Capitol Hill Week: Jobs, The Econmy and Health Care The Focus On Capitol Hill

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

     (NASHVILLE, TN),  February 11, 2010  —  Jobs, the economy, and health care in Tennessee were recurring topics for discussion on Capitol Hill as lawmakers completed the third week of the regular 2010 legislative session.  While Senate committees are beginning to move a number of bills to the floor for final consideration, they continue to be updated on a wide variety of important matters facing Tennessee.  These subjects range from what Tennessee is doing to battle cancer to how we can better use technological advances to help struggling students succeed.

Two Reports released this week provide grim state economic forecast

     Two separate reports were released this week, providing a grim forecast for Tennessee’s immediate economic recovery.  The first, which is the state’s January revenue report, showed Tennessee is in its 20th consecutive month in which sales taxes have recorded negative growth.  The revenue report tracks Tennessee’s tax collections on a month to month basis and is an important guide to help lawmakers construct the budget.  The news was particularly disappointing because it contained the December holiday sales tax collections which had showed a slight improvement at the national level. 

     Tennessee’s sales tax collections continue to be a concern for the state’s general fund.
Year-to-date collections for the first six months of the fiscal year, which began July 1, are $185 million less than the budgeted estimate.  They also performed worse than the national average in the third quarter of 2009.  If the trend continues to show under collection, it could mean the state’s Funding Board will have to adjust the budget estimates for the 2010-11 budget year when it meets on March 31.  The budget presented by Governor Bredesen last week is crafted from the high end of the revenue figures adopted by the Funding Board at a 1.9 percent growth rate. 

     The second report, prepared by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research, focuses on Tennessee’s economic outlook over the next several years.  The study claims it will take “well over two years” for the state’s economy to rebound fully mainly due to Tennessee’s high unemployment rate. 

     Revenues are not expected to surpass their pre-recession peak until 2012-13, when the state’s unemployment rate is predicted to improve.  The state’s unemployment rate stood at 5.3 percent in 2007 and has more than doubled to 10.9 percent as of January.  The report projects that the rate will remain “stubbornly high for several years to come, not falling below 7 percent until 2016.”

     “It is more critical than ever that we keep our low tax, pro-growth business climate in Tennessee,” said Senate Commerce and Labor Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).  “We are very focused on improving Tennessee’s business climate so the private sector will have the confidence to create new jobs in the state.”

     The report showed the state’s automobile industry is a double-edged sword in looking at Tennessee’s job outlook.  While employment in the state’s transportation sector has declined during the recession, Tennessee will benefit from the Volkswagen and Nissan Leaf production facilities which will soon begin to operate.  The report points to the need for educational improvements, stating Tennessee “will need to offer a highly skilled workforce to maintain and support the automobile industry cluster.”
Commerce Committee approves Tennessee Health Freedom Act

     Several health issues were debated on Capitol Hill this week, including legislation approved by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee to protect the freedom of Tennessee patients to make their own health care choices, regardless of any future federal action.  The bill, called the Tennessee Health Freedom Act, mirrors legislation currently being considered in over thirty other state legislatures.  It is sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin).  

      “Never in our history has the U.S. government required its citizens – simply because they are citizens – to purchase a particular product from a private company or government entity,” said Senator Beavers.  “This act seeks to protect the rights of Tennesseans to choose what type and quantity of health insurance to purchase.”

     The legislation, Senate Bill 3498, would protect a citizen’s right to participate, or not participate, in any healthcare system, and would prohibit the federal government from imposing fines or penalties on that person’s decision.  It does not seek to “nullify” any federal law, as it would still allow individuals the option to participate in a federal program; however, it would also acknowledge the right of individuals to refuse to participate in a government-run health insurance program.  The bill also calls on the state’s Attorney General to take action in the defense or prosecution of rights protected under the legislation.

     “No matter what legislation eventually passes through Congress, as state legislators, we need to stand up for the citizens of this state, our fantastic doctors and hospitals, and stand up against unconstitutional and unprecedented federal mandates,” Beavers added.   

     The Tennessee Health Freedom Act will now move to the Senate floor in the coming weeks to be voted on by the entire Senate, and then the measure must be approved by the House of Representatives before it going to the Governor for his signature.

Bill would strengthen Tennessee’s small group health cooperatives

     The Senate Commerce Committee has approved legislation reducing from five to three years the time in which participants must commit to purchasing coverage through small group health cooperatives. The bill amends a law passed by the General Assembly in 2008 to provide more flexibility for small business owners who may choose to form these pools.  That law defined a health group cooperative as a private purchasing cooperative that contains at least 1,000 employees or has a minimum of 10 participating employers.  Membership is voluntary, but participants must commit to purchasing coverage of fully funded plans through the cooperative for five years. 

     The legislation approved this week, Senate Bill 2836, simply reduces the number of years in which participant must commit to three years.  The time reduction still ensures pool stability, while working to attract more interest from small businesses and the insurance industry to participate in the cooperatives. 

     “Health insurance market reform continues to be a high priority for small businesses in order to attempt to address rising costs to maintain coverage for employees,” said Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), sponsor of the bill.  “The cooperatives allow more small business owners to join together to negotiate lower health insurance rates. It not only encourages more small employers to purchase health insurance, it also gives them predictability and stability in health-insurance rates.”

Tennessee’s Comprehensive Cancer Control Coalition working to fight state’s high cancer rates

     The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee heard testimony this week from Bruce Behringer, Associate Vice President for East Tennessee State University’s Division of Health Services; Robert Clark, St. Jude Hospital’s Government Affairs Representative, and Cancer Surgeon, Dr. Ingrid M. Mazoi of Tennessee’s Comprehensive Cancer Control Coalition regarding their efforts to fight the state’s high cancer rate.  The group told lawmakers that Tennessee has the 4th highest incidence rate in the nation for new cases of cancer. 

     Cancer remains the second leading cause of death in Tennessee, impacting every individual, family and community.  The problem is particularly acute among African Americans, as Tennessee ranks 1st in the nation in breast cancer mortality among black women in the state.  Similarly, new case rates for African American men in Tennessee are at least 50 percent higher than national rates in all but one health region, while colorectal cancer among black females in Tennessee have the 3rd highest incidence rate nationwide. 

     Lung cancer rates are also elevated, with Tennessee having the 4th highest rate in the U.S.  The Coalition leaders said that lung cancer is the most important reason why Tennessee’s overall cancer mortality rate is so high compared to national rates.

     The Coalition provided the committee with a comprehensive plan for action to guide member’s efforts and promote collaborations to fight the disease.  Using a state leadership structure, as well as standing and resource committees, more than 400 volunteers are working with the Coalition to battle cancer across Tennessee.  A cancer registry was established in 2005 to track the disease by gender, type, and other factors to provide valuable information to help direct treatment and education efforts. 

     The group said one of the biggest battles to help combat the disease is to get people to change behaviors to reduce their risks and prevent cancer.  The prevention efforts include reducing tobacco use, making good food choices and exercise to maintain a healthy weight.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 50 percent of all cancer deaths could be prevented through eliminating or reducing unhealthy behaviors.

     “I thank the members of the Comprehensive Cancer Control Coalition for the very important work it is doing,” said Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Services Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City).  “We must find ways to begin reducing Tennessee’s high cancer rate.  I look forward to seeing their plan in action and hearing from them again as we address this important health issue.”

Education Committee hears testimony regarding use of technology to help students succeed

     The Senate Education Committee heard testimony from two separate groups regarding the use of technology to help students in Tennessee succeed.  Representatives from the Tennessee Board of Regent’s talked to committee members about their Virtual Dual Enrollment Lap Top Pilot Project, which has assisted 300 high school juniors and seniors through the use of computer technology to be “college- and work-ready.” 

     The project was designed for high school students who are eligible for the lottery dual enrollment scholarship and enrolled in post secondary courses that require a computer to access classes.  Officials say the project has provided students in rural counties an opportunity to be involved in a dual enrollment program that might not have been available otherwise.  With an 86 percent retention rate, the program has boosted the interest of high school students in becoming dually enrolled.  In Community Colleges, where dual enrollment was already working, the program provided assistance to keep students moving forward in their studies. 

     Lawmakers also heard testimony from a representative of the Education Program for Gifted Youth, a program offered by Stanford University and operating in the Memphis area.  That program, which also uses the Internet for distance learning, helps underperforming students close the achievement gap by focusing on individual needs.   Officials say students enrolled in the program increased their test TCAP test scores by an average of 20.5 points.

Bills in Brief

Black fly suppression — The Senate Commerce Committee has approved a bill to allow the black fly suppression program to continue for another year.  The bill, Senate Bill 2498 sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), addresses the problem experienced by residents and tourists along the Pigeon and Little Pigeon Rivers in the Great Smoky Mountain area where the black flies attach their larvae to rocks in the flowing waters.  The suppression program includes an EPA approved chemical which can be placed in the river to reduce the larvae before the flies hatch without causing harm to humans or the environment.  The flies, also referred to as gnats, are attracted to carbon dioxide breathed by humans and livestock.

Carbon monoxide alarms – Legislation, Senate Bill 3581 sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), was approved by Senate Commerce Committee members this week to require new residential construction to contain a carbon monoxide alarm detector.  The detectors can be combined with smoke detectors.  Carbon monoxide cannot be detected through normal human senses as it is odorless and invisible.  Each year in the U.S., 400 people die and 20,000 seek hospital treatment due to carbon monoxide poisoning.  The cost of the detectors is as low as $20.00. 

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