Schools, streams and keeping students in school once they obtain lottery scholarships were issues on the minds of the audience and Blount County’s legislative representatives at the Legislative Coffee held Friday morning at the Blount County Chamber of Commerce.
State Sen. Raymond Finney and State Representatives Doug Overbey and Joe McCord fielded questions from the audience during the hour-long program. Subjects ranged from water quality to school funding to what lawmakers should do with excess lottery funds.
And while numerous issues were discussed during the breakfast, the bottom line all went down to money, with all three predicting lean days for state government in 2008.
“This is going to be a difficult year,” said Sen. Finney. “Gov. Bredesen warned this is going to be a difficult year financially. I had good bills I tossed in the trash can because there’s no use in passing them if we can’t fund them.”
All three said funding in 2008 was a major concern. While the 2007 budget was flush with excess tax revenues, those revenues have been down this fiscal year.
In spite of funding woes, the General Assembly is hard at work, said Finney.
“We’re very busy,” Finney said. “We are passing some important bills. I have bills I’m very passionate about.”
Overbey said the pace of work in the state house has picked up recently, but is different from years past. “It seems like each session has a different personality. This has been the slowest of my eight years,” he said.
Overbey talked a bill regarding increased access to long-term care insurance. “The bill is going toward a single point of entry and giving our seniors more options as they age,” he said.
“The major legislation that is likely to come out this year is the long-term care initiative,” Overbey said.
McCord said his first budget when he was first sworn in as a state representative was about $18 billion. “There was outcry when it capped $20 billion,” McCord said. “This budget busts $30 billion. We have to make decisions and prioritize.”
In 2007, when the tax revenues were flush, priorities weren’t as important as today, McCord said. “Now we have to refocus on what our priorities are, and I think that’s healthy,” he said.
McCord was questioned about House Bill 4185 that would exclude “limited resource waters” from the definition of “waters” under the Water Quality Control Act. Critics have said the measure could remove protections from some of the state’s streams. McCord said his bill was about definitions and was not an effort to weaken the laws governing water quality.
“There’s no definition of a stream,” McCord said. “At its core, this bill is trying to get clarity on what is a ditch. This is not an effort to weaken laws. No one wants to pollute water. We’re trying to set a finite definition so if people need to get a permit, they’ll know.”
The lawmakers were asked what they were doing to keep the impetus on education.
Finney said he had concerns about the governor’s universal pre-Kindergarten initiative funded via excess lottery funds. “That will be contingent on how much we can afford,” Finney said. “We obviously won’t have all the dollars education will need, but no department will.”
Joe McCord said tight economic times force the state lawmakers to look at priorities before adding extras.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to K-12. That is our responsibility, and we need to fund that fully,” he said.
Overbey said that while tax revenues are down that didn’t mean cuts were inevitable. “Right now, it’s probably not a matter of cutting,” he said. “There just probably won’t be any enhancements.”
Overbey stressed the connection between investing in education and helping the economy. “If we’re going to spend money, let’s spend it on education so people can get a job,” he said.
Overbey said there has also been movement toward reducing the grade point average needed by college students to maintain their lottery scholarship.
“I think it’s important,” said Overbey. “The average GPA nationally is 2.6. It seems reasonable to reduce (Tennessee’s 3.0) to 2.75 (to keep the lottery scholarships),” Overbey said. “We need to encourage people to not only get into school but to stay in school.”
Finney said he’s concerned with how excess lottery dollars are spent. “We have quite a bit in lottery excess - $400 million and growing everyday,” he said. “But there are only certain things by law we can do with that money.”
The lawmakers also indicated support for using lottery surplus to pay for capital projects in local school systems.
“I don’t think keeping that much money helps anyone but bankers,” Finney said.
McCord said school systems throughout the state are begging for money. “I’d rather spend it on them before we spend it on programs some say are on the fringe of what we can use lottery money for,” he said.