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House Republican Caucus Weekly Wrap

Week of March 23-27,2009

  • Budget proposal presented to lawmakers
  • Stimulus funds will foot much of the TennCare bill
  • Higher Education may dodge a bullet
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Testimony on “wine in grocery stores”
  • Is the Tennessee Plan constitutional?

The Tennessee Republican Party LogoAfter months of uncertainty while the United States Congress wrangled over details of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the Governor presented his initial budget proposal Monday night to a Joint Convention of the House and Senate. Because of the unprecedented economic situation facing Tennessee, the Governor is proposing a multi- year approach, and laying out possibilities for the next four years. He explained that much of the ARRA money, which totals approximately $5 billion over two years for Tennessee, comes with strings attached and has essentially already been earmarked by Congress.

According the Administration, about “two-fifths” of the money are “Tennessee” funds—monies that will allow the state some leniency regarding where to use them—while the remainder are “Congressional” funds that have multiple strings attached.

Stimulus funds will foot much of the TennCare bill

Of the $2.1 billion in “Tennessee” funds, more than half will temporarily foot the bill for TennCare—the state’s Medicaid program—to free up the state dollars to fund programs elsewhere. While other states will be required to use this money to plug holes in their Medicaid programs, TennCare is in a stable position. Additionally, TennCare had approximately $500 million in their reserve account at the beginning of the year.

Higher Education may dodge a bullet

Although large reductions were expected in higher education, the ARRA dedicates $500 million specifically to higher education, meaning that the anticipated cuts are no longer necessary. Reductions that had already taken place will now be restored to the tune of $100 million this year. The budget proposal stipulates that higher education will be fully funded for the next 21 months from stimulus funds. However, House Republicans expressed prudence when discussing changes to the higher education system, which will be facing a possible $180 million shortfall in the future. Republican leaders have expressed their desire to leave nothing off the table when discussing possible different approaches to higher education.

Unemployment Insurance

One of the priorities that the Governor said the Administration will focus on is
keeping the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund solvent. Although the Governor considered turning down the unemployment portion of the federal stimulus package, citing as a concern the obligation to continue higher spending when the federal money runs out in two years, the state will accept the $141 million
injection to the Unemployment Trust Fund.

Accepting the money will mean that Tennessee has to adopt three federal mandates at a projected outflow of $30 million annually. A part-time worker definition, alternative wage base calculations and dependents allowance must be adopted by the General Assembly in order to qualify for the stimulus funds.
Republican lawmakers are cautioning that if adopted, there may be a need to end these mandated benefits once the federal monies are exhausted to sustain the fund in the future.

House State & Local Committee hears testimony on “wine in grocery stores” bill

The State and Local Government Committee heard testimony this week concerning the “wine in grocery stores” bill, which has emerged as one of the key issues this year. While the fate of the bill is unclear, the legislation has spurred discussion over Tennessee’s liquor laws.

The bill would essentially create a “wine at retail food store license,” which would allow the sale of wine at retail food stores. The license would be issued by the Alcoholic Beverage Commission and only in a county or municipality that has authorized the sale of alcoholic beverages. Businesses who obtain the license would still be subject to  rules and regulations governing current liquor and beer laws, and would also be subject to the “Responsible Vendors Act,” which requires mandatory carding.

Much of the testimony in favor of allowing wine in grocery stores centered around the possible revenues the state and local governments would receive if the bill is passed. The Fiscal Review Committee is estimating that passage of the bill would mean $16 million for the state’s General Fund, and an $11 million boost for local government revenues.

The Sheriff of Madison County testified against the bill, stating that he believed the legislation would lead to an increase in underage drinking, and to an increase in crime and panhandling outside of convenience stores. In the same vein, a liquor store owner projected he would lose 15 to 20 percent of his revenues if the bill passed, resulting in the loss of one full time employee and possibly an additional part time employee.

The bill’s fate has yet to be decided, as neither the House nor the Senate has officially taken the legislation up for members’ debate. The Associated Press performed an informal poll of every member of the General Assembly last week, with the results showing 23 members were supportive, 31 members were against the legislation, and 78 members were undecided

Subcommittee hosts presentation: Is the Tennessee Plan constitutional?

The Civil Practice and Procedure Subcommittee hosted a presentation this week, asking the question: “Is the Tennessee Plan constitutional?” Judge Holly Kirby of the Tennessee Court of Appeals and Brian Fitzpatrick, Assistant Professor of Law at Vanderbilt Law School, made presentations.

The Tennessee Plan is the mechanism by which the state appoints judges to the
State Supreme Court, the State Court of Appeals, and the State Court of Criminal Appeals. When the plan was implemented in the 1970’s, advocates hailed the plan as a way to keep partisan politics out of the judiciary.

The Judicial Selection Commission, a panel composed of 17 members, offers the Governor a slate of three candidates to fill a vacancy on the court. If the Governor rejects all three candidates on the first slate, he can request another. If this occurs, the Governor must then make a selection from that list of prospective nominees. After being appointed, judges are subject to “yes/no” retention votes every eight years.

Fitzpatrick said he firmly believes the Tennessee Plan and the Judicial Selection Commission is unconstitutional. He pointed out that should the legislature decide they prefer the commission and the subsequent retention vote, a constitutional amendment would be necessary—which would require not only the approval of two General Assemblies, but also a voter referendum.

Judge Holly Kirby suggested in her testimony that the legislature should look to the intent of the writer’s of our State Constitution. Did they, she asked, intend to limit the power and authority of the legislature to determine the type of elections for appellate judges? She argued that the judicial and executive branches have the most limited authority, and the broadest possible authority was granted to the legislative body, which directly represents the people of this state.

At the center of the debate over the Judicial Selection Commission is the provision in the constitution that states, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.” The state Supreme Court has ruled that the yes/no retention vote qualifies the system as constitutional, but the debate came to a head in 2007, when the Governor rejected the first two slates of candidates given to him by the Judicial Selection Commission. His actions prompted questions as to whether or not the system was effective and relevant.

The Judicial Selection is currently in “wind-down” due to legislature failing to pass a bill last year extending it. Unless legislation passes this year to extend the commission, it will cease to exist as of June 30, 2009.

In case you missed it…

House committee discusses “Secret Ballot Protection Act of 2009”: The House Employee Affairs Subcommittee heard testimony this week regarding the Republican-sponsored “Secret Ballot Protection Act of 2009.” The legislation is an initiative that seeks to preserve the right of voting by secret ballot when it comes to deciding whether or not to elect an exclusive bargaining
representative.

The sponsor argued that the bill is a counter measure to the Democrats’ dangerous card check legislation, which could possibly subject employees to intimidation by making any vote for a union public. Republicans also believe the right to a secret ballot is sacred whether in the voting booth or in the workplace and that the bill is consistent with Tennessee’s Constitution and court decisions that provide that all elections in Tennessee shall be by a method guaranteeing ballot secrecy.

Aggressive driving bill moves out of Transportation Committee: A bill to curb aggressive driving passed out of the House Transportation Committee this week, and will now face the Finance, Ways and Means Committee. House Bill 18 creates a new violation of aggressive driving if the driver is guilty of at least three of the following violations in one continuous episode of the following:

  • Overtaking on the right
  • Overtaking and passing in no passing zones
  • Following too closely
  • Failing to yield for emergency vehicles
  • Failing to yield to pedestrians
  • Failure to signal turn
  • Speeding
  • Stopping, standing, or parking in prohibited places
  • Following fire trucks
  • Improper use of HOV lanes

Constitutional Amendment adding “Right to hunt and fish” passes subcommittee: A constitutional amendment that would add the right to hunt
and fish to the Tennessee Constitution passed out subcommittee this week, and will now face Conservation and Environment Committee. House Joint Resolution 149 has already been passed by a majority in the 105 th General Assembly, meaning that it must now pass the 106th General Assembly with a two-thirds majority before appearing on the ballot in a referendum in 2010.

The week ahead…

  • HOUSE SESSION: 5:00 p.m. Monday, March 30, 2009 in the House Chambers
  • HOUSE SESSION: 9:00 a.m. Thursday, April 2, 2009 in the House Chambers

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

  • Calendar & Rules Committee, 8:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Higher Education Subcommittee, 8:30 a.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Consumer Subcommittee, 8:30 a.m., Legislative Plaza 30
  • Professional Occupations Subcommittee, 8:30 a.m.,Legislative Plaza 31
  • Commerce Committee, 9:15 a.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Agriculture Committee, 9:15 a.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Family Justice Subcommittee, 9:15 a.m.,Legislative Plaza 30
  • Health & Human Resources Committee, 10:30 a.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Consumer & Employee Affairs Committee, 10:30 a.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Utilities & Banking Subcommittee, 10:30 a.m., Legislative Plaza 30
  • Environment Subcommittee, 11:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • State & Local Government Committee, 12:00 p.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Civil Practice & Procedure Subcommittee, 12:00 p.m., Legislative Plaza 31
  • Finance, Ways & Means Committee, 1:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Employee Affairs Subcommittee, 1:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Rural Roads Subcommittee, 1:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 31
  • Wildlife Subcommittee, 2:15 p.m., Legislative Plaza 30
  • Transportation Committee, 3:00 p.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Public Safety Subcommittee (After Trans), Legislative Plaza 16
  • Public Health Subcommittee, 4:00 p.m., Legislative Plaza 30

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

  • Calendar & Rules (TBA), 8:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Children & Family Affairs Committee, 8:30 a.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • State Government Subcommittee, 8:30 a.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Judiciary Committee, 8:30 a.m., Legislative Plaza 31
  • Local Government Subcommittee, 9:15 a.m.,  Legislative Plaza 29
  • K-12 Education Subcommittee, 10:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Government Operations Committee, 10:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Industrial Impact Subcommittee, 10:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 30
  • Elections Subcommittee, 10:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 31
  • Education Committee, 11:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Budget Subcommittee, 11:00 a.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Criminal Practice & Procedure Subcommittee, 12:00 p.m., Legislative Plaza 31
  • Parks and Recreation Subcommittee, 12:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Domestic Subcommittee, 12:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Healthcare Facilities Subcommittee, 12:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 30
  • Finance Budget Hearings, 1:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 16
  • Agriculture Subcommittee, 3:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 29
  • Judiciary Committee, 3:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza 31
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