generations of Tennesseans.”

     Tennessee, like most other states, predicates wildlife conservation efforts on a user pay system supported by sportsmen.  The sportsmen pay for all wildlife conservation efforts, not just game fish and animals, including the acquisition of protected land and preservation of endangered species.  Protection of the sportsmen’s right to hunt and fish make sure wildlife preservation efforts in Tennessee continue indefinitely.  In addition, sportsmen pump millions of dollars into Tennessee’s economy.   

     The resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 30, will give sportsmen a voice in court on any future action that would deny their right to hunt and fish if approved by the voters.  The ballot measure will be voted on in the same manner as the “Victim’s Rights Amendment” in 1998, the “State Lottery Scholarship Amendment” of 2002, or the latest amendment to give property tax relief to the elderly.

 

     “A constitutional right to hunt and fish will afford some added level of protection, added Woodson.  “I am pleased that voters will have the opportunity to guarantee this right for generations to come.”

Senate overrides Governor’s veto on restaurant menu requirements

     The Senate voted 24 to 7 to override the governor’s veto of legislation approved last year to ban unelected local government regulatory agencies from imposing requirements on restaurants to post calories on menus.  The Senate passed the measure, Senate Bill 1092, last year after many small businesses raised concerns that some communities will impose different standards than those likely to be required at the federal level, which will significantly increase costs to small restaurant owners.   

     Last March, Davidson County’s Metro Board of Health, made up of unelected members, voted to require restaurants located in that county to post caloric information on menus even though Congress is considering the Federal LEAN Act.  That act would implement a national standard generally accepted by restaurant owners to provide standardized nutritional information to customers.  This year the same Metro Board voted to suspend its regulations until they can be reconciled with the federal legislation that is also included in the health care bill pending in Congress.   

     Small business owners, as well as the restaurant and hospitality associations, support the LEAN Act, which requires some restaurant chains to post calories on menus, as well as other information that is helpful like total fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugars.  However, they want a consistent labeling system across all levels of government rather than having to comply with separate requirements from local, state and federal governments which would be costly to small business owners.

     “Our small businesses are struggling as it is to make ends meet in difficult financial times and must comply with red tape imposed on them by multi-levels of government,” said Senator Diane Black, sponsor of the bill.  “We are not against nutritional information being available to consumers.  This is about unelected regulatory agencies that should not have the power to impose their own mandates on what should be posted on menus, which will likely be in addition to what is required at the federal level upon passage of the LEAN Act.”

Senate Commerce Committee approves legislation to boost sale of “prime milk” by Tennessee dairy farmers

     The Senate Commerce Committee has approved a bill sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill) to help Tennessee’s dairy farmers by establishing a category of milk to be called “Tennessee Prime Milk.”  The voluntary milk labeling category is designed to promote Tennessee’s new official state drink: milk!  

     The bill, Senate Bill 1899, aims to help Tennessee’s dairy farmers which have declined from 10,000 active farms at the height of the business to 500 today.  The bill allows marketing and sale of a “home grown” milk product with solid non-fat content that will likely be priced below organic milk categories.   

     “We need to do everything we can to help our local dairy farmers who are struggling in a tough economic climate,” said Senator Faulk.  “This bill provides them a platform to launch a product to boost sales of milk from Tennessee dairy farms.”

     The voluntary program calls for the milk to be certified by the state’s Department of Agriculture for sale at retail stores as “Tennessee Prime Milk” if it meets higher standards.  Bottling plants can label their milk as “Tennessee Prime Milk”, as long as 80% of the milk is produced in Tennessee.  Reduced fat Tennessee prime milk sold at retail must contain at least 10 percent milk solids not fat (SNF); non-fat or skim Tennessee prime milk must contain at least 9 percent SNF; and whole Tennessee prime milk must contain at least 8.5 percent SNF.

     “Only 50 percent of milk consumed in the state is from Tennessee dairies,” added Faulk.  “Hopefully this legislation will give consumers an optimal Tennessee product, while helping our farmers.”  

General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee hears strategies for improving health in Tennessee

     In Committee action this week, the General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee heard from Jeff Ockerman with Tennessee’s Division of Health Planning regarding strategies for improving health in the state.  Ockerman is charged with implementing an act passed by the General Assembly to develop a state health plan that will serve as a guide to improve the overall health care of Tennesseans.

     Tennessee has been called one of the least healthy states in America, ranking 47th in the nation.  In addition, the state’s health system performance has ranked below average as well at 39th in the nation.  According to Ockerman, once the plan is in place it will provide a vision for moving Tennessee’s current health care system to an integrated system of care, which is more efficient and effective.  It will also focus on the need for health promotion, health education, disease prevention, better nutrition, and chronic disease management.

     Ockerman said Tennessee has been successful in the state’s childhood immunization effort with 83.1 percent of children being immunized.  The national average is 80.1 percent.   The remainder of the indicators on the health status of Tennesseans, however, is grim.  Tennessee is the worst in the nation in infant mortality, with an 8.8 per 1000 birth death rate.  The national average for infant mortality is 6.6 per 1,000 births.  Adult diabetes is a major concern since the state is above the national 8 percent average, with 10.4 percent of Tennesseans having the disease.  In following, adult obesity is 31.2 percent in Tennessee, well above the 26.7 percent average.  Likewise, one of the most concerning indicators is childhood obesity.  Tennessee children are well above the 28.8 percent national average, with 35 percent overweight.

    Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Chairman of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee said, “I have asked Jeff Ockerman to appear before the committee so that we may begin to better understand those areas needing improvement and so that we might develop strategies and provide solutions in those areas.  I thank the governor and Mr. Ockerman for their work on this project.  I have asked him to return at a later date when he has made progress on the plan to identify further how we might focus on these problem areas and improve our state health rankings.”

Open Records Counsel gives lawmakers an update on efforts to open government in Tennessee
 

     The Senate State and Local Government Committee heard an update from Elisha Hodge, Director of the Office of Open Records Counsel, regarding efforts to open government in Tennessee.  The office was created in 2008 as a division of the State Comptroller’s Office to resolve disputes regarding access to public records and promote education and awareness of Tennessee’s public records and open meetings law.  It also assists Tennesseans in obtaining public records from local governments by guiding them to the correct offices or officials.    

     Hodge said the Office of Open Records dealt with 898 inquiries in 2009, of which 456 were from government entities, 63 from media, and 379 from individual citizens.  The Office also dealt with 14 complaints of the open meetings act and was involved in 3 public records lawsuits.  The Office did 29 opinions dealing with a variety of subjects involving open records.   

     The Tennessee Public Records Act provides that Tennessee citizens have the right to receive copies of public records, further supporting transparency in government.  The Office of Open Records set a schedule of reasonable charges for photocopies at 15 cents for each black and white copy and 50 cents for color.   

     “Our open records law is working to make governments across Tennessee more transparent and accountable to the public,” said State and Local Government Committee Chairman Bill Ketron.  “I commend their work and look forward to seeing their continued efforts in opening up government to Tennessee citizens.”   

     Hodge also reported that two local government entities are taking advantage of the expansion of a pilot program utilized in Knox County that brings sunshine online to the Internet.  Blount County is now approved to use technology to set up an online forum for elected officials to communicate outside of public meetings; but within the bounds of the state’s Sunshine law, while Loudon County is close to finalizing a similar plan.   

     Under the law, elected bodies statewide can set up websites where they can post messages to one another after approval by the Office of Open Records Counsel.  These “conversations” would be available for the public and media’s viewing.  The technological sunshine bill is designed to make it easier for officials to conduct business, while balancing the public’s right to know.

     “I am very pleased that this new law is working to provide a new technological forum for our elected officials and their constituents,” said Senator Randy McNally, who sponsored the legislation.  “As technology and Internet capabilities continue to advance, I expect to see this program expand to other areas of the state.”  

Bills in Brief

     Tourism – Tourism Commissioner Susan Whitaker appeared before the Senate Conservation and Environment Committee this week to update lawmakers on efforts to promote travel to and within the state.  Whitaker said tourism is up from $14.2 billion to $14.4 billion over the last year, although some parts of the state have been hit hard by the recession.  The state is in the top ten in the U.S. in tourism and is doing very well compared to neighboring states, some of which are in double-digit decline.  Tennessee is promoting a scenic by-ways project to get tourists into the more rural areas of the state, which is already meeting with some success.   

     Using data to drive teacher instruction – Senate Education Committee members heard from Murfreesboro’s Scales Elementary teacher Pam East this week regarding her efforts to use student test data to drive individualized instruction.  East, who is the author of “The 5-Step Way to Raise Test Scores” outlined the basic steps of analyzing a variety of student data and then using that information to drive classroom instruction.  She said it was a way to target instruction exactly where it’s needed.  The veteran teacher looks at standardized test scores as a tool to bring student’s learning to new heights.

     Education reforms signed – This week the governor signed legislation that passed during the Special Session on Education.  The legislation focused on improving K-12 education and putting Tennessee in position to be a leader in the Race to the Top competition.  If successful, the state could receive up to $500 million in federal funds.  A second bill focuses on Higher Education measures to help ensure that students are successful in completing their college degrees or post-secondary academic programs.  

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