Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee adopts budget
The Senate Finance Committee has amended the Administration’s proposed budget and approved a budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year that borrows less, has more protection for the Rainy Day (savings) Fund, and is closer to balancing recurring and nonrecurring expenditures. The plan also cuts several of the governor’s proposed tax hikes, including one on cable television boxes and a measure to increase taxes on business phone rates.
The vote came after Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz told lawmakers that there was a continued decline in Tennessee’s revenues in May. Goetz said sales taxes collected in May were 11 percent lower than the yearly average of 7 percent and franchise and excise tax collections were down 40 percent for the month. Goetz said the revenues fall short of the governor’s revenue predictions for the budget, which were based on the most optimistic end of the state Funding Board’s predictions. The Funding Board consists of the state’s top economic advisors.
The plan prioritizes education by fully funding the Basic Education Program, the state’s funding formula for K-12 education. Pre-K would be kept at the same level of funding under the plan. It also funds Tennessee’s higher education at the highest level of funding to draw down approximately $500 million in federal stimulus available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition, it fully funds lottery scholarships to provide students with the opportunity to receive a college education.
On job growth, the legislation fully funds the economic development projects set to establish manufacturing facilities in the state including Volkswagen, Hemlock and Wacker. The bill also fully funds the Haywood County megasite and Solar Farm in West Tennessee under action taken on the measure on Friday.
The plan restores a list of capital projects provided state fiscal stabilization funds from the federal stimulus package are available or other federal reimbursement match increases free up state dollars. In previous years the legislature appropriated money to fund the projects. However, the governor held them after revenues plummeted. This year, he proposed the $168 million in cash previously approved by the legislature for those projects be used to plug the gap in the state budget. In turn, the governor recommended the state incur debt to fund the projects.
The committee’s action will keep Tennessee from putting these building projects on the state credit card at a time when economic conditions are unstable. The plan uses the debt service on those bonds, at $23 million per year, for other critical budget purposes like helping the most vulnerable citizens in Tennessee, mentally ill and dependent and neglected children in need of services.
Other highlights of the budget, SB 2355, include:
• Keeping the employee pension fund actuarially sound
• Not accelerating the number of employee positions cut from the governor’s plan
• Keeping the state health insurance program fully funded
• Funding unemployment benefit increases and extended benefits
Legislation advances to establish Silver Alert System
Legislation creating a “Silver Alert System” that would work like the “Amber Alert System” to help locate missing individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias has advanced in the State Senate with approval by the Senate Finance Committee this week. The bill, SB 532, calls for local law enforcement agencies to coordinate with non-profit organizations such as “A Child is Missing” or the “Alzheimer’s Association” to aid in their efforts to put the program in place.
The bill defines “missing senior citizen” as a person 60 years or older whose “whereabouts are unknown” and who has “an impaired mental condition as determined by a local law enforcement agency.” The Silver Alert would be triggered if that missing person is believed to be in danger because of environmental or weather conditions or is thought to be unable to return to safety without assistance.
Approximately 100,000 Tennesseans and as many as 5.2 million persons nationwide are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The Silver Alert system is working in eight states and has resulted in the safe return of a majority of those reported.
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has reported that six in 10 of those with Alzheimer’s disease will wander away and become disoriented. Half of those who wander are found within five miles of their home. Of those not found within 24 hours, half will be seriously injured or die.
Experts maintain there is a critical 24-hour time period in which to locate missing seniors. The Silver Alert program is designed to disseminate quickly descriptive information about the missing person so that citizens in the affected area can be on the lookout for the endangered person and notify local law enforcement with any relevant information. This legislation brings a community to the aid of our seniors in such a crisis to take advantage of the short window of time needed to bring these vulnerable citizens home to avert a tragedy.
Senate Finance Committee approves legislation to form
Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance
The Senate Finance Committee has voted to merge the Tennessee Ethics Commission and the Registry of Election Finance, keeping the boards independent but under one umbrella named the “Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.” The measure, if approved by the full Senate, continues the commission and provides that all ethics provisions remain intact.
The Bureau will be composed of two independent divisions, the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance and the Tennessee Ethics Commission. It will be governed by a board of directors composed of six members of the Registry of Election Finance and six members of the Ethics Commission. The Bureau will remain attached to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Dick Williams, State Chairman of Common Cause, a watchdog agency for matter pertaining to open government and ethics, told committee members the bill did not weaken current ethics legislation. “This is a good way to handle a situation of concern to everybody,” said Williams.