Lawmakers get down to work on first regular week of 2011 session

(NASHVILLE, TN), February 9, 2011 — It was a busy start to the first week of the regular 2011 legislative session as the State Senate acted on two significant bills and discussed a wide variety of other important issues facing the General Assembly this year.  In addition, the state’s Funding Board, which is comprised of Tennessee’s top economic experts, met to give lawmakers and Governor Bill Haslam their projections of what Tennessee’s revenue growth will be in order to plan the state budget.

The budget was also the topic of discussion in the Senate Finance Committee.  Revenues are beginning to show signs of improvement, but not only will it not be enough to restore reductions that have already been made, chances are that more will be required.  The Funding Board estimated the general fund revenues could be up to $162 million more than expected this budget year.  However, when the budget was passed in June, it recognized a $185 million recurring imbalance.  The additional revenue growth will help close that gap, but when you factor in the mandatory improvements that have to be made, it is not enough to balance the budget. 

Last week, Governor Haslam held public hearings on the budget of each department which had been asked to provide for additional reductions of one to three percent. Those come on top of major cuts made in previous years, including those that were offset by federal stimulus funds.  The new governor will now sort through their proposals over the next few weeks as he prepares his budget for delivery to the General Assembly next month.

Memphis / Shelby County Schools — The full Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) this week which maps out an orderly process for transferring the responsibilities of a special school district to the county school system, if the result of the transfer doubles the current student population.  The action was taken to ensure a necessary and orderly transitional process if Memphis voters decide on March 8 to surrender their special school district charter and combine 103,000 students into the 47,000-student Shelby County School system.  That action would make the school district the 16th largest in the United States.

The effort to consolidate the schools is based on a vague state law put into place many years ago which has never been used.   

“There has never been a consolidation of this magnitude,” Norris said.  “Given the magnitude of this undertaking and the potential consequences of it upon tens of thousands of Tennesseans, the rationale of this bill before you is compelling.  It is hoped that it provides a roadmap to a plan for unity, balance and transition which if approved by those directly affected best assures a quality education, a stable tax base and a productive environment.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 25, requires a 21-member Transition Planning Commission to be appointed that would be tasked with formulating and submitting a transition plan guaranteeing the rights of the affected employees and students.  The Commission must also come up with a strategy for integrating the two school systems. 

Election Fraud / Photo Identification – The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved a bill this week that seeks to ensure fair and honest elections in Tennessee.  The legislation, Senate Bill 16, requires photo identification to make certain that those voting are both legal residents and indeed the person registered to vote. 

Under the proposal, various forms of photo identification could be used, including a driver’s license, military identification, a valid passport, various forms of government employee identification cards, and any federal and state-issued identification cards that contain a photograph of the voter.  Nine other states have such requirements. 

“Tennesseans are required to show photo identification for everything from renting a movie or boarding a plane to making a purchase at the mall or cashing a check, and we do it without complaint,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).  “So why shouldn’t we do the same for something as precious as the right to vote?”

The legislation provides that a voter who is indigent and cannot afford to get proof of identification, or has a religious objection to being photographed, could vote by signing an affidavit of identity.  It also provides a recourse for voters without photo identification to cast a vote through a provisional ballot.  This safeguard ensures that these voters will have their votes counted after officials verify that person’s valid identification.

In addition, Tennesseans age 65 and older have the right under state law to vote absentee by mail.  Therefore, these citizens can choose to vote by absentee ballot if they do not have photo identification and do not want to obtain one.  Although this option is available, Ketron is drafting an amendment to the bill to exempt citizens born prior to 1945 from having to produce photo identification.

State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins, who testified in favor of the bill in the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week, said that he has discovered more than 10,000 felons on Tennessee’s voter rolls. They were able to identify several hundred of those who had actually voted in an election. In addition, the Coordinator said that thousands of individuals are registered not only in Tennessee but also in other states. 

“The process of electing our leaders is one of our most important duties as citizens. Many brave Americans fought and died for us to have this right, Ketron added.  “It is the cornerstone of our democracy.  We must make every effort to ensure that our elections are fair and honest.”

Gavel-to-Gavel Television Coverage of Tennessee General Assembly Now Available on Public Television’s Tennessee Channel

Tennessee citizens can now view gavel-to-gavel television coverage of their legislature in action with statewide broadcast on Public Television’s “Tennessee Channel.”  The broadcast will feature comprehensive live and taped-delayed floor proceedings, as well as committee meetings and other joint conventions, for the first time in state history. 

“The availability of our legislative proceedings on public television builds on our efforts to make government more transparent by providing more information online,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey (R-Blountville).  “Freedom basks in sunshine.  The cornerstone of this freedom is transparency in government, and as technologies have advanced, so has our ability to bring government directly into the homes of our citizens.   I look forward to working with our public television stations in order to provide widespread coverage of our committee meetings and legislative sessions.”
The Tennessee General Assembly offers extensive information through its Internet website, winning the state the national “Online Democracy Award” for providing it in a user-friendly format. The legislature was also awarded the Digital Governance Award for Leadership in Digital Access for “strong government transparency and public access improvements.”

Tennessee Public Television Stations include:  WCTE/Cookeville, WTCI/Chattanooga, East Tennessee PBS WKOP/Knoxville and WETP/Sneedville, WLJT/Martin, WKNO/Memphis and WNPT/Nashville.

Citizens can check with their local public television station for the weekly schedule of legislative coverage. 

AAA commends legislature for its work on road safety

Tennessee has made significant progress in 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 Kevin Bakewell of the AAA Auto Club South said, “Our state’s leadership has steered us to safer roads” over the past decade enacting policies to keep motorists safe.

The officials praised the laws passed by the General Assembly to improve teen driving, safety belt use, and child passenger fatalities.  They said those efforts combined improved road safety and have resulted in the lowest number of deaths on Tennessee’s roads since the 1960s.  The group, however, cited concern with last year’s increase in the number of deaths, including 13 more motorcyclists and 15 more pedestrians killed compared to the previous year.  

Bakewell and Lindsey also said two more recent state laws also have much promise in improving road safety in Tennessee.  These include the ban on texting while driving passed in 2008 and the 2010 law increasing the use of ignition interlock devices for DUI offenders.

Research shows that although 82 percent of Americans surveyed say distracted driving is a serious problem, 24 percent admitted to reading or sending text messages while driving. 

 “Texting is just a quantum leap above (cell phones) in how much it distracts a driver,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), who sponsored the law.  “It takes your eyes off the roads for at least four to five seconds at a time.  All it takes is two seconds to have a crash.”

The ignition interlock bill broadens the circumstances in which a judge can require the devices to be installed on vehicles of convicted drunk drivers.  The AAA representatives said the “long real-world experience reveals a significant reduction in recidivism among DUI offenders required to use the interlock device.”  They claim the effect continues for some time after the device is allowed to be removed by the court.

The percentage of alcohol-related fatalities is around thirty percent in Tennessee according to preliminary figures.  This means that, in 2010, approximately 300 Tennesseans died in crashes involving drivers with some amount of alcohol in their system, according to these experts.

Issues in Brief

Education / Waiting for Superman – State Senators, education stakeholder and other invited guests attended a viewing of the new film Waiting for Superman this week.  The film explores the lives of several students who are trying to make it through the public school system. Many of these students are stuck in a system with inferior schools that do not work, called drop-out factories.  The film also explores resistance by the system for reform.  After the viewing, which was organized by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), a panel participated in a meaningful discussion regarding the film’s findings and education reform efforts.  “You can’t watch this film without being moved to tears,” said Senator Kelsey.  “My hope is that members were also moved to action on important reforms like charter schools, equal opportunity scholarships, and changes in tenure and collective bargaining.” 

Healthcare Compact — Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) held a press conference this week calling for Tennessee to join an interstate compact with the express purpose of returning the responsibility and authority for regulating health care to the states.   The Health Care Compact, Senate Bill 326, provides a legal framework in which states can create their own healthcare systems as an alternative to the federal healthcare law passed by Congress last year. The structure protects Medicare and Medicaid funding by allowing member states to access federal tax revenues directly and without strings attached. Beavers said the combination of a secure funding stream and maximum flexibility for state legislators will create the conditions for multiple solutions to emerge to the health care crisis.

Mesolthelioma Awareness – The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Services Committee voted this week to designate September 26, 2011, as “Mesothelioma Day” in
Tennessee in order to promote increased public awareness about Mesothelioma, its causes, symptoms, and the need for effective treatments for the disease.  Mesothelioma is a rare but deadly form of cancer, mostly due to exposure to asbestos, which involves cells that line an organ, usually the lungs, abdominal organs, and heart.  There are approximately 2,500 and 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year.  The bill, Senate Joint Resolution 13, is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).

Fallen heroes – Legislation was approved by the full Senate on Thursday calling for counties and cities to fly Tennessee’s flag at half-staff when the governor declares a day of mourning for armed services members who have died in the line of duty.  The measure, Senate Bill 34, expands on  Public Chapter 169 which was approved last year.  That new law proclaims a day or mourning in honor of these fallen heroes and calls for their names to be recorded in the journal of the Senate and House of Representatives. 


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