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GOP Week in Review

The House GOP Review is a weekly feature that gives Tennesseans an in-depth look at what our Republican state legislators have been working on this week, and a glimpse into what’s planned for the coming week at our state house. This week’s highlights:

  • Balanced Budget Accord
  • 26.9 Billion Dollar Budget
  • Bonding Plan Overhaul
  • Charter Schools
  • Crime Legislation
  • Methamphetamine
  • Drunk Driving

The legislature wrapped up business this week, after several late nights and marathon sessions. Lawmakers reached a consensus on the budget, bonding legislation, and charter schools at the eleventh hour. After a long week, House leaders passed House Joint Resolution 700, declaring the House stand in recess until January 12, 2010 at noon.

House, Senate reach accord on balanced budget

After several weeks of wrangling, the House passed a balanced budget late Wednesday evening. The budget process moved somewhat slower this year after the United States Congress passed a stimulus bill sending nearly $6 billion to Tennessee over two fiscal years. With a constitutional deadline of June 30th approaching, lawmakers reached a consensus that eliminated some previously proposed tax increases that were of concern to Republicans. The state faced a $1.5 billion shortfall after state revenues continued to decline each month. Republican leaders said the final version of the budget was not perfect, but was a true compromise between conservatives who wanted more reductions and Democrats who wanted to spend more to further proposed state projects.

Budget totals $29.6 billion

The budget proposal originally presented by the Governor included bonding for bridge building and repair that concerned Republicans due to the amount of debt the state would incur. In addition, the Governor proposed deep cuts to the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Children’s Services. Under the plan passed on Wednesday, some of these cuts were restored including $5
million in family support grants for mental health, $4.9 million in grants for school health and $4.5 million for the Department of Children’s Services. The plan left intact the Governor’s original reductions of 717 state jobs, mostly in the Department of Mental Health, although 200 lay-offs were delayed until 2010 under the legislature’s final product.

It has been the practice in recent years that when the General Assembly is out of session the Administration may ask for an expansion request, also called supplemental appropriations, which are recognized and acknowledged through a signature of the Senate and House Finance Committee Chairmen and sent back to the Administration who dispenses the funds. New language included in the bill
clarifies that the Administration cannot submit such a spending request while the legislature is actually in session, but must include the proposed appropriations in the budget submitted by the Governor.

GOP overhauls bonding plan

Republican lawmakers pushed to reduce the amount of bonding amid concerns that the debt service on the nearly $350 million would be problematic in the future. The bonding for bridges was instead spread out over four years, requiring reauthorization from the General Assembly each fiscal year. Among the bonded projects are plans to purchase 1,700 acres for the development of a megasite in Haywood County in West Tennessee and a solar farm for a total of $40.3 million. The projects are intended to salvage a dire West Tennessee economy by bringing new industry to the area. Another $157 million in bonds will be issued to pay for several new buildings at state universities, including a new Education and Behavioral Science Building at Middle Tennessee State University and a new library at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Despite the increase in the amount of bonding the state has traditionally done, Tennessee will still have the distinction of having the lowest per capita debt in the
nation.

Republicans also insisted a provision be included that directs the Governor to work with the commissioners of the various state departments to find another $55 million in reductions if tax receipts fall short for the month of June. Overall, the final product of the budget is $35 million less than what the Governor originally proposed.

Republicans pass landmark charter school legislation

Major education reform that strengthens Tennessee’s public charter school law and will expand educational opportunities to students statewide was among the final bills approved by the General Assembly as the 2009 session wrapped up this week in Nashville. The legislation widens eligibility, clarifies funding and addresses rules for renewal of the public charter schools. The Republican sponsor praised the General Assembly for the passage of the legislation, pointing out that some of the state’s most successful schools are public charter schools.

Previously, Tennessee had one of the most restrictive public charter school laws in the nation. The bill also puts into place a process so the best practices gained from the “laboratories of learning” are shared with traditional school programs. The sponsor explained that a one-size fits all strategy for education shortchanges students and their families, adding that a public charter school this year graduated its first class with a 100 percent graduation rate, with every student headed to college.

Charter schools are public schools that are given flexibility to operate without the constraints of some of the rules and regulations normally imposed on traditional schools. In exchange for this flexibility, they are held accountable for performance through a charter, which is an agreement between the local education agency (LEA) and the charter school.

There are four main components of the new public charter school legislation:

  • Eligibility – Currently, public charter school enrollment is limited to failing students and those from failing schools. The legislation permits “at-risk” children to attend public charter schools in those systems that have 14,000 or more students and three or more schools which do not meet adequate yearly progress benchmarks. In addition, school boards can opt by a two thirds vote to allow students who are deemed “at-risk” to be eligible to attend.
  • Caps – Currently, public charter schools are limited to 50 statewide, with a cap of 35 in Memphis and 20 in Metro Nashville. The bill clarifies that converted charter schools do not count against the cap. In addition, the number of charter schools allowed was raised to 90 statewide.
  • Renewal process – Currently, the charter agreement between the local school system and the charter school is renewed every five years. This measure would change the renewal period from five to ten years, with an interim report every five years. It also establishes the required documentation needed during the renewal process.
  • Funding – Currently, a public charter school receives the per pupil expenditure of state and local dollars. Although it mentions appropriate federal dollars, interpretations vary from one local school system to the next. This legislation defines the state and local charter school facilities’funding responsibilities and clarifies the local school systems must allocate all appropriate federal funds, including Title I funds to the charter schools.

GOP passes crime legislation before recess

In the waning hours of session, House Republicans passed two pieces of legislation that aim to toughen crime laws. With several current and retired law enforcement officers serving in the legislature, the General Assembly focused on legislation that toughen the state’s DUI and meth laws.

House Bill 284 aims to make it significantly harder to acquire the necessary ingredients used to make methamphetamine. If more than 20 grams of certain items used to make meth are purchased during one month, the manufacture of meth is presumed.

In addition, House Bill 919 strengthens the state’s DUI laws. Currently, state law provides a graduated series of punishments for DUIs based upon the number of prior convictions that an offender has. A person is not considered a repeat DUI offender if 10 or more years have elapsed between the conviction and any immediately preceding DUI conviction. If, however, an offender has been convicted of DUI within 10 years of the present violation, then they are considered a multiple offender.

Under House Bill 919, if a person is arrested nine years and eleven months after their first DUI—but doesn’t go to trial until ten years and one month after the first DUI—the offender is still considered a multiple offender. The legislation clarifies that the 10 year period is based off of the arrest, and not the conviction.

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