The 2007 session of General Assembly lasted longer than most, but plenty of work was done and Blount County lawmakers fingerprints were on much of the legislation that was either passed or considered.
Sen. Raymond Finney, State Rep. Joe McCord and State Rep. Doug Overbey shared their thoughts on the session. They talked about the reduction in BEP funds to Blount area schools, participating in a bill that paid $80 million for 122,000 acres of land in the Cumberland Mountains and the cigarette tax.
McCord said overall lawmakers had a pretty good session. "It lasted way too long," he said. "Theres no need to go into June in a time when you have money, and you dont have to make cuts. I was disappointed by that."
Overbey said this session should have adjourned earlier. "Unfortunately, it turned out to be a long session. I think we could have done our work more efficiently and probably adjourned earlier, but the governor didnt present the final education plan until May 4," he said. "That took time to study."
Few would argue that one of the most talked about issues this session was the formula the state was going to use to fund schools. After waiting several months, the governor unveiled a new way for calculating how the 136 different school systems would get funding through the Basic Education Plan in May. Gov. Phil Bredesen reworked the formula and called it BEP 2.0.
Finney said he was disappointed in the reduced amount of money the county, Alcoa and Maryville got with the new formula compared to the old one. "The old formula upset whoever was making less than others, and there was a series of lawsuits, and the governor revised the formula. What he said was were going to reimburse the 136 school districts in the state based on physical capacity models and that was calculated using each local governments property tax rate and sales tax rate," Finney said.
Finney said he and Rep. Overbey and Rep. McCord, tried very hard to get that changed but the governor was behind his plan.
"The big cities and counties do well under the new plan, and they have the votes, and theyre not going to give up their money for us," Finney said. "We were just unlucky in the way the formula worked out."
McCord wasnt happy with the changes in the BEP. "That was a huge disappointment, as well. It was not an issue until the tobacco tax became an issue. Then, all of a sudden, they needed votes for a tobacco tax so the BEP was changed," he said.
McCord said none of the lawmakers or the governor can answer for sure what impact this will have on the state in three or four years. "The BEP was created by court order, and were changing it on a whim. I think its going to have negative effect," he said. "I represent Blount County, Maryville, Alcoa and Sevier County. After two years, theyre going to be worse off than before. I think this was endorsed by this administration in a haphazard manner."
Flush with cash?
Finney said something that bothered him was that with a $27.9 billion state budget and a "Red Hot" economy that generated $700 million more in revenues than anticipated, a new tax on cigarettes was approved while sales taxes on food were only reduced half a percent.
"Even with record revenues, we passed taxes," said Finney. "The cigarette tax added 42 cents on each pack of cigarettes.
That has one good effect -- it may make it more costly for young people and may deter them for a while. Most smokers arent going to stop. Any tax hurts poor people the most. Passing this tax when we really didnt need it just increased the hardship on working families that have smokers. Should they quit smoking and avoid the tax? Yes, but theyre not going to do that. Its my view we should not tax people when we dont need the taxes, and we clearly didnt need it this year," Finney said. "We had such a surplus."
While lawmakers did a lot of good things and started many new programs for residents across the state, McCord said he felt like the last several months he spent much of his time yelling for lawmakers to be cautious. "Weve got money right now but theyre coming up with new spending proposals. I dont want to spend ourselves into the predicament we were in for four years," he said. "There have been great things done by this administration."
McCord said lawmakers have passed workers compensation reform and did away with the old form of TennCare. With the combination of a sales tax increase six years ago and money not going out as it did with TennCare, the state is flush with money.
"It concerns me were so ready to start new programs with Pre-K and so many new expanded programs. Im concerned were not always going to be in this good of a financial shape."
The lawmaker said that when the state does get into another
financial bind, additional funds are going to be hard to find. "I
dont support an income tax, so where are you going to go? I dont think you can go over 10 cents on state and local option sales tax, and it concerns me were spending so much recurring dollars."
McCord did not support the increased tax on cigarettes.
"They tripled the tax on cigarettes," he said. "I voted against that. I think theyre performing social engineering," he said.
McCord said lawmakers vote to reduce sales tax on food by a half of a percent. "That was just a political gimmick in my opinion. What I would like to have seen is a total half cent reduction off all sales tax, and, in the future, if you had tough times you could increase that half cent again and still not go over 10 cents," he said.
Reasons for smiling
McCord said one of the things he was happiest about from this session was playing a role in the $82 million land acquisition in the Cumberland Mountains. McCord helped get the legislation tied into the Tennessee Heritage Preservation Trust Act. This gives lawmakers a legislative say on what activities occur on that land, he said. "Whats popular in tourism may change so you need that flexibility," he said.
The senator said he was proud that the state spent more than $80 million to set aside 122,000 acres in the Cumberland Mountains for recreation and conservation. While timber companies will harvest trees on a portion of the land, the property will be in reserve from development, he said.
"This will be an area a quarter of the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hope the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will not let excessive logging occur," he said. "Logging was kept as part of the purchase so the price wouldnt be as much. We hope they keep that at reasonable levels and use good practices."
Finney said the state was able to make a tremendous investment in the rainy day fund, officially known as the revenue fluctuation emergency fund. "Thats what we have in reserves for emergencies. The economists say we should have $1.1 billion. We have slightly less than $500 million," he said.
By the time the next fiscal year starts on July 1, 2008, another $250 million should be in reserve, making it more than $750 million in savings. "Its important because were probably facing a recession in the next year or so," he said. "Weve had boom times and recessions always follow. If we have a long recession and deep recession, sales tax revenues will go down, and well need some money to augment what were losing in sales taxes."
Overbey said he was happy to see the Volunteer Emergency Medical Act of 2007 and the Trauma Center Funding Act of 2007 both pass, and was encouraged by the progress this session of his malpractice legislation.
The trauma center funding act "will help our hospitals, including Blount Memorial Hospital and University of Tennessee Medical center and East Tennessee Childrens Hospital provide trauma care," said Overbey. "Its something Ive been working on several years. It came to the floor the last day and passed unanimously. I was glad we could accomplish it."
The Volunteer Emergency Medical Act will open things up in case of a natural disaster, said Overbey. "In the event we ever have a natural disaster in Tennessee, like the New Madrid Fault or devastating tornado or floods, then health care providers from other states can more readily and quickly come into our state and provide medical assistance," he said. The legislation is also designed so that in the event of a Hurricane Katrina type situation, medical personnel from Tennessee can go to other states and provide assistance, he said.
Overbey said one bill he has worked on for several years deals with medical malpractice reform. "For the first time, I was able to get that bill out of the House Judiciary Committee and onto the House floor. There, it ran into considerable debate, and I ended up referring the bill to the Judiciary Committee," he said. "Its still alive. I guess its on life support."
The lawmaker said he also filed a bill this year that strengthened laws similar to Jessicas Law. That is named for Jessica Lunsford, 9-year-old Florida girl believed to have been abducted and killed in February of 2005 by convicted sex offender John Evander Couey. Her father, Mark Lunsford, was instrumental in bringing publicity to the issue of released sex offenders and played a major role in the events leading to the development of the acts being proposed as a law at the national level.
Jessicas Law is the general term which also applies to state-level versions, including the Florida law that inspired the federal Jessica Lunsford Act. Overbey said Tennessee does not have a Jessicas Law. In some respects, the states law has been stronger than Jessicas Law and in some respects, it hasnt been, he said. "I filed a bill this year," Overbey said. "One provision brings it more in line with Jessicas Law. It adds rape and aggravated rape of a child to the felony murder statute, meaning you can get the death penalty for rape of a child or aggravated rape of a child. I am glad were able to get that passed."
Overbey said Connie Huffman with Blount Memorial Hospital told him she learned there was vagueness in state law regarding abuse of an impaired adult, whether the adult was impaired through infirmity of physical or mental infirmity. "I filed a bill that makes clear that the abuse of an impaired adult is a class C felony," he said. "It strengthens the adult abuse statutes," Overbey said.
Finney said he was proud of the credit security freeze bill he worked with the American Association of Retired Persons for six to seven months to create and pass. "We have one of the best laws in the nation," he said. "It will help prevent identity theft. The only thing we didnt get done is to give it more teeth by using Social Security numbers for identification."
The senator said he also was a prime sponsor of the regulatory flexibility act which will require all state government agencies to write rules and regulations in simple language with limited paper work. "This helps small businesses by trying to ease the burden on regulations and filing papers. Small businesses are the back bone of the Tennessee economy, and theyre not equipped with departments of accountants and lawyers that big businesses have."
Finney said the state spent record amounts this year on education.
"We funded some more pre-kindergarten classrooms,"
he said. "We are getting more benefits to the teachers. We made major investment in education."
The lawmaker said he took 25 different pieces of legislation that passed on floor of the House this year. "Several of them were suggested by folks in Blount County," he said.
McCord said he was very happy to get a constitutional amendment for the right to hunt and fish. "It has taken us five years to get that out. That will go to the senate next year and go to the next General Assembly and could be voted on in 2010 in the gubernatorial election," he said.
McCord said the bill is a simple two sentence constitutional amendment that he had a former chief justice of the State Supreme Court help with in fashioning the language. It says the citizens of this state shall have the right to hunt and fish subsequent to reasonable rules and regulations. "A lot of this has been in response to bans that occurred in Europe," he said.
McCord said he helped get an ethanol bill passed that has been several years in the making. It allows a 2 and a half cent tax rebate per gallon purchased. It is for counties congruent with Knox County. Eight counties are in non-attainment for air quality with the Environmental Protection Agency and this incentive was to help create cleaner air. Counties in this area manufacture ethanol but there are many facilities to sell it. "Hopefully this will help put an infrastructure in place and, after two and a half years, we will have paid for infrastructure and wont need the tax refund," he said. "Hopefully, that will get that in place, and we can have more ethanol use."
McCord said he already has one goal in mind for January. "The goal we should be geared toward next year is this: If we have the same dollars coming in, we should work toward a half cent total sales tax reduction, not just on certain items," he said. "That gives us a (option) to go to in the future other than the income tax."