Lawmakers talk cigarette taxes, educational standards and identity theft

By Lance Coleman
Editor
Blount Today

The State House of Representatives isn’t taking a smoke break, but they are talking cigarettes. On the agenda this session is Gov. Phil Bredesen’s cigarette tax hike proposal and it is holding up action on other bills going through the chamber.

State Rep. Joe McCord, Sen. Raymond Finney and State Rep. Doug Overbey were guests during a legislative coffee at the Blount County Chamber of Commerce on April 27. They gave their opinions on legislation moving through both the state house and state senate.

According to McCord, Bredesen is tenacious and often focuses on one issue during a session and works to steer the attention of lawmakers on those issues until he’s satisfied.

"The governor is politically savvy. He’s not moving anything forward until he gets what he wants or exhausts all avenues," McCord said. "That’s why I’m not optimistic for an early (adjournment)."

Finney said that while the governor was asking for $219 million for education, he hasn’t spelled out exactly how that money would be spent. "It gives us a little heartburn without knowing exactly where this is going," he said.

Finney said that if a higher cigarette tax is imposed on top of the current 20 cents per pack, the question is how much that tax would be and where would it go. The governor wants to raise the cigarette tax by 40 cents a pack and give most of the funds to education. Finney said another concern besides education is the state’s reserve fund. "We have a relatively small rainy-day fund," he said. "There are other needs such as saving for bad times and for health care."

Finney questioned the wisdom of raising taxes, even cigarette taxes, during a time when the state is bringing in increased tax revenues already. "All of us have to think about adding taxes when we have excess revenues," he said.

McCord said cigarette taxes should be raised. "I think you should have more frequent, modest increases," he said.

McCord also cautioned that taxes shouldn’t be raised so much that there isn’t another funding resource available during lean times. "I wonder where we’re going to go in the future," he said. "We can’t go over 10 percent on the sales tax," he said.

McCord suggested that if the legislature decides to cut taxes in any way, reducing the sales tax on food by half a cent (per dollar) would be an option. It could then be raised back up if needed during lean times.

"This is an ongoing discussion, and it’s my job to listen," he said.

Overbey said much of the discussion on the budget will hinge on the governor’s amended projected revenues and where specific budget dollars will go. "It’s a waiting game right now," he said.

Overbey said a bill that would give patients direct access to physical therapy was making progress. The bill had come out of subcommittee in the house and, as of April 27, was headed to the full Health Committee of the House. It already had passed the state Senate.

Overbey updated chamber members on a medical malpractice bill that had changed since it was filed. "It will no longer have non-economic injury caps," he said. "The bill is now to address lawyers who bring non-meritorious claims."

The bill requires 60 days notice before an individual may file a malpractice suit. "I don’t know if this would work. Having the 60 days probably would give people a chance to say ‘You’ve got the wrong person.’ Will this solve our medical malpractice problems?" he said. "It is a good start."

Finney said the identity theft bill he supported is going to be one of the best in the country. "It will phase out using Social Security numbers for identification purposes," he said. "It will allow the consumer to own his or her own credit report."

Finney said that the person would simply pay $7.50 per reporting agency. "You can have total control of your credit. You can freeze that at will," he said.

The law also strengthens the law regarding those who steal identities. "If you’ve ever been a victim, it takes some time, maybe months or years, to rectify that," he said.

Regarding raising educational standards, Finney said that if parents were more involved, students’ academic performance would jump.

The students Finney talks to often are tired and don’t do well in school. "Often some of them are working 40 hours a week to make car payments," he said. "This is a cultural issue not addressed by taxes."

McCord said that in other countries, the students who aren’t performing well academically aren’t given the educational opportunities that by law all students in the United States are guaranteed. This often means other countries are comparing their best students’ average scores to the scores of all U.S. students.

McCord said that in Tennessee, average test scores would appear higher if Memphis’ scores weren’t included. "We have some good things in place," he said of the state’s education system.

"When people bash the Tennessee educational system, let’s give Tennessee a break. We’ve got to be realistic. Memphis has a 30 percent drop-out rate. Their test results drag us down. You take that away, and Tennessee’s scores skyrocket," he said.

Lynne V. Musick with Joseph Construction Co., disagreed and said the problem had to be more widespread and that
Tennessee lagged behind other states in educational performance. "It can’t just be a few (school) systems," she said.

Blount County Chamber Partnership president Fred Forster said the No. 1 complaint among business people is that they can’t find people to work because they are not trained.

"When it takes 10 people to hire one person, that’s when the rubber meets the road," he said.

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