TN Congressional Delegation Splintered on Federal Spending Bill

Saturday night, the U.S. Senate voted to approve a $1.1 trillion spending measure passed by the House earlier last week to fund the federal government through October 2015. Tennessee’s federal legislative delegation was split in their support for the CR-Omnibus bill.

In the Senate, the legislation passed 56 to 40. While Sen. Lamar Alexander voted in favor of the spending bill, and Sen. Bob Corker cast a vote in opposition, both senators voted against a point of order raised by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, related to Pres. Barack Obama’s recent executive order on immigration. That point of order failed 22 to 74.

In the House, the bill passed 219 to 206. Four of Tennessee’s representatives voted for the legislation, while five voted in opposition to the funding measure — including both of the state’s Democratic representatives. U.S. Reps. Phil Roe, Chuck Fleischmann, Diane Black and Stephen Fincher voted for it, and Reps. John Duncan, Scott Desjarlais, Jim Cooper, Marsha Blackburn and Steve Cohen voted against.

Statements from Tennessee’s congressional delegation follow:

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn:

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the Senate’s top Republican on energy appropriations, today voted in favor of legislation to fund the federal government that “helps keep spending in check while supporting two projects that are crucial to Tennessee,” a proposal to build the world’s fastest supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12. Alexander noted that the legislation complies with spending caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

“Fiscal responsibility is about setting priorities, and I voted for this legislation because it helps keep spending in check while supporting projects that are crucial to Tennessee, as well as our country’s economic competitiveness and national security,” said Alexander, the top Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy & Water Development, which oversees funding for Oak Ridge and Y-12. “Once again having the world’s fastest supercomputer in the United States – and once again having it in Oak Ridge – will help us remain a center for advanced manufacturing and scientific breakthroughs. Providing both funding and oversight of the Uranium Processing Facility supports jobs and national security, and continues our mission of completing this project on time and on budget.”

The omnibus legislation passed by the Senate provides funding for most federal government agencies for fiscal year 2015, which extends until Oct. 1, 2015. In order to slow President Obama’s executive order granting amnesty to 5 million illegal immigrants, the legislation only extends funding for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 27, 2015.

At $1.014 trillion, the legislation complies with the budget caps that Congress passed as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and amended with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. Alexander noted that the legislation only affects discretionary spending – such as funding for national defense, national labs and national parks – which currently accounts for about 35 percent of the federal budget, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Mandatory spending, which is not controlled by appropriations legislation and includes entitlement programs, makes up about 60 percent of overall federal spending.

Alexander continued, “Unfortunately, President Obama and the Democratic Senate majority have not worked with Republicans to address the real driver of the federal government’s nearly $18 trillion debt: out-of-control entitlement spending. I hope that changes with a new Republican Senate majority. We need to pass a plan like the Fiscal Sustainability Act I proposed with Senator Corker, which would reduce the growth of entitlement spending by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years.”

The funding for the supercomputer and the Uranium Processing Facility was part of the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which Alexander helped author. It included:

  • $104 million for supercomputing, following a November announcement by Alexander and U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz that Oak Ridge would build a supercomputer five times the speed of Titan, its current machine.
  • $335 million for the Uranium Processing Facility, which processes enriched uranium for nuclear weapons systems. Alexander has pushed to keep costs under control, in part through the Red Team review led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory director Thom Mason.
  • The closure of two facilities Alexander said perform duties that are redundant and can be accomplished more cost effectively elsewhere, saving taxpayers $120 million over the next ten years. The first is the New Brunswick lab in New Jersey, which does work on radiation that is used in the calibration of radioactivity detection equipment and that Alexander said can be done in various other parts of the federal government. The second is the closure of the Lujan Center in New Mexico, which performs scientific research with neutrons that Alexander said can be done at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

UPDATED 12/14, 10:00 ET:

Alexander voted against a constitutional point of order offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), saying, “I voted against the point of order because it would have invalidated the annual appropriations bill that is needed and clearly constitutional. The bill funds the Department of Homeland Security for only three months, giving the new Republican Congress an opportunity next year to deal with the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn:

U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) today released the following statement after voting against a spending bill known as a continuing resolution (H.R.83).

“I could not support this spending bill because it continues the regrettable precedent of spending above the budget levels established by the original Budget Control Act without proper offsets elsewhere in the budget,” said Corker. “Next year, controlling both chambers of Congress, Republicans will have the opportunity to govern responsibly by passing individual appropriations bills with more oversight of how taxpayer dollars are being used.”

Corker also commented on a Constitutional point of order raised by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

“‎While the president’s executive actions on immigration are reprehensible and deserve a strong response, I value the oath I took to support and defend the Constitution too much to exploit it for political expediency,” said Corker. “The Constitution gives Congress the power to fund the government so to assert that the House-passed spending bill is unconstitutional is not only inaccurate but irresponsible.”

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. 01:

Today, Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) released the following statement after voting in support of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act:

“The budget agreement, while imperfect, has numerous provisions that will help our state. For the past six years, I’ve heard from East Tennesseans on a wide array of issues, but because our government has been operating under a continuing resolution, we haven’t been able to roll back some of the policies enacted in the first few years of the Obama administration.

“While traveling around the district I’ve heard from folks concerned about the IRS targeting, the runaway EPA, Obamacare and President Obama’s executive overreach on immigration. This agreement will prohibit the IRS from targeting organizations because of their political or ideological beliefs; keep the EPA from regulating lead content in ammunition and fishing tackle while also cutting their funding for the fifth consecutive year; and reduces funding for the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which I’ve worked on since the Affordable Care Act’s passage. This bill funds important infrastructure projects while keeping one of the largest economic drivers in the First District – the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – open.

“Perhaps most importantly, by only extending funding for the Department of Homeland Security until the end of February, this bill ensures the new Republican-led Congress will have the opportunity to address the president’s executive action on immigration early in the new year. I believe it’s important we get to work on immigration as soon as the 114thCongress convenes.”

U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. 02:

Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.) released the following statement Thursday following his vote against a massive bill Omnibus-Continuing Resol to fund the government through next year:

During my time in Congress, I have never voted for an omnibus spending bill.  I am very much opposed to funding the government at the end of the year with massive, last-minute bills where they throw in just about everything but the kitchen sink. It is simply a bad way to do business.

There really was no way to find out what all was in the bill.  It contained more than $1 trillion in spending at a time we have a national debt of $18 trillion that is still rising at a very fast rate.

Of course in a bill this massive, I could find things that I liked, but I couldn’t vote for a bill that funded President Obama’s amnesty program and included increases for many departments and agencies even above what some were asking.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. 03:

The House of Representatives passed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act to keep the government open and functioning through fiscal year 2015. After passage, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann released the following statement.

“This evening, the House performed its duty as representatives to ensure taxpayers’ dollars are wisely invested in effective programs and our government remains open and functioning. The legislation we passed today will cut excessive spending for programs such as the IRS and EPA while responsibly funding critical programs like those that keep our brave men and women in uniform safe. By providing no new funding for Obamacare or President Obama’s executive amnesty, this Omnibus will responsibly fund the majority of our federal government through the end of the fiscal year. While this bill is not perfect, it is a product of bipartisan compromise, and I am hopeful the Senate will act quickly to avoid another government shutdown.”

The 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill will provide funding for the vast majority of the federal government through September 30, 2015. Included in the Omnibus are significant program cuts and improved oversight of tax dollars; yet, critical programs, such as the research and work conducted in Oak Ridge, will remain funded. The bill will cut Internal Revenue Service funding by $345.6 million and Environmental Protection Agency funding by $60 million. Additionally, the Omnibus includes language led by Rep. Chuck Fleischmann to protect 2nd Amendment rights.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn. 04:

Congressman Scott DesJarlais, M.D. (TN-04) released the following statement after voting against HR 83, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for FY 2015, commonly referred to as the cromnibus:

“This 1,603-page bill was released just the other day. There is absolutely no conceivable way any member of Congress had time to properly review this $1.1 trillion piece of legislation. Have we not learned the lesson that having to pass a bill to find out what is in it results in bad policy?

“One thing we do know is that this legislation provides funding for President Obama’s unconstitutional executive order on immigration. As the representative for Tennessee’s Fourth District, I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. This is something I will not compromise on. Congress has the power of the purse and it is incumbent upon us to use this power to prevent the White House from violating the separation of powers.

“If the president wants immigration reform, then he should present his ideas to Congress and work within the proper constitutional framework. But he does not have the authority to disregard existing law – laws that he is constitutionally bound to execute. If Republicans won’t step up and hold this president accountable, who will?”

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper; D-Tenn. 05:

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (TN-5) today issued a statement following his vote against a $1.1 trillion spending bill.

“Congress had all year to do its job. But it again waited until the final hours and made shady backroom deals. This bill is no way to govern,” Cooper said.

The House of Representatives voted 219-206 to pass the spending bill late Thursday night. The “cromnibus” includes 11 appropriations bills and a continuing resolution, which will fund most of the government through September 2015. The bill also includes changes to campaign finance and Wall Street reform laws. It is expected to quickly pass the Senate and be signed into law by the President.

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. 06:

Today, Congressman Diane Black (R-TN-06) issued the following statement on her vote in support of the CROmnibus legislation to keep our government open:

“No government funding measure that needs to be negotiated with Senate Democrats and signed by President Obama will ever be perfect,” said Congressman Black. “But rather than let the perfect be the enemy of the good, I supported this measure because it will avoid a repeat of the 2013 government shutdown, while setting the table for Republicans to take on President Obama’s unconstitutional immigration overreach. By funding all of government through the end of the fiscal year except for the Department of Homeland Security, we will be able to fight his executive action in February with a new Republican majority in the Senate.

“In addition, this bill cuts funding for Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board and reduces IRS funding by $345 million – putting the agency’s budget below Fiscal Year 2008 levels. This legislation also cuts EPA funding for the fifth year in a row and ends an outrageous EPA regulation on lead that resulted in ammunition shortages and acted as a form of backdoor gun control on Tennessee sportsmen.

“I understand and share the strong concerns of my constituents about the President’s unconstitutional action, which is why I have introduced legislation, the Separation of Powers Act, to fight back against this power grab. Our best leverage to stop this action will come when Republicans control both Chambers of Congress next month.”

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. 07:

Congressman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) issued the following statement in opposition to the House Continuing Resolution, which fails to take the steps necessary to stop President Barack Obama’s executive actions to expand amnesty for illegal aliens.

“Unfortunately, this spending package fails to take the necessary actions to defund the President’s lawless amnesty. As a result, I cannot vote in support of this measure. It is not fair that hard-working taxpayers in Tennessee will now have to compete for jobs with illegal aliens to whom the President is unilaterally granting work permits at a time when our workforce participation rate sits at a 36-year low and more than 90 million Americans are out of work. That is why I fought for and passed my bill in the House this summer to freeze the President’s unconstitutional Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. King Obama’s amnesty is turning America into a lawless open borders society.”

U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher; R-Tenn. 08:

No prepared statement available from Rep. Fincher.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen; D-Tenn. 09:

Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) today released the following statement regarding the 2015 government funding agreement:

“While I am pleased that negotiators on both sides of the aisle agreed that funding for Tennessee’s hospitals and my $5 million provision to help fight our rape kit backlog should be included, I simply cannot support the many non-germane riders added. This agreement takes from the middle class and the poor and gives to the rich, overturns the D.C. vote on marijuana, and gives millionaires more influence in Washington while letting them take bigger risks on Wall Street. The American people do not want more money in our politics and a return to the Wall Street policies that almost brought the world economy crashing down in 2008.”

Whitaker Offers Up Last TN Tourism Dept Budget

Gov. Bill Haslam this week announced the departure of Susan Whitaker, who is stepping down as commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. She’s been at the post for the past 12 years and served under two governors.

Whitaker was appointed by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2003 and re-appointed by Haslam, a Republican, in 2011. She is returning to the private sector, according to an administration press release. During her time as commissioner, she oversaw development of the state’s ad campaigns in an effort to stimulate Volunteer State tourism growth, including the TNVacation.com website and the state’s 14 welcome centers.

susan whitakerLast month, on the first day of Haslam’s preliminary budget hearings for fiscal year 2015-16, Whitaker proposed a budget of $27 million for the department. State dollars would represent the bulk of that at $18 million, with $9 million coming from federal funds.

Whitaker said her department’s goal was to make Tennessee the “global music destination of choice.” A new state tourism ad campaign that was launched this summer has already produced more consumer engagements in the first quarter of its use than the total number the state had in fiscal year 2012-13, she said.

The tourism industry had a direct economic impact of $16.7 billion on Tennessee in 2013, which is 3.4 percent more than 2012, according to a press release. Additionally, in 2013 the Volunteer State collected $1.28 billion in tourism-related taxes — a new high and the eighth consecutive year of more than $1 billion in state tourism revenue collections.

While all 95 of the state’s counties saw at least $1 million in direct tourism spending, 19 counties had $100 million in tourism expenditures and three of the state’s counties — Shelby, Davidson and Sevier — were each responsible for more than $1 billion in tourism spending themselves, Whitaker told Haslam in November. And 55 of the state’s counties generated more than $1 million in local tourism sales tax revenue, she added.

The fact that each county was seeing a significant amount of tourism-related spending is a testament to the Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways program, which was launched during Whitaker’s tenure and features 16 statewide trails that touch all 95 counties in the state, Whitaker said. It was designed to move dollars out of the urban hubs into the state’s rural areas, she added.

Around the time of the recession there was a dip in tourism spending, but the state has seen “exciting growth” in this industry recently, Whitaker said.

In 2013, there were 96.4 million “person stays,” a 4.7 percent increase over 2012, and international travel had a $531.6 million economic impact on the state, Whitaker said.

Whitaker said ABC’s “Nashville,” which is in 60 international markets, was one driver of the growth in international travel the state has seen. “So, thank you for supporting that show, too. Even though it’s not exactly tourism, it’s sure having an impact in a lot of places,” she said.

Whitaker proposed a budget with no staffing cuts, a spending reduction of $762,000 in recurring marketing activities funds and a spending increase of $8.25 million. The increase breaks down to $8 million in non-recurring funds for the Tourism Task Force’s marketing efforts to get into new markets — including the Washington D.C. area — and $250,000 to provide security at two renovated and two new welcome centers that will be opened later this year, she said.

However, she warned cutting the recurring funds would impact the department’s marketing abilities and limit the amount of markets state tourism ads are able to reach.

Whitaker has agreed to remain in the position until Haslam names a replacement, according to the release.

TN Military Department Focused on Energy Conservation

The spigot of funds the federal government has been pouring into state-level armed forces readiness since the attacks of 9/11 has been ebbing, and that presents challenges for the Tennessee Military Department, the agency’s commanding officer told Gov. Bill Haslam during budget hearings recently.

But Maj. Gen. Max Haston said his department is capable of doing more with less.

“Overall sir, our goals are designed to increase efficiency and effectiveness while providing the state with an invaluable response force and a management team that’s always focused on return on the investment, value added,” Haston said.

Since a high of $43 million in 2003, the state’s annual federal “homeland security” funds have shrunk to $3.9 million in 2014.

State funds only make up 22 percent of the department’s total $69.3 million budget request, or $15.8 million. Federal funding amounts to $51.2 million, and the additional $2.3 million comes from interdepartmental revenue.

tennessee military department logoThe military department oversees the Tennessee Army and Air National Guard, as well as the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

The Volunteer State’s current National Guard force of around 14,000 is comprised of 10,668 guardsmen and about 3,450 in the Air Guard. The peak of Tennessee’s guard deployment was in 2005-06, when more than 50 percent of the state’s forces were deployed, Haston said. Currently there are 467 army and 69 air guardsmen from Tennessee deployed as part of the U.S. fighting forces in Afghanistan, he said.

The Tennessee departments of Veterans Affairs and Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services announced in September “the number of suicides by veterans increased from 197 in 2012 to 214 in 2013.” And in October, a Pentagon medical statistics journal showed suicides –taking the lives of three out of 10 servicemembers — replaced “war” as the leading means of death for American troops in 2012 and 2013.

Haston said five years ago his department began outreach to soldiers to help fill “the gap” in post-deployment counseling, with which they have helped more than 600 current and former servicemembers and family receive since 2013. Haston added more than 80 guard members  have been talked down from hurting themselves since the department partnered with the Jason Foundation in 2011 for the “Guard Your Buddy” program.

Additionally, the partnership with Dollar General — “Paychecks for Patriots” — has put more than 3,000 people to work, and “continues to grow every day,” Haston said.

TEMA head David Purkey said less funding means less training and equipment for his agency. All federal funds are being used to sustain current operations, and the agency is “struggling with that,” Purkey said. Because “all state funding for TEMA goes to match federal programs” — which have increased 8.5 percent over the past 5 years — cutting state funds will cut federal funds, he added.

TEMA held 17 state-level exercises in 2014 with 2,730 participants from local, state and federal partners, including an active shooter event at TVA’s Sequoyah Nuclear Plant that was completed with “no deficiencies,” Haston said. The agency also instructed more than 7,852 students in 430 training classes, including hazmat, search and rescue and tracking classes, he said.

Although sequestration cuts and reduced periods for federal grants are challenges for them, department training won’t be immediately impacted, though they will have “to be creative in our training,” Haston said. The department invested in a lot of “simulations” in the past, so units can receive adequate training without adding travel and other associated training costs, he said.

Given the levels of federal funding, as well as cost-shared activities, Haston said he had to be specific about where cuts are made, and the department’s 7 percent reduction plan is focused on expenses in facility maintenance and supplies, and also in armory utilities.

Utility costs are the department’s greatest expense, Haston said. This year they’ve created a new checklist for administrative officers to use while inspecting facilities to ensure they’re meeting standards, he added. He said the department has decreased electricity use by 19 percent over the past four years, and is continuing to look for ways to improve energy efficiency.

The Army Aviation move from Smyrna to Berry Field is about 20 percent complete and will help the department’s energy efficiency goals, Haston said.

Additionally, Haston informed Haslam he’s requested federal permission to use the Air Guard’s Cyber Security Squadron to help provide cyber security for Tennessee, which he said would be better than an outside agency. “It’s a tool in the governor’s tool box, I think we need to be able to use it.”

TN Dept. of Veterans Affairs Seeks Name Change

Officials with the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs are “inundated” with complaints meant for the similarly named federal agency, and they’d like the state Legislature to address the issue by changing its name.

At the department’s fiscal year 2015-16 budget hearing Wednesday, Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder proposed calling the state’s branch the “Department of Veterans Services” henceforth. That would “help eliminate some of that confusion between us and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs,” she said.

Begun in 1921 to connect veterans to federal benefits, TDVA was expanded in the 1980s to include veteran burial services. “Now, as we move forward, and under your leadership, we have expanded our focus to everything veteran,” Grinder told Gov. Bill Haslam at a budget hearing this week.

The department currently serves more than 500,000 veterans throughout Tennessee. It has “completely revamped” outreach programs this past year, providing more resources related to jobs, entrepreneurship, education, housing, and mental health services — “a whole myriad of things that are going to help that veteran in removing all the distractions that will keep them from succeeding,” Grinder said.

The number of Volunteer State veterans increased by 25,000 from 2012 to 2014, and federal government sequestration-related downsizing of U.S. military forces will likely cause an additional increase, Grinder said.

Between 350 and 600 veterans already transition out of Ft. Campbell each month, she said. Although about 75 percent of Ft. Campbell’s retirees settle here, Grinder added one-term veterans tend to move elsewhere, so the agency was pushing the state’s education and job opportunities in an effort to convince more to choose Tennessee as home.

Grinder identified one of TDVA’s “great successes” as getting the state Department of Correction to actively recruit veterans — with 283 hires since the first of the year. However, the number of veterans receiving unemployment has also increased, “particularly though in Montgomery County,” she said.

Additionally, Veterans Affairs is developing a statewide student veterans information resource to monitor higher education graduation rates, because while many former service-members enroll in college, not all graduate, Grinder said.

Through a no-cost partnership with Middle Tennessee State University, information will be gathered on how many veterans attend each university, how many graduate and what majors are pursued, Grinder said. The survey is 40 percent complete, but Grinder said she hopes it will be complete by June.

“In keeping with your ‘Drive to 55’ goals, we want to make sure that veterans, above anyone else, get that chance to attend, graduate and move on to a quality career,” Grinder said.

TDVA has also continued improving its claims-filing process, and has implemented electronic filing in all 14 field offices, Grinder said. Since January, the new e-filing system has reduced field office claim-processing times from a possible week-and-a-half to one day, she said.

However, Grinder added they have to rely on county government partners in rural areas for claims-filing assistance, only 48 percent of which are e-filing claims for reasons ranging from a lack of training to not having a computer.

Last fiscal year, the agency secured $1.9 billion in tax free federal disability, pension and education benefit dollars for veterans, Grinder said.

Grinder also informed Haslam the department is setting up five new veterans treatment courts in addition to the four currently established in Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Montgomery counties.

The department’s total preliminary budget request is $6.29 million: $5.27 million from state coffers, $770,000 from federal payments and $250,000 from other revenue.

Veterans Affairs receives $734 for each Tennessee veteran burial — up from $300 in 2011, Grinder said. This increase has helped grow the agency’s “carry forward fund,” which is used to improve existing veterans cemeteries and construct new ones.

TDVA used $534,200 of that fund — along with local and state dollars and private donations — toward a $1.3 million purchase of 132 acres in Parker’s Crossroads to construct a new state veterans cemetery. However, the agency hasn’t gone begun the cemetery construction because the federal government, who funds 100 percent of veteran cemetery construction costs, has not yet granted them full reimbursement approval.

In addition to federal reimbursements, family payments for dependent burials help the department operate and improve these cemeteries, Grinder said. However, she added those federal and family dollars last year only totaled about $1.5 million, while cemetery operating costs for that year were $2.5 million.

Grinder proposed cutting $379,400 from operational and program costs at the agency’s field offices and cemeteries to meet Haslam’s requested seven percent budget reduction. But she also noted that the department has not purchased new computers in the last four years, and instead was using surplus equipment from the Comptroller’s Office, which were not as efficient as new technology would be.

Gibbons Stands By Checkpoints As DUI Deterrent

Tennessee’s Public Safety chief maintains that the use of sobriety checkpoints by state law enforcement is an important tool that deters intoxicated driving despite the department’s acknowledgment that roadblocks don’t net many arrests.

Since Bill Haslam won his first term as governor in 2010, there’s been a 147 percent increase in DUI arrests in Tennessee, according to Bill Gibbons, a former Shelby County prosecutor who was tapped four years ago by Haslam to lead the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

During his department’s budget presentation to the governor and his administration’s finance staff Wednesday, Gibbons described the increase as “really pretty dramatic.”

“As of the end of October we had 6,670 DUI arrests by troopers; that should be around 8,000 by the end of the year,” Gibbons said. As of Dec. 4, THP DUI arrests had climbed to 7,776, according to Safety Department figures.

According to Department of Safety numbers, the Tennessee Highway Patrol made 3,376 DUI arrests in 2010, 4,691 in 2011, 5,878 in 2012, and 6,457 in 2013.

Gibbons said that troopers under his watch have focused more attention on arresting drunk drivers. As a result, he said, Tennessee’s “impaired fatality rate” has also been lowered from 28 percent of fatalities in 2010 to 20 percent this year.

During the hearing Wednesday, Haslam asked if the increase in arrests was the result of increased patrols or of holding more roadblocks, and while neither Gibbons, nor Col. Tracy Trott, the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s commanding officer, had a breakdown of the method of arrests, Trott said, “I would think a small percentage would be at road blocks.”

“Most of it’s on line patrols and special enforcement actions,” he said.

In terms of general Department of Safety budget discussions, Gibbons’s proposal of cutting $9 million — in keeping with the 7 percent snip the governor is asking all agencies to calculate — included doing away with 115 positions, 73 of which are patrol troopers. Gibbons warned though that the cuts he came up with would in fact endanger public safety.

With respect to the increase in DUI arrests, department officials said, driving the surge is the use of predictive analytics and “data-driven enforcement” — figuring out where you’re most likely to encounter a problem. “But I think it’s also an emphasis by us, because early on in the administration we determined that nationwide a third of your traffic fatalities are caused by an impaired driver, so we wanted to devote as much attention and resources to that,” Trott said.

However, Gibbons said he still feels the roadblocks are an integral part of the state’s effort to “reduce the number of people driving under the influence.”

“I mean, we have to publicize when we’re going to have a checkpoint,” Gibbons said. “Frankly, that probably serves as a deterrent to individuals driving under the influence. So, if nothing else, it serves that purpose.”

A 2003 comparative analysis by the FBI on DUI enforcement indicated that while checkpoints, with “aggressive media coverage,” may certainly have a deterrent effect, “saturation patrols” — which concentrate on impaired driver behavior — are better at catching “repeat offenders, who are likely to avoid detection at sobriety checkpoints.”

Additionally, some law enforcement officials and federal lawmakers have in the past argued that knowing where checkpoints are held could just allow clever drunk drivers to avoid checkpoints.

On Dec. 1, THP was awarded nearly $717,000 in sobriety checkpoint grants for use through the end of September 2015 through the Sober Up TN program.

In 2012, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing no-refusal blood draw checkpoints, of which state law enforcement agencies have held several since, generally around holidays such as Labor Day, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.

In a 1990 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found by a 6-3 vote that properly conducted sobriety checkpoints are constitutional. However, the recently enacted “no refusal” checkpoints still face challenges to their constitutionality.

And last week, Tennessee law enforcement agencies again made national news after being caught on camera reportedly “lying” to motorists during a Thanksgiving Day “field sobriety checkpoint.”

State Human Resources Department Mulls Cuts to Worker Mediation Process

The Tennessee Department of Human Resources proposed cutting nearly $1 million from its budget Tuesday at Gov. Bill Haslam’s preliminary budget hearings for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Earlier this fall Haslam asked state agencies to prepare budgets reflecting a 7 percent decrease from the previous year.

Human Resources has proposed a budget of about $11.5 million. The cuts, totaling $867,200, would come from reducing benefits, operational expenditures, funding for a certification initiative and expenditures for administrative judges, as well as eliminating funding for the state mediation program.

The operational cost reduction of $240,000 includes cuts to funding for printing, communications, state purchases and travel.

The proposed cut of $132,000 from travel expenses would have the biggest negative impact on the agency of the administrative cuts because it would reduce their ability to provide training and attend job fairs around the state, said Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter.

Hunter also hedged on cutting the $41,000 used to fund the department’s mediation program, which she said would “remove that alternative tool for employees to resolve workplace issues.”

Hunter said the department’s mediation program was doing well, and because they were getting requests for mediation from across the state, DHR had trained an additional 20 state employees in how to properly mediate employment disputes.

Since the passage of the Tennessee Excellence Accountability and Management Act — the state’s 2012 civil service reform legislation — there has been an increase in employee appeals, but a majority of the state agency decisions are being upheld, Hunter said. The department has also increased the size of the Appeals Board to accommodate the increase, she added.

While the state doesn’t use its administrative law judges as much since the TEAM Act, Hunter added that cutting those expenditures could negatively impact the appeal process.

Over the past year 1,455 state employees have been terminated, said DHR Public Information Officer Ashley Fuqua via email.

Currently, about 16,000 state employees, or close to 40 percent, have accrued enough retirement benefits to where they could retire now, Hunter said. However, only 8.5 percent of  all employees are at or above the 30 years or service mark.

Hunter mentioned during the hearing that any statewide reduction in employees affects funding for her department — each position cut means a loss to Human Resources of $22.45 a month. The department’s service rate structure has not been updated since 2011, Hunter added.

DHR didn’t request an increase in funding for the upcoming fiscal year, and none of the department’s 144 positions were cut in this proposed budget.

Proposed DCS Budget Calls for Changes in Juvenile Detention Program

Security upgrades and a “revamped” program are in store for Tennessee’s three main youth development centers across the state.

“The youth development centers are being revamped to provide more trauma-informed and therapeutic services, with Woodland Hills undergoing the initial changes and creating a model we will deploy to the other YDCs,” Jim Henry, commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services, said last week at his department’s preliminary budget presentation for the coming fiscal year.

The Nashville-area youth development center gained national attention earlier this fall as a result of a couple successful escape attempts and rioting at the facility.

The state has since announced it’ll send 12 of the more serious break-out offenders from that facility to youth centers in Texas for the remainder of their sentences as they reexamine the program at Woodland Hills.

Henry said the department is working at “changing the culture” at the centers. Helping teens get their GEDs and keeping consistent staffing as well as therapeutic services are among their goals, he said.

“We want to change to a mentoring system, one that rewards good behavior, one where kids can step up and make right decisions and get rewarded for it and not just be held,” Henry said.

The state holds 280 males in its three YDCs: Woodland Hills, the Mountain View facility in Northeast Tennessee and the John S. Wilder facility in West Tennessee.

The department first plans to install locks on it’s YDC cell doors before the end of the year, Henry said. The facilities already have court permission to lock the rooms in emergency situations. However, the department is seeking a court order for permission to lock the doors at night due to a longtime consent decree that doesn’t allow the cells to be locked on a regular schedule.

Henry said locking the doors at night would be helpful to keeping the peace because the troublemakers will tell other kids they’re planning to cause trouble for the guards, and threaten to “deal with” them the next day if they don’t participate.

Additionally, Henry would like the guards to carry stun guns and pepper spray, to be used only as a last resort if things get out of hand.

Only a small portion of the department’s $730 million budget request is intended to fund the YDCs — about $33 million. The state allocation request represents $311 million of the department’s budget, with $152 million of the overall budget coming from federal funds and $267 million coming from “other revenue.”

In addition to managing the state’s juvenile detention centers, DCS also provides child welfare and adoption services. In recent years the department has been embroiled in controversies stemming from delayed child abuse investigations, as well as the unexplained deaths of youth in their custody.

While the department is proposing cuts from state allocations totaling about $8 million, most of which — $7.8 million — will come from the YDCs, the DCS budget proposal also includes about $6 million in cost increases. The department is also proposing to cut about 90 positions.

Funding for the state’s custody services makes up the largest portion of the budget request — nearly 40 percent or $276.6 million.

Earlier this year Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam asked departments to prepare budget requests reflecting a seven percent cut from last year. However, Haslam has said this is not a sign of definite cuts , but is merely a part of the normal budget process. Last year Haslam had asked departments to prepare budgets with a five percent decrease.

Haslam Hears Budget Testimony from Depts. of Health, MHSAS

The Tennessee Departments of Health and Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services were among the agencies making presentations on the first day of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget hearings Monday for fiscal year 2015-2016.

John Dreyzehner, the state Health commissioner, presented a budget of $580 million for his “primarily” federally funded department. His proposal included $237 million in federal funding, $161 million from department revenue and non-federal grants and $182 million from the state.

The proposed budget reflects a cut of about $9.85 million from last year’s budget. Those savings are spread across the department, with the biggest — $5 million — coming from expanded third-party billing and fee increases for newborn screenings, vital records and general environmental health assessments.

The newborn screenings fee, which hasn’t been updated since 2008, will increase from $75 to $125. The increase will help the program be self-supporting, allow the inclusion of two new tests, help to create a state-wide courier system and allow the department to expand to six-day-a-week testing, Dreyzehner said. The fee for vital records — which include birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates — would increase to $15, which will bring Tennessee in line with surrounding states. The last time this fee was changed was 2002.

Additionally, Dreyzehner said the department could save money through $2.1 million in contract reductions. Safety net funds — grant money going to community indigent care providers — would be about $1.8 million of that reduction, with several smaller reductions to other programs making up the rest. The department has enough reserve funds to continue funding the community groups at current levels through 2016, he said.

Dreyzehner said other proposed budgetary savings come from reductions in operational costs and various reductions in smaller programs that generally receive federal dollars or should otherwise be able to “absorb” the loss of funds.

The Health Department’s budget also came with $11.9 million in increases, $7.6 million of which is intended for the general fund, Dreyzehner said. The proposed fee increases are expected to cover $3.7 million of the overall increase.

Since Haslam took over as governor, the department has cut 130 full-time positions across the state without seriously diminishing service, Dreyzehner said.

Douglas Varney, MHSAS commissioner, also touted his department’s ability to provide quality services despite cuts over the years.

The Department of MHSAS provides 250,000-300,000 “unduplicated” people with public mental health and substance abuse services, for which it contracts with more than 200 private, non-profit community agencies around the state, Varney said. Since fiscal year 2010-11, the department has been reduced by about 770 positions.

The use of community and faith-based organizations, which carry out the department’s mission better than state-run agencies would, helps to keep the state hospital costs down, Varney said.

The department also licenses 1,420 various agencies across the state, and runs four regional mental health institutes, that serve an average of 9,200 new people a year.

Varney proposed a budget of $314 million, with $132 million going to the regional mental health institutes and $162 million going to the community agencies — $100 million for mental health and $62 million for substance abuse. Only six percent is budgeted to administration costs, which Varney said he was “really proud of.”

Of that budget, $62 million is federal funds, $196 million is from the state and $47 million is from third-party payments.

Varney said the choice in reducing his budget was between cutting direct services or support services, and he had to make the “logical” choice. As such, the commissioner said the $8.1 million in cuts for his department were not across the board, and instead several smaller support programs, which didn’t serve as many people, were being offered up for the chopping block.

Funding for the state hospitals was not included in the reductions due to existing staffing issues, Varney added.

The budget request also includes about $600,000 in cost increases, with the primary goal of funding a community coaching program to get more support for community organizations, as well as to provide funding for a mental health family support program. The program would cover housing subsidies and other “inexpensive, kind of wrap-around things that helps keep the family together,” Varney said.

Additionally, Varney said the department is “aggressively” going after federal grants related to suicide prevention, veteran reentry programs and early treatment of first-onset major mental illnesses in young people.

Varney noted during the hearing that with its current operating budget, the department helps offset the cost to the state in substance abuse related incarceration and health care costs by about $340 million, in mental health prevention by about $45 million, and in crisis services by about $53 million.

The hearings will resume Tuesday, Dec. 2, and continue through Friday.

In September, Haslam notified the state agencies that he would like to see budget proposals this year that reflected a 7 percent decrease from the previous year. However, he assured those present at the hearings that proposed reductions didn’t mean certain cuts.

Budget Talks Kick Off

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam launched the administration’s annual round of budget hearings Monday.

In September Haslam told state agencies to prepare budgets reflecting a 7 percent decrease from the last year’s budget. Haslam, who in 2013 asked the departments to make a 5 percent cut, said the cuts aren’t necessarily inevitable.

“I want to emphasize there’s not been a determination to make a 7 percent cut,” Haslam said Monday at the open of the talks. “We’re waiting on revenue, we’re waiting to see the impact of a lot of other things.”

The governor, who won a second four-year term in November, added that the departments had done “hard work” in terms of making “difficult decisions” to prepare for a “worst-case scenario,” which is part of “responsible” budget preparation.

“The cuts that might be proposed by the departments are not something that — I want to be real clear — that they would like to do, and they’re not things that necessarily that we would like to do,” Haslam said. “But they are a preparation in case that had to happen.”

The state of state government revenues will move to the forefront of political concern as the legislative session approaches.

On Nov. 4, two-thirds of Tennessee voters approved a constitutional ban on the state or any local governments levying a tax on personal income. Following the passage of the amendment, state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, filed legislation to phase the Hall Tax on investment income out over three years. “Now it’s time to eliminate the Hall tax,” he said.

A proposal to cut the state’s general sales tax from 7 to 6.75 percent was also filed by the majority leaders for both legislative chambers — Sen. Mark Norris and Rep. Gerald McCormick. Both leaders have said their proposal stems from a desire to see a broader discussion about overall tax reform in the Legislature.

Both tax cuts would reduce the state budget by around $250 million.

But following a year of a rocky revenue landscape, Haslam isn’t too keen on the state’s ability to trim any more potential revenue.

While Haslam says he’s generally in favor of tax cuts, he recently suggested that legislators who want to cut taxes ought to find some expenses to cut, as well. “It’s easy to talk about the revenue part, then we talk about the expense part it gets a little harder,” he said.

However, McCormick told TNReport last week that revenue reports from the past couple of months indicate an improving economic picture for Tennessee, which gives him hope that they can cut taxes without cutting programs, which “would be the best of both worlds.”

Legislature Gearing Up for Tax Reform Debate

Tennessee Republicans are flush with even more power in the General Assembly after the 2014 general election, and members of the expanded supermajorities in both dens of the statehouse are sure that one thing’s for certain: there’s no time like the present to talk about tax cuts.

There’s some disagreement, though, about which ones to go after first.

The two biggest targets are the Hall tax on investment earnings and Tennessee’s highest-in-the-country sales tax.

While many of the Volunteer State’s conservative Republicans favor doing away with the Hall tax, some of the party’s legislative leadership have instead made populist arguments in favor chipping away at the state’s sales tax. Over the past several years since losing majority-party status, that’s been a priority as well for Democrats, who charge the tax hits Tennessee’s poor the hardest. And as pitiful as their numbers are in the Legislature, Democrats could play a role in helping shape the discussion, particularly in the House.

While some Republicans have in the past balked at discussing cuts to the state’s general sales tax — or the tax on food — due to fears that its reduction would be a potential step toward enacting a state income tax, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said he hopes a recently passed constitutional ban on taxing Tennesseans’ income would change the discussion.

“Every time since I’ve been here we’ve tried to have a discussion about the state’s revenue and expenses, people say ‘Oh, it’s Trojan Horse for the income tax,'” the Collierville Republican told reporters last week. However, the overwhelming passage of Amendment 3 on Nov. 4, a change in the Tennessee Constitution that expressly prohibits the enactment of income taxes at the state or local level, “should silence those critics,” said Norris.

In the wake of two-thirds of Tennessee voters approving the amendment, Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, filed legislation earlier this month aimed at, over the next three years, entirely phasing out the Hall Income tax — a six percent tax on income received from investments over $1250 a year for individuals making more than $33,000 a year.

In response, Norris and state Rep.Gerald McCormick — the majority leaders in both legislative chambers, who routinely carry legislation for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam — filed a proposal to reduce the state sales tax from 7 percent to 6.75 percent.

Getting rid of the Hall Tax would cut about $260 million from the annual budget. Likewise, McCormick told the Times Free Press, the proposed sales tax cut would reduce annual state revenue by about the same.

Norris referred to his proposal as one of “the bookends” of the greater tax reform discussion.

“The bill was filed, so I filed a bill. Do you want to cut $260 million in revenue for these people, or $260 million revenue for all people? It sort of frames the issue,” Norris said last week.

But while two of the state’s top fiscal conservative groups generally support reducing the tax burden of all Tennesseans’, they’re standing firm on their particular support for specifically doing away with the the Hall tax first — and they say that ought to be lawmakers’ first priority.

Tennessee’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity is “committed to assisting in the repeal of the Hall Income Tax,” said the group’s spokeswoman, Tori Venable. “Repealing this regressive tax will help our state as a whole, not just those who will benefit from the tax cut. The assurance of the Hall Income Tax repeal will help our state recruit more businesses, increasing job growth and economic output,” she wrote in an email to TNReport.

Lindsay Boyd, policy director for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a 10-year-old Nashville-based free-market think tank, told TNReport via email that, first and foremost, the Hall Tax has to go. It “deters Tennessee families from settling in our state and small business entrepreneurs from investing in our economy,” Boyd said. She added that chipping away at the sales tax is a good idea, but it’s not going to show immediate results and definitely shouldn’t detract from the Hall tax discussion.

“A minuscule cut to the sales tax, as proposed by Rep. McCormick and Sen. Norris, may be a discussion we should resume once we free Tennesseans from the worry of having their hard earned dollars punitively and heftily taxed by the Hall tax on investment income- remembering that 40 percent of those who pay the Hall income tax earn less than $50,000 per year,” Boyd said.

Last session’s House GOP Caucus chairman, Franklin Rep. Glen Casada, told TNReport he favors prioritizing Hall tax elimination. Eliminating it as quickly as possible is an “excellent idea,” he said, because it would attract senior citizens to the state.

“It’s a wise, prudent financial move,” said Casada,who added that it’s unfair to ding people who’ve “played by the rules” and have saved money for retirement — and are not relying on government assistance.

Casada said he favors reducing taxes in general — but wants to begin with getting rid of the Hall tax, “and then start cutting sales tax on food.”

For an alternative perspective — or another tax-cutting idea to add to the mix — look no further than the House majority leader.

McCormick told TNReport this week that he thinks franchise and excise taxes should be looked at too. “I just think we need to look at all of them at the same time, and then decide if we can afford to cut taxes who we want to cut them for,” he said.

McCormick added that he was concerned cutting the Hall tax would “disproportionately” benefit higher income Tennesseans. The Legislature should “look at something that might also help those that are on the bottom rungs of the income levels.”

Haslam has suggested any legislators interested in cutting their constituents taxes should also be looking for cuts to make in state expenses. “I believe in cutting taxes. We’ve cut taxes since we’ve been here. We also believe in balancing the budget. And I think it’s important when you’re talking making any changes to revenue in the state, what are the commensurate changes you’re going to make in the expense structure as well?” Haslam said earlier this month.