GOP Week In Review: General Assembly adjourns “Sine Die”
The 105th General Assembly adjourned “Sine Die” this week, concluding a contentious session in which lawmakers were forced to make difficult decisions regarding the lottery scholarship program and the budget. Ultimately, legislators came together to form compromise legislation that will greatly benefit Tennesseans by allowing more students access to college, passing a budget with no new taxes, and providing seniors with more healthcare options.
Budget passes both chambers at eleventh hour
The 2008-2009 budget was passed late Wednesday night, and is lauded by Republicans as a fiscally responsible one in which reasonable cuts in growth were made. The total budget, which includes federal dollars, for 2008-2009 is $27.5 billion, $245 million less than originally proposed in January. The 2007-2008 total budget was $27.75 billion, $250 million more than this year’s. The state portion of this year’s budget was $13.6 billion, a $200 million decrease from 2007-2008.
April 2008 was the worst month on record for revenue growth in Tennessee, and the third quarter of this fiscal year was the second worst quarter on record. Projections show that the fourth quarter—of which the state is halfway through—could be even worse.
The budget that was approved will eliminate 2,011 jobs—roughly 5 percent—in the executive branch through voluntary buy-outs, which is anticipated to have a price tag of approximately $50 million. The one- time money will be taken from departmental reserve accounts, and will save the state about $64 million annually. The Governor has added
approximately 5,000 jobs in his tenure, meaning the cuts make up 42 percent of Bredesen hires.
From the beginning, the Administration was optimistic that those employees who will be targeted for the buy-outs will voluntarily take them. It was reported by the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System last week that many state workers were interested in the buy-out plan, although they wanted to hear more details before committing to anything
This year’s budget protects education, and continues to fund the Basic Education Program, the plan by which the state disperses dollars to local school systems at last year’s same percentage of funding. Although there is no increase in the state’s percentage of BEP funds as was anticipated for this year, there is a required increase of $59 million to cover inflationary costs for the school systems.
For higher education, however, the state made a cut of roughly 4.1 percent, or about $56 million. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission is expected to work with the two systems, the Tennessee Board of Regents and University of Tennessee system, to distribute the cuts. Republicans are hopeful that the schools can make cuts wherever possible instead of simply passing the reductions along via tuition increases.
Lottery compromise reached in final hours
One of the most contentious and complicated issues of the year, the sweeping lottery scholarship legislation, passed both chambers this week. After a decision could not be reached by each chamber independently, both the House and Senate appointed a conference committee to examine the options. The conference committee, made up of both Senators and Representatives, presented a “conference report” to the legislative bodies to either be adopted or rejected. Ultimately, the House passed the measure with a vote of 92-2.
The final proposal is slated to give 12,107 students the opportunity to participate in the HOPE scholarship program. Many Republican lawmakers expressed concern, however, over the $27.5 million price tag. Members argued that the proposal stretched the lottery scholarship fund too thin, with the state spending more than the fund could ultimately sustain.
The legislation will allow a student to maintain the HOPE scholarship by keeping a grade point average (GPA) of 2.75 for 60 hours of classes. At the conclusion of 60 hours, in order to continue to receive the HOPE scholarship, the student must achieve a 3.0 GPA for the next semester or 12 hours and for the remainder of the students’ college career. The GPA is no longer based on a cumulative score, butonly based on semester averages. The new legislation also provides a one-time regain provision.
The legislation also provides for the following:
- $10 million to the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) for the purpose of awarding need based grants, impacting 5,000 students;
- The “Helping Heroes” program, which is projected to assist approximately 375 students at $1.5 million over two years;
- A pilot project to provide students enrolled in dual enrollment courses with laptops, to benefit 100 students in each grand division;
- A full HOPE scholarship to two-year institutions with on-campus housing;
- Allowing students to maintain the HOPE scholarship for a full five years;
- Additional funds that become available will fund the Energy Efficient Schools program at $100 million
House unanimously approves “Long-Term Care Community Choices Act”
This year, the General Assembly passed a comprehensive long term care package that aims to use the dollars allotted to the state’s system more effectively by allowing seniors to “age in place.” Some of the key provisions in the legislation include greater access to home-based care, simplifying and streamlining the process, and adding more diversity to the system. Republicans have been championing the cause for several years and were pleased to see the measure
The “Long Term Care Community Choices Act of 2008” is designed to promote independence, choice, dignity, and quality of life for the elderly and/or people with physical disabilities who need long-term care support and services from the state’s TennCare program. The overhaul will include consumer-directed options that offer more choices regarding the kinds of long-term care services people need, where they are provided, and who will deliver them, with appropriate mechanisms to ensure accountability for taxpayer funds. The changes to the system will be phased in as new applicants are admitted over the next couple of years.
- House Bill 2486 passed the House of Representatives this week 96-0. The bill extends the Class E Felony charge of making false and malicious reports of physical abuse against children. Current law provides the Class E Felony sentence for instances of sexual child abuse; this legislation extends it to all instances of false reports of any child abuse.
- A measure championed by Republicans for several years passed the House of Representatives this week. House Bill 2718 enacts the “Tennessee Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.” The legislation authorizes various entities to manufacture identification documents so long as the entity’s name is printed upon the face of such ID. The bill includes various
- businesses, schools and other organizations. The special joint committee to study the administration of the death penalty was extended this week in the House of Representatives. House Bill 2733 lengthens the reporting period of the committee from one year from the appointment of all members to October 1, 2009. The measure comes in the wake of a Kentucky court case questioning the method of lethal injection as a violation of the 8 th amendment. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court held that lethal injection did not constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment.
- House Republicans sponsored and passed legislation this week that make various clarifications to the Open Meetings Laws. House Bill 3637 makes clear that the open meetings requirement does not prohibit discussions or the communications of factual information between individual members of a governing body where the purpose is to educate members on a specific issue.
- House Bill 0164 passed the House of Representatives this Wednesday. The legislation prohibits certain convicted felons from possessing a rifle, shotgun, or any other firearm. Current law only prohibits against the possession of handguns. The bill stipulates the felony must be one using or attempted use of force, violence, or a deadly weapon or the felony is a drug offense.
- A measure to encourage environmentally friendly cars overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives. House Bill 2794 adds alternative fuel and hybrid electric motor vehicles to the present list of vehicles authorized to drive in the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane.