Money, or the lack thereof, was a major conversation piece in this session of the Tennessee General Assembly. State revenue projections were showing a shortfall and legislators said they spent most of their time trying to figure out what to cut. State government also cut staff, offering buyouts to some 2,000 state employees.
The Blount County delegation of State Sen. Raymond Finney, State Rep. Doug Overbey and State Rep. Joe McCord shared their thoughts recently on everything from dealing with the budget shortfall, the lottery scholarships, medical malpractice reform, the B.E.P. formula, statewide broadband access, legislation differentiating between a stream and a ditch and efforts to make DUI offenders realize the pain they cause.
The lawmakers said the budget shortfall was on everyone’s mind when any legislation was being crafted.
Work got done
Rep. Joe McCord said even with the shortfall, work got done.
“The most important part was, in a fiscally down year, we were able to adjust the budget accordingly,” he said. “We were able to manage the budget without Draconian cuts.”
Sen. Raymond Finney said the shortfall shaped a lot of things the lawmakers did. “We have a shortfall of what we expected by $468 million, and it could go higher. The governor took the low end of the estimate and based his budget on that,” Finney said. “Most things got cut somewhat, and it created problems.”
Finney said cuts could go higher if the recession is long and deep. “We hope it’s shallow, as it has been in the past,” he said. “I had good bills, but we couldn’t move them because we didn’t have the money. That was one of the things that concerned all of us.”
“It was a tough session from a fiscal point of view,” Rep. Overbey said. “Revenue estimates were not coming in as projected. Be that as it may, we passed a balanced budget, and we also were able to accomplish a few things.”
All three lawmakers said they had legislation they were proud of, even if some of it didn’t get passed.
Overbey said broadband access, long-term care services and medical malpractice were good bills that, even if one of them passes in a given year, the session would’ve been considered a success.
“The broadband access bill should provide opportunities for broadband to be extended across the state,” Overbey said.
Finney said the law would allow statewide competition for cable and broadband communication services.
“The holdup has been there has been a lot of fighting back and forth. We had to make local government satisfied because they get a 5 percent tax on cable television services they write franchises for. They also wanted the right to set right of way conditions,” Finney said.
Finney said there was a lot of concerns that statewide franchise holders would not continue certain things cable companies are doing. “We wanted to be sure public education and government channels would be maintained, and that’s in the bill. They have to provide local programming,” he said. “We also wanted to make sure statewide franchise holders didn’t cherry-pick neighborhoods and go to affluently or closely spaced houses because it would be cheaper.”
Overbey said the long-term care services bill made home and community-based services more accessible and available to seniors. “I was on the study committee set up to develop legislation, and I think it will give our seniors more options to age in place and get services at home and make nursing homes, rather than first choice, the last choice,” he said.
Finney said he was proud of this bill and said groups such as AARP had input on it.
“If you qualify, you can stay home and have payment paid to a relative or neighbor or someone in the community rather than a nursing home. It would allow certain things to be done in home, such as having a ramp built. It is designed to keep people in their homes as long as possible,” he said. “It makes residents much happier, and it also saves a tremendous amount of money.”
Overbey said the medical malpractice reform is a bill he had been working on for five years. “It should allow us to get the non-meritorious suits out of the system earlier, which will allow the meritorious suits to get to trial sooner,” he said. “I think the end result will be to make medical services more accessible and available, and it will end the drain of physicians moving to other states and closing practices.”
McCord said he got legislation passed guaranteeing the constitutional right to fish and hunt in Tennessee.
“One thing I’m personally happy about was the constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to hunt and fish in the state of Tennessee. I worked with several groups. Former state Supreme Court Justice Lyle Reed worked with me on crafting some language and we got that passed,” he said.
McCord said the measure will be voted on again next general assembly and, if it passes with two-thirds majority, will then be on the 2010 gubernatorial election ballot before it is made a constitutional amendment.
“In this country, game is the property of the state, so the state is one that guarantees that right. Several other states have passed similar legislation,” he said. “It’s in response to organizations trying to outlaw hunting.”
McCord said he also had a bill that passed which set a time-frame for the State Department of Environment and Conservation to respond to individuals requesting information about streams and waterways and building near them. “In the past, people said it would take a year and half to get an answer,” McCord said.
Sex offenders, drunk drivers
Finney said another bill he was happy about was an omnibus sex offender’s bill that cracks down on sex offenders coming into contact with children.
Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Woodson, 6th district, and Rep. Overbey, required sex offenders to disclose their internet names and alias screen names.
Overbey said statistics show one in five teens using the Internet have had an unwanted sexual advance. “Disclosure of e-mail aliases will allow parents to keep a check on who they’re talking to,” he said. “It’s an important bill for children who utilize the Internet for their class work.”
Finney said there were also a number of DUI bills voted on during the session. “We’re frustrated with DUIs. There are 1,300 deaths a year and 500 or so are due to alcohol-related accidents. It increased from 2005 to 2006. We’re trying to do our best,” he said. “It’s the leading cause of death in young people. There’s no reason people need to get out and get drunk and drive. We started and passed several laws that will improve our ability to fight this.”
Finney said he helped pass a victims impact panel consisting of a DUI victim, a first-responder or EMT who has dealt with DUI crashes and someone who has been found guilty of driving drunk.
“It was started in Oklahoma. A judge can sentence a DUI offender to attend this two-hour class,” Finney explained. “They tell what this has meant in their lives. I understand people who go through it have had dramatic changes in their lives. It’s been a very effective program.”
Lottery and education
Overbey said lawmakers did make good changes in the lottery scholarship program.
“We still need to look for ways to provide lottery scholarships for those who are wanting to go into nursing and teaching,” he said. “Those are fields we have shortages in, and we need to encourage folks who have been out of school for while and provide scholarships to them. That will encourage more folks to go into nursing and teaching.”
Finney said lawmakers did a number of things to streamline lottery scholarships and to make them more accessible to 12,000 more students. “One thing we did that we’ve never done is take $90 million out of the lottery excess,” Finney said. “The lottery is up to $600-plus million, so we’re putting money into a trust fund. It will be given to schools to make schools more energy efficient and will be a revolving fund. Some will be given as grants to use for energy efficiency in schools.”
Finney said the energy savings could be used by the school systems. “It will make more money available for other things,” he said. “This is our first venture in using lottery funds for buildings purposes.”
McCord said two big things he worked on but didn’t get passed still made him feel his efforts were successful because they got people talking about issues.
“We’ve got ongoing discussions happening with the water bill and dealing with limited waters. Hopefully, the Department of Environment and Conservation will put that in Rules and Regulations not Codes, but we’re moving it down the field,” he said. “It was about limited resource water, giving it a designation. It’s about trying to get a finite definition for ditches versus streams and the permits that are required. We need to get consensus across the state.”
McCord said another bill that got a lot of feedback, both positively and negatively, was the traditional school calendar bill that called for an end to the sliding start-up date for fall semester in Tennessee, moving it to no earlier than Aug. 10. “We weren’t changing the number of days. Even though it didn’t pass, it got people talking about it. That was a success in-and-of itself,” he said.
McCord said he and several other House members that represented districts adversely affected by the new BEP 2.0 formula tried to work with the administration and the Department of Education to work on a formulary change “that would help ease our pain from the loss of state revenue,” he said.
“We were not able to get that done, but we have worked on it and are working on it and are trying to find a resolution to this problem short of the systems negatively affected filing a lawsuit. We’re going to continue working on it,” he said.
McCord said that while school districts in places like Blount County raised property taxes to pay for better schools, Memphis lowered their property taxes on news they were getting more state funds.
“They got $14 million additional from the state and their city council lowered their property taxes in Memphis. That was the ultimate insult to injury,” he said.
Overbey said that as far as looking to the future, lawmakers have a lot to deal with regarding school funding. “For Blount County, Maryville, Alcoa and Sevier County schools, the governor’s B.E.P. 2.0 program passed last year and had some bad effects for these two counties,” he said. “We need to continue to fight to make changes in how our state funds local education, so we reward systems that do well and not penalize them.”
Finney said next year he wants to concentrate on finishing what was started this year. “We need to get more involved in children’s issues. We did some things this year that were important, but we need to protect and educate our children more in the best fashion we can,” he said. “They are the future of our state and nation.”
McCord said something he would like to work on is creating a Tennessee outdoor recreation authority in light of the state buying or being donated large tracts of property for recreational use. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation are responsible for these properties, he said.
McCord said he didn’t want to create a land management bureau. This agency would solely be for outdoor recreation. Many people think it makes sense but the details need to be worked out as far as how it would be funded, he said.
“What I’d like to consider is getting TWRA back to wildlife and fisheries biology and get TDEC back to preservation and protection of the environment and out of the recreation business,” he said. “In my opinion, state parks don’t need to be running golf courses and wildlife biologists don’t need to be grading four-wheeler trails.”