Legislature in review: Budget takes center stage

Staff Reports • Dec 17, 2015 at 5:57 PM

The state budget moved front and center on Capitol Hill last week as Gov. Bill Haslam presented his proposal to fund state government for the 2014-15 fiscal year to begin in July. 

Following Haslam’s “State of the State” address, the Senate Finance Committee began its task of studying the $32.6 billion appropriations bill, which is $600,000 less than the budget adopted for the current fiscal year. 

In his budget address, Haslam reiterated the budget was challenging as revenue collections over the past several months have not met projections. However, the governor pointed out Tennessee is in a better position to balance the budget because the state has been fiscally conservative in years past. The budget shortfall is expected to be about $116 million by the close of the current fiscal year. 

In order to balance the budget, Haslam has proposed selected reductions, including eliminating 664 positions in state government, of which all except 100 are currently vacant. Some of the other reductions include finding cost savings in the TennCare program and in corrections. In 2005, the state set a goal of keeping spending for the program at 26 percent. TennCare currently consumes about 30 percent of the state’s general budget.   

“We have $260 million in new revenue this year,” said Haslam. “Increased TennCare costs will take up $180 million, employee health insurance costs are up $40 million and $120 million are proposed for education. So, if you’re doing the math at home, before putting anything toward employee salaries, higher education, social services for our most vulnerable citizens, or anything else, we are already $80 million in the red.”

All Senate committees will review the various departmental budgets in depth during the next month. Traditionally, the budget is one of the last bills voted on during the legislative session.

In other business, the General Session also considered:

Electing the State’s Attorney General – Last week, the Senate narrowly rejected a proposal, sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, that would allow Tennessee voters the opportunity to elect the state’s attorney general. Even though he is supposedly “the people’s lawyer,” the AG is often criticized as being “twice-removed” from the people he is supposed to represent, especially considering the Tennessee Supreme Court, which currently appoints Tennessee’s AG, no longer stands for direct election, Beavers said. 

“Tennessee is the only state in the nation where the people do not have a say in how their state’s top attorney is selected,” Beavers said. “I hope that my colleagues will reconsider their opinion on this matter.” 

Currently, the AG is popularly elected in 43 states, the governor appoints the AG in five states. In Maine, the legislature selects the AG.

State Spending for Obamacare – Committee testimony on a bill sponsored by Beavers and Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, was delayed after the state’s Fiscal Review Committee said the bill could cost the state money in lost federal funds.

“My bill does nothing to threaten funding for our state, nor does it threaten the insurance that has been purchased by Tennesseans on the federal exchange,” Beavers said. “It simply states that we will not spend additional state dollars to help implement this disastrous federal program.” 

Beavers also referenced other states that have similar pieces of legislation pending, and whose fiscal committees have stated will cost zero dollars. Beavers said she plans to discuss the cost of her bill with the Fiscal Review Committee and TennCare to address their erroneous fiscal report.

Honoring Fallen Soldiers – The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted last week to designate the Honor and Remember Flag as the official state symbol of Tennessee’s concern and commitment for all members of the U.S. Armed Forces who have lost their lives in service. Senate Bill 1431 also honors the families of these fallen heroes. The Honor and Remember Flag is endorsed by veteran service organizations and is becoming a nationally accepted symbol of remembrance. The flag serves as a visible reminder to all Americans of the lives lost in defense of freedom.

Aggravated Child Neglect – Legislation that would the penalty for aggravated child neglect or endangerment passed the Senate last week. Senate Bill 1695 puts aggravated child abuse into the category of crimes in which convicted offenders must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences in prison. 

Currently, those convicted of aggravated child neglect and endangerment are eligible for release after serving 55 percent of a sentence. The legislature has moved several violent crimes to the 85 percent category over the past several years, which previously allowed offenders to serve as little as 35 percent of their sentences behind bars. 

Attempted First-Degree Murder – Similarly, legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week to prohibit release eligibility for attempted first-degree murder that results in serious bodily injury until the offender has served 90 percent of the sentence imposed less sentence credits earned. Senate Bill 1649 specifies sentence credits cannot reduce the percent of prison time served below 80 percent. The bill attempts to treat the sentence for attempted first degree murder in such a manner that does not give convicted offenders a lighter sentence when the victim survives due to the crime’s proximity to a highly skilled trauma center.

Recognizing Sacrifices of First Responders – The Senate Government Operations Committee approved a bill creating the “Three Stars of Tennessee Award” for peace officers, firefighters and medical first responders killed or injured in the line of duty.  Senate Bill 1691 calls for the governor to present the award to each recipient or the surviving next of kin during a public ceremony held on or as near as practicable to Sept. 11 each year. The award, which will consist of a medal, a certificate and a ribbon suitable for wearing on a uniform, aims to recognize the heroic and brave sacrifices of first responders who give their lives or suffer a career-ending injury protecting and serving the public.

Remembering George Jones – Country music legend George Jones was recognized Feb. 5, 2014 for his talent and his contribution to the music industry by the Senate through Senate Joint Resolution 562. The resolution explores Jones’ life from his humble beginnings in Saratoga, Texas, to his illustrious career playing and singing country music, to his passing just hours before his final concert April 26.

Human Trafficking – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved several new anti-human trafficking laws that will raise awareness and help limit wide-ranging human trafficking activity currently taking place in the state. The General Assembly passed a series of bills addressing human trafficking after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. 

Tennessee emerged as a national leader in the fight against human trafficking as a result of those efforts, receiving an “A” ranking from Shared Hope International’s 2013 state report card. Tennessee scored 93.5 percent, the highest of any other state rated in the Protected Innocence Challenge. 

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