Lawmakers talk budget, black ink and public smoking ban at Chamber coffee

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By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

State Rep. Joe McCord said Friday morning Feb. 16 he’s in a different position in the state legislature than he’s ever been.

"I’m in a place I’ve never been before - we’ve got money for a change," he said, with a laugh. "I really don’t know how to handle it. When I came in, and we had to cut all departments’ (budgets) by 9 percent."

McCord said having plenty of sales tax funds in the state coffers shouldn’t give lawmakers license to spend without restraint.

"We have to use extreme caution not to end up in that situation again," he said of the tight budget crisis the state was in when he was elected. "We’ll go there again if we’re not careful."

McCord, State Rep. Doug Overbey and State Sen. Raymond Finney gathered with members of the Blount County Chamber to share their thoughts on the current session. They said they couldn’t answer questions about the specifics of the governor’s budget proposals because he hadn’t presented it yet. They talked about their own priorities and answered questions from Chamber members.

Overbey said that Gov. Phil Bredesen’s state of the state address earlier this month was different from most because it focused on one issue - education. "The governor has made it the priority for the next two years, as it should be," Overbey said. "I think education is at the forefront with how to better fund the program."

Overbey talked about the governor’s plan to increase the tax on cigarettes by 40 cents. The bulk of funds from the additional tax would go to funding education for at risk students and school system growth, he said. "It would mean additional funds for all three school systems," he said of the three school systems in Blount County.

Overbey said the lottery has been a booming success. "The challenge is how to divvy up the proceeds and make it fair and equitable," he said.

Overbey said the governor has also pledged to restore state funds that were withheld years ago from counties during the tight budget years the state government endured. Funds will hopefully be restored to build or improve highways and to low income housing, he said.

Of some of his own bills, Overbey said one is in memory of Jeff Roth, the bicyclist killed by a hit and run driver on West Lamar Alexander Parkway in August of 2006. The bill deals with individuals who follow bicyclists too closely, he said.

Finney agreed that the governor’s focus is on education this session, adding that that is needed because 65 percent of Tennessee college students are losing their lottery scholarships because of grades.

"It indicates we need more emphasis on secondary education, especially high school," Finney said. "We’re falling behind in the global marketplace."

In health care, Finney said the governor’s administration was given authority to implement the "Cover Tennessee" program, an attempt to get coverage to the uninsured and the uninsurable, the senator said.

Finney said one of the issues he has heard a lot about from constituents is illegal immigration. While this is the purview of the federal government, state lawmakers will consider two or three illegal immigration bills, he said.

The senator said that more money needs to go to building and maintaining roads on both a county and state level. "Gerald Nicely (state transportation commissioner) said that for every $5 we need, he only has $1," Finney said.

Finney said this year lawmakers submitted a record 3,000 bills for consideration to become law. There are too many laws being passed and not enough laws being enforced, he said.

Regarding the Basic Education Program that funds education throughout the state, lawmakers won’t have to consider revamping how funds are allocated since the BEP Review Committee couldn’t come up with a new funding formula. A new funding formula may have meant that one or all of the three school systems in Blount County would have received less funding.

"The best thing to happen to us in education locally is what didn’t happen," McCord said.

Overbey said that because the BEP review committee couldn’t reach a consensus, the BEP formula will stay as it is. In addition, the governor is proposing the cigarette tax hike of 40 cents per pack as a supplement to fund classes for at risk students and to fund growth in each system.

As it is now, growth funds are allocated to schools after they have grown by 2 percent. The new tax would allow the state to fund all growth as it happens. The funds from the proposed cigarette tax hike won’t replace or factor into the BEP funding formula. "It is in addition to the funds that flowed to local systems," Overbey said.

The proposed cigarette tax could affect the desire of many to change the BEP formula. "I think for many systems across the state, this lessens the impetus for change in the BEP formula," he said.

Finney said one bill lawmakers will consider is prohibiting smoking in public buildings. In 2005, lawmakers stopped smoking in state-owned colleges and universities. In 2006 they stopped smoking in all state-owned office buildings. "This year there will be legislation to stop smoking in public buildings, which will be a clash of rights," he said.

Finney said he will vote for the measure out of respect and courtesy to non-smokers. "You can’t satisfy both sides," said the retired medical doctor. "You have to come down (doing) the right thing. I will vote for a ban on smoking in public buildings. No one ever died from a lack of cigarettes."

Overbey said so many laws considered are about balancing individual rights. While some may say an employee irritated by smoking at their workplace could simply change jobs, Overbey said that wasn’t always possible. "Everyone has a right to go to work and earn a paycheck without risking their life," he said.

McCord said he saw the issue differently. "It’s purely private property rights. These are private, tax-paying businesses. No one is required to go there. Many of these businesses have decided not to allow smoking," he said. "I think that’s a decision
to be made by the taxpayer, not a decision of the state."

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