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Haslam Releases 2015 Legislative Agenda

Press release from the office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; February 10, 2015:

Bills include last-dollar scholarships to community college for adult learners 

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today filed legislation that is reflected in his FY 2015-16 budget proposal. The bills are a result of the governor’s continued focus on more Tennesseans earning a post-secondary credential, supporting teachers across the state and building a more customer-focused, efficient and effective state government.

“These legislative proposals build on the Drive to 55, our effort to raise the percentage of Tennesseans with a degree or certificate beyond high school from 32 to 55 by the year 2025.  We know that just reaching high school graduates won’t be enough to reach our goal, so we’re specifically looking to get adults with some college credit to go back and earn their degree,” Haslam said.

“Along with including $100 million in the budget for teacher salaries, the proposals are also aimed at supporting educators in meaningful ways, and we are always looking for ways to recruit, reward and retain the best and brightest to serve in state government.”

The governor’s legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), includes:

  • The Community College Reconnect Grant pilot program would use a one-time payment of $1.5 million in lottery funds in the FY 2015-16 budget proposal to provide last-dollar scholarships to adults with some college credit to attend a community college. In Tennessee there are nearly 1 million adults with some post-secondary credit but no degree, and this is an additional component of the governor’s Drive to 55 initiative.
  • The Educators’ Liability Trust Fund would provide personal liability coverage to teachers free of charge. While many teachers are covered through their school districts’ insurance plans, the governor heard from many in his conversations around the state that they are concerned they’re not adequately covered and teachers end up paying for liability protection at their own expense. This year’s budget proposal includes a one-time appropriation of $5 million to establish the fund to provide coverage.
  • The Revenue Modernization Act would help keep Tennessee a low tax state by leveling the playing field between in-state companies and out-of-state companies doing business in Tennessee. The proposal would also seek to close certain loopholes by adapting to changes in the way products are bought and sold. The proposed legislation includes:
    • Addressing “nexus” in sales and use, franchise and excise, and business taxes;
    • Adopting market-based sourcing of services to determine which state counts the sale of service for tax purposes when a company conducts business in more than one state;
    • Making Tennessee’s tax structure more competitive with surrounding states by changing the way a multi-state company’s income and net worth is taxed for franchise and excise purposes;
    • And allowing the use of software and video games being accessed remotely to be subject to sales tax as if they had been purchased or downloaded.
  • The Compensation Enhancement Act continues the administration’s focus on recruiting, retaining and rewarding a talented state government workforce by adapting longevity payments to help implement the market- and performance-based compensation plan. Since the governor took office, $139.4 million has been allocated in the state budget for salary increases, and the FY 2015-16 budget proposal includes another $47.7 million for salary increases. Under the proposal, executive branch employees would receive a permanent increase to their base salary equal to half of the longevity payment due, effective July 2015. The remaining half of the longevity payment would be reallocated to the state’s General Fund and then used to fund market- and performance-based salary increases.
  • The State Health Insurance Reform legislation aims to address the rising state employee retirement health care costs and give the state flexibility to offer more competitive total compensation packages and to design benefits for state employees. Key changes include:
    • The state would have the flexibility to offer a defined contribution or defined benefit to current employees for pre-65 retiree health insurance, reflecting the practice of most large private sector employers, and state and local education employees hired after July 1, 2015, would not be eligible for pre-65 retiree health insurance;
    • The State Insurance Committee would have the flexibility to change the percent subsidy that is given to the active state employees by offering one basic health plan;
    • After July 1, 2015, no part time state employee may be eligible for any insurance plan while current employees working 1,450 hours or more per year will be grandfathered into the plan;
    • The state would not offer Medicare Supplement Insurance under the state and teacher insurance plans for employees hired after July 1, 2015.

The governor previously filed the following three pieces of legislation in January: the Tennessee Teaching Evaluation Enhancement Act, Protection of Volunteer-Insured Drivers of the Elderly (PROVIDE) Act, and the Tennessee Promise Implementation Adjustments Act.

No Copeland Cap Changes Recommended in State’s Review

Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson told lawmakers Tuesday that the state’s constitutional spending cap is actually designed more to improve political accountability in the Legislature than it is to restrain government budget growth.

Wilson delivered a report from the State Funding Board, which was tasked with studying the effectiveness of the so-called “Copeland Cap.”

“It’s not my position at all that you should never exceed the Copeland Cap,” Wilson said at a meeting of the state House Finance, Ways and Means Committee. “It is my position that you should know exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it if you decide to do that.”

The funding board’s December report concluded that no substantive alterations or reforms to the cap are needed presently.

One group that is suggesting changes, though, is the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a think tank that advocates for free markets and smaller government. In a policy brief released Tuesday, the Beacon Center recommends boosting the vote requirement for lawmakers to exceed the cap from a majority to two-thirds. The center is also suggesting a new method of calculating the cap that it says would save the state money.

Passed by Tennessee voters in 1978 after being recommended in the Limited Constitutional Convention of 1977, the language of the Copeland Cap reads, “In no year shall the rate of growth of appropriations from state tax revenues exceed the estimated rate of growth of the state’s economy as determined by law. No appropriation in excess of this limitation shall be made unless the General Assembly shall, by law containing no other subject matter, set forth the dollar amount and the rate by which the limit will be exceeded.”

While it was conceived as a check against overspending is state government, the Copeland Cap has been criticized over the years for being too easy to skirt.

“Thanks to the leadership of (former state Rep. David) Copeland, Tennessee’s spending cap has ensured limited growth in Tennessee’s budget, but in hindsight, it could be an even more effective tool to curb state spending—allowing hard-working Tennesseans to keep more of their own money,” Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen said Tuesday in a press release, which noted that since being adopted in 1978, “the Copeland Cap has been exceeded with regularity — only 18 times in 35 years has the Legislature failed to exceed the cap.”

Last year the General Assembly passed legislation on near unanimous votes in both chambers calling for an inquiry into whether some kind of redesign of the Copeland Cap is warranted. Nashville Democratic Sen. Douglas Henry, the longest serving lawmaker in the General Assembly, said studying and potentially recommending changes to the Copeland Cap would better enable it to “hopefully do what it was designed to do.”

Since it was enacted in the late 1970s, the Copeland Cap has been busted 17 times, according to state budget figures, most recently by 1 percent, or $132.5 million, in 2013.

But the funding board’s report notes, however, that it’s something of a “misconception” that the Copeland Cap is actually meant to “restrain spending.” Really, it is more accurately understood as a tool for transparency in state budget writing, the report indicated.

“The Cap is actually meant to create accountability and to let the General Assembly know when spending is growing faster than the economy that supports it,” according to the report. State law calls for economic growth to be measured by Tennesseans’ personal income, which includes wages, rental, and dividend and interest income.

To that end, the state finance commissioner, Larry Martin, said in a Dec. 17 memo contained in the funding board report that in order to improve transparency, the department will prepare a report when Gov. Bill Haslam presents his budget indicating whether the Cap will require busting, at least with respect to the governor’s proposed budget.

Usually, there is no clear indication whether the Copeland Cap will be set aside until late in the session just before a final budget is passed.

The Beacon Center says in its report that the personal income measure allows the government to spend too much during good economic times. The center favors using a measure of population growth plus inflation.

“Population changes most significantly influence government spending. If Tennessee becomes more populous, the number of people using government services (driving on roads, receiving welfare services, etc.) will therefore likely increase. Such population growth could drive up government spending as a result. Further, inflation also impacts the value of the dollar, therefore affecting government expenditures.”

The Center estimates its method would have saved state taxpayers $38.4 billion.

Anticipated Federal Funding Shortfall Makes for Bumpy Ride at TDOT

Tennessee is said to be on relatively solid financial footing as a result of having no highway-construction debt.

But federal budget bickering is causing uncertainty for state Department of Transportation officials trying to map out spending on projects down the road.  New transportation projects may have to be shelved until more cash gets routed to the state through Washington, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said this week.

The possible shortfall comes as a result of the most recent transportation bill passed by Congress, MAP21 –- Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century – which went into effect Oct. 1, 2012, and is only currently funded through October of 2014, he said.

According to Schroer, the state could lose about $850 million in the first year, and $300 million in the years “thereafter.”

“We don’t know we’re going to lose it,” Schroer told reporters after a budget hearing before Republican Gov. Bill Haslam Monday.

“They could come and pass a new authorization for MAP21 and funding could be in place,” Schroer added. “If that’s the case, we’d be tickled to death. But there’s a possibility that that won’t happen, and so I felt the governor needed to be aware of that.”

However, the quality of the roads in Tennessee won’t likely diminish as a result of lost funding, Schroer predicted. The state is planning enough money for road-infrastructure upkeep to continue maintenance of existing thoroughfares for the year, though new projects are not likely to get funded.

Part of the reason Tennessee will not face more trouble with the loss of federal funding is that the state is one of only five in the nation operating in the black when it comes to transportation finances. That means all of the state’s transportation funds go to road building and road upkeep rather than bondholders, Schroer said.

Haslam said the state’s transportation budget will be among the “trickiest” for the administration, both because it isn’t funded through the state’s general fund like most agencies and also because a “huge falloff” in federal dollars will leave a significant hole.

But the state has for some time been taking a frugal approach to transportation financing, and it will pay off if lean times are indeed ahead, said the governor.

“The good news for Tennessee is because we don’t have road debt, and because we’ve been responsibly managed for years and years — as the commissioner said, before any of us got here –- we’re in a much better situation to make certain that we can do basic road maintenance and address safety issues,” Haslam said to reporters after the hearing.

“That being said, it is a very difficult time for the department obviously because they don’t know what will happen next year,” Haslam added. “This situation is more out of our hands than any of the other department budgets.”

TDOT’s proposed budget is $1,807,285,800, about $10 million less than the previous year’s funding request, with approximately $975 million coming from the feds, $794 million from the state and $38 million from localities, according to budget documents.

Construction projects, maintenance and preservation of existing infrastructure and transportation grants make up 91 percent of the TDOT budget, Schroer said. The department also has a “backlog” of “projects which have been funded in some form of development,” that comes in at a projected cost of just under $8.5 billion.

Because federal funding is often tied to specific spending, TDOT has a limited amount of money to address the backlog, and therefore the department prioritizes projects based on safety, congestion, economic development, and other factors, Schroer said.

However, Schroer told reporters that it was “premature” to discuss any changes to funding the department within the state — such as an increase to the state’s gas tax – until there was a better idea of how federal dollars would be passed out to the states in the future.

In order to address the large backlog of transportation projects, the department has adopted an “Expedited Project Delivery” system, under which teams of safety experts and planners are sent to analyze project sites to “see if there’s a way that we can do what we need to do to solve the problem without putting all the bells and whistles on a project,” Schroer said.

While cities may want to add more aesthetic qualities to their road projects, such as bike-paths or brick walkways, TDOT’s job is specifically to produce the transportation side of the road, Schroer said.

“With a backlog (of $8.5 Billion) how is it fair that we can spend that money for enhancements to a road, when other cities and communities don’t get a road at all,” Schroer said.

The EPD program for 2015 fiscal year will reduce the cost of five projects to $9,236,700 from an expected cost of $180,385,000, and TDOT will analyze another 25 transportation projects this year to consider for the program, Schroer said.

TVA Board Approves Budget, Rate Increase

Press release from the Tennessee Valley Authority; August 22, 2013:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. ― The Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors approved a $10.5 billion fiscal year 2014 budget at its meeting Thursday and a 1.5 percent retail rate increase – TVA’s first increase in two years.

Less than the economy’s modest growth in inflation since TVA’s last rate increase in 2011, the rate adjustment will add about $1.50 to the monthly power bill of a residential consumer using 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

“While we never like to raise rates, this small adjustment is necessary to meet our 2014 revenue requirements and operate our system safely and reliably,” said TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson. “We will also make critical capital investments to keep reliability high and meet environmental standards and contribute to paying down debt.”

TVA’s fiscal year 2014 budget anticipates 4.6 percent lower sales year over year and is about 6 percent less than 2013, including capital expenditures of $3.3 billion for Watts Bar 2 nuclear plant and clean air controls at Gallatin Fossil Plant.

Johnson said TVA’s priorities include “living within our means” by bringing operations and maintenance expenses in line with recent trends in declining electricity sales and revenues.

“Demand for our product is down and that won’t change anytime soon. The weather, the economy, energy efficiency/demand response, and rate design are all factors,” Johnson said. “We’re working harder than ever to reduce our costs, but they are not declining at the rate of our sales and revenues.”

TVA is executing a plan to reduce O&M costs by $500 million by 2015 with employees and leadership identifying efficiencies, cost reductions and cost avoidance opportunities. Nearly $150 million in reductions have been achieved this fiscal year with plans for an additional $150 million by the end of 2014 and another $200 million in 2015.

“We are taking action to improve TVA’s operations and financial health so it continues to serve the region for years to come,” Johnson said.

Additional priorities include evaluating future operations of the remainder of the coal fleet, preserving the unfinished Bellefonte nuclear plant as an option for future power generation, continuing to explore Small Modular Reactor nuclear technology, promoting economic development in the region and updating the Integrated Resource Plan, the long-term strategy for TVA’s energy supply as they enter FY14.

Johnson said that TVA employees remain focused on delivering outstanding service while carrying out TVA’s unique mission of delivering safe, clean, reliable energy at low rates as well as promoting economic development and providing resource stewardship.

The new budget and rate adjustment go into effect with TVA’s new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2013.

Additional Board Actions

The board also approved new programs to foster economic growth in the Tennessee Valley. The TVA Valley Commitment Program will give credit to manufacturing customers for their ongoing commitment to the Valley. The Small Manufacturing Rate Program will give small industrial customers a rate alternative for operating during off-peak demand periods. These new programs and enhancements are intended to serve as interim measures while TVA works with customers and other stakeholders on a longer-term rate strategy, Johnson said.

In other action, the board:

  • Approved a five-year extension of the Environmental Adjustment; up to $3.5 billion in contracts for fuel and purchased power, and up to $4 billion of long-term bonds.
  • Approved TVA entering contracts for hydroelectric modernization and transmission system construction and modification services.
  • Approved changes to the annual and long-term employee performance goals incentive programs.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is a corporate agency of the United States that provides electricity for business customers and local power distributors serving 9 million people in parts of seven southeastern states. TVA receives no taxpayer funding, deriving virtually all of its revenues from sales of electricity. In addition to operating and investing its revenues in its electric system, TVA provides flood control, navigation and land management for the Tennessee River system and assists local power companies and state and local governments with economic development and job creation.

TNGOP: Legislature Passes Budget Cutting Taxes, Increasing Education Funds

Press release from the Tennessee Republican Party; April 18, 2013:

Republican Lawmakers Pass Balanced Budget, Democrats Try to Backdoor ObamaCare on Tennesseans

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Late in the day on Wednesday, Republicans in the General Assembly passed a $32.7 billion dollar balanced budget that cut taxes for all Tennesseans, increased funding for education, and placed $100 million into the state’s rainy day fund.

Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party Chris Devaney stated, “Senate and House Republicans should be commended for passing a balanced budget that cuts taxes and meets the needs of Tennesseans. Moreover, I am thankful for their leadership in fending off several Democrat attempts to load up this budget with wasteful spending and bad policy.”

The Senate version passed 32-0. But in the House, Democrats attempted to push bad politics and more government spending on the budget with multiple amendments, including a backdoor attempt to bring ObamaCare to Tennessee.

Amendment number three, sponsored by Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D—Ripley), sought to add over $3 billion to the budget in an attempt to implement the widely unpopular Medicaid expansion called for under ObamaCare. 26 House Democrat signed onto the amendment (see attached photo). The amendment failed 70-28 with all House Republicans opposing the egregious spending.

Ultimately, the balanced spending plan passed the House 83-14.

“Democrats want to try every conceivable way to hurt the doctor-patient relationship, cause health care premiums to skyrocket, and impose a one-size fits all approach on all of us,” said Devaney. “Tennesseans have continually rejected ObamaCare and yet Democrats are still trying to force feed us this bad policy by copying Washington Democrats’ wasteful spending addiction.”

TN Legislature Forging Ahead with Plan to Finish by Week’s End

The final countdown to the end of Tennessee’s current legislative session appeared to have begun in earnest Wednesday. The Senate approving their version of the state budget and the House Republican Caucus voted to finish their business by Friday afternoon instead of continuing into next week.

The Senate budget, crafted by the Haslam administration and guided through the chamber by Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, coasted through with the support of the GOP supermajority.

Democrats in the Senate were vocal in their opposition to some aspects of the roughly $32 million package, or, more accurately, to nearly $2 million that wasn’t being spent.

Memphis Democrat Jim Kyle expressed frustration with the fellow senators following the floor session, telling reporters “we’re leaving $1.9 million and we’re refusing to appropriate it, which means the money goes into a fund the governor will then spend next year, as opposed to…very worthwhile projects.”

“We’re not funding them for reasons that the majority would not ever explain,” Kyle continued. “We’re saying we’re not going to feed people we could be feeding… we’re not going to provide healthcare, we’re not going to provide social services for people who have been receiving it.”

Norris characterized the decision to hold back a portion of funds as “ the most prudent course of action to follow.”

The House passed the budget bill 82-14. Lower-chamber Democrats tried to amend it to leave open the possibility of snatching up federal Medicaid-expansion dollars under the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans shot that effort down.

A first-term House GOP lawmaker, James Van Huss of Jonesborough, tried to delay a vote on the budget until Thursday, saying he hadn’t had time to absorb all its details. But that request died as well on a 54-36 vote.

A member of Harwell’s staff estimated for TNReport that upwards of 50 items remain left to consider.

Senate Majority Leader Norris told reporters Wednesday that he is confident the upper chamber can finish its business by the end of the week as well.

The Pork Not Chopped

Tennessee Republicans this year had a window of opportunity to trim $23 million from the budget’s pork-barrel buffet that’s annually lain before them in the late hours of the legislative session.

But as often happens, the home-cooked political victuals proved too toothsome to pass up. They opted instead to heap their plates and hand taxpayers the tab in advance of hitting the exits and heading for yonder hills, dales and campaign trails.

Late in April, GOP lawmakers in both the House and the Senate appeared to identify more than a dozen local projects deemed worthy of consideration for removal from the state’s $31.5 billion budget.

As legislators entered the final stages of drafting the spending plan, bickering broke out over the relative merit of a series of “local projects” that had somehow meandered into the funding mix– despite a supposed informal “agreement” to spend taxpayer dollars solely this year on projects with obvious statewide or regional impact. At one point, the Senate even voted to cut $22 million worth of local pork that had crept into the budget after their brethren in the House had cut $1.8 million in suspicious spending they’d sniffed out.

But it was all just a show, little more than political theater. Ultimately, after an all-too-surreal House-Senate conference committee hearing, only $1 million in spending previously on GOP lawmakers’ wish lists was no longer in the final budget document.

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, admitted that the late-stage discernment of waste in the budget ultimately amounted to legislative “gamesmanship” — that, truth be known, there wasn’t much taste on anybody’s part for reducing tasty government handouts sure to wow the folks back home when it comes time for incumbents to brag on what they brung em’.

“It always happens at the end of the year. These are the things you just have to work out and take care of,” Sargent told TNReport.

Nevertheless, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who presides over the Tennessee Senate, said he doesn’t think voters of a fiscally conservative bent ought to be of a mind to make the GOP’s big-spenders pay come election time.

Ramsey, a “huge believer in preserving history, preserving our roots,” suggested it’s natural to make taxpayers pick up the slack when private-sector fundraising for cultural-heritage conservation comes up short.

“I think that fits right into my basic philosophy in general,” said the Blountville auctioneer, who often sells himself as a friend of Tea Party conservatives.

Still, Ramsey conceded not everyone may agree with every aspect of discretionary government spending in the coming year’s budget, especially when you get down to details.

He acknowledged that one of his own rather infamous pet projects — the Birthplace of Country Music Museum — probably “sounded awful” to those of a mind to zero in and identify the particulars of potential government waste. But GOP legislators even in the House rallied around the proposal to capture $500,000 from taxpayers’ wallets to help fund the $13 million as-yet-unfinished tourist trap located in Bristol, Virginia, just across the street and the state line from Bristol, Tennessee.

House Democrats had something of a field day ridiculing the fact that Republicans were willingly sending Tennessee tax dollars to Virginia. Later, though, their leadership acknowledged the outrage was calculated more to raise awareness of their own projects that didn’t get funded than any principled stand against spending money outside state borders.

“That never would have happened in a Democratic administration — at least not until we took care of our own projects first,” conceded House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

Ramsey noted, though, that what is, or is not, a “local” project is mostly a matter of perspective.

“You can argue the same thing of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis: Doesn’t help the state, it only helps Memphis. You could argue that Stax Museum (of American Soul Music) doesn’t help the state — it only helps Memphis,” said Ramsey.

During House floor debate on the museum, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, argued that taxpayer resources allocated toward tourism is almost always money well spent.

“I live in the center of tourism — the most active tourism area in the state of Tennessee, and we understand that,” said Montgomery. “We understand, too, that when you spend money on tourism it is a proven fact that every dollar you spend will get you $13 in return. Sometimes it is even more than that.”

But to the Tennessee Beacon Center’s bacon detector, things really aren’t all that complicated: If it looks and smells like pork, it probably is.

“It was sort of surprising that he came out with $500,000 for the museum in Bristol. And I think the most egregious part of it is it isn’t even in Tennessee, and this shows that taxpayer waste doesn’t even stop at the state line,” said Justin Owen, president of the free-market think tank that each year takes it upon itself to root out unnecessary and ill-advised government spending in the Volunteer State.

To be fair, Owen noted, the Legislature also voted to cut taxes this year — including reducing the sales tax on food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent, lowering the tax on inheriting wealthy estates and eliminating the tax on gifts. The reduction in the food tax will cost the state $22 million in “lost revenue.” And duly elected spenders of state taxpayer dollars will have about $95 million less to play around with after the three-year phase-out of the inheritance tax. Eliminating the gift tax will cost government an estimated $15 million annually.

But, clearly, the temptation to spend recklessly doesn’t stop at the party line either.

“Republicans spend just like Democrats. When you’re in control, you’re going to spend money,” Owen said. “There’s an incentive there to spend taxpayers’ money on things that really don’t benefit taxpayers as a whole, that go to benefit a select few.”

The Beacon Center’s 2012 Pork Report, due out later this month, takes special care to identify “tourist-related pork” and what Owen terms “corporate welfare,” like tax incentives for private businesses, including breaks for filmmakers shooting in Tennessee.

Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

Ramsey Touts Accomplishments Under Republican-Controlled State Government

Statement by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey; May 18, 2012:

Dear Friend,

Earlier this month, the 107th General Assembly concluded its business.

My goals for this legislature were the same ones I had when first elected: give the people of Tennessee what they have asked for: more jobs, less spending and smaller government.

Now, with partners like Governor Bill Haslam and Speaker Beth Harwell, we have truly been moving the conservative ball forward. I have often said that it matters who governs. Over the past two years, we have proved why.

In our first year of unified Republican government, we put conservative principles into action by instituting landmark education reform, tax cuts and smaller government.

This year we again heeded the call of voters to make government smaller, more efficient and customer friendly. These are things I have championed throughout my career in the legislature.  But now, with a Republican Governor and Speaker of the House, we have become a transformational force for good government in Tennessee.

Representing the People

This General Assembly worked diligently and efficiently to get our work done on time – adjourning earlier than at any point in the last 14 years and using the least amount of legislative days since 1984.

This achievement not only saves considerable taxpayer dollars it restores the great virtues of our citizen legislature. To those who have only observed Tennessee politics for the last few decades it might appear the legislature got out “early” by adjourning in early May. This is a common misconception I intend to erase. We got out on time. Period.

Tennessee does not have a full-time legislature and, if I have anything to do with it, we never will. By allowing session to drag on into June or July year after year our Democrat predecessors succeeded only in creating more government and allowing the people’s representatives to get farther and farther away from their constituents. It is almost impossible to represent people with whom you are only tangentially connected or a community in which you only nominally reside.

Legislators should do the business the people ask of them in Nashville – and get back home. The cause of small, efficient and responsive government requires it.

Shrinking government and cutting taxes

This year, the state of Tennessee is budgeted to spend $31.1 billion – nearly $1 billion less than our current operating budget. These are real cuts, not the phantom cuts of Washington where removing anticipated increases in spending counts as a cut.

Tennessee budgeted conservatively this year. We worked with revenue that we actually had rather than “projected” revenue we “expected” to have. We balanced this budget much like you and your family balance your own. Unified Republican government did away with the gimmicky accounting of the past and relied on tangible revenue numbers.

Not only did we shrink government, we returned money to the taxpayers. We gave every Tennessean tax relief by again reducing the food tax – reductions previous Democrat regimes refused to make.

We also set a course for the ultimate elimination of the death tax – a tax that punishes small farmers and businessmen seeking to provide for the next generation.

Tennessee plunged a stake into the heart of this insidious tax that attacks the very essence of the American Dream. Unlike Washington, Tennessee plans for the future and encourages those in our citizenry to do likewise. I am proud that this General Assembly was the one that finally brought the death tax before the reaper.

Coupled with the elimination of the gift tax, this General Assembly cut taxes by more than $50 million this year, resulting in the release of capital and the creation of jobs.

Tennessee Republicans used to be limited in what we could do. Operating under a Democrat Governor and House Speaker, my office had to play defense against Big Government Democrats leaving across the board conservative governance as merely a dream for some future place and time. That place is here and that time is now.

Now, we have the numbers to enact our conservative principles. And with your help we will enlarge our majority so that no one stands in the way of true conservative government ever again.

Reforming State Government

One of our most transformative legislative achievements this session was the passage of Gov. Haslam’s TEAM Act. A revolutionary step in state government, the TEAM Act will help us attract, retain and promote the best applicants and employees in state government. Excellence will now be rewarded when it is achieved, just as it is in the private sector.

This year also marked the passage of our major unemployment insurance reform. Republicans heard the clamor and saw the need for legislation that results in job creation and we filled the void.

The Unemployment Accountability Act of 2012 strengthens the definition of employee misconduct to ensure that those who have been fired for cause no longer receive benefits. We instituted new work search requirements for unemployment beneficiaries, encouraging the use of existing state infrastructure to help return the unemployed to the job market.

Nothing cures both economic and social ills like a good job. Having a job doesn’t just fulfill a man or woman’s economic need but their spiritual need as well. It bestows upon them a sense of self-worth which permeates all aspects of life.

This reform will be a boon not only for job creators by protecting them from fraud and abuse – it also aids job seekers by pushing them towards the job market.

Another important piece of the Republican job creation package was our “loser pays” tort reform. Businesses don’t mind taking risks but they have to be calculated ones. “Loser pays” will free employers from the time and cash consuming drudgery of frivolous lawsuits and allow them to do what they do best: employ people.

The fight against addiction

This General Assembly has also taken on crime passing bills attacking domestic violence, criminal gangs and drugs.

Most important to me is the fight against synthetic drugs, which have become an epidemic in Northeast Tennessee. Many lives have been lost due to this scourge and I was proud to be part of the team fashioning a solution. Bills passed in this General Assembly banned chemical compounds used in illegal synthetic drugs, no matter how criminal chemists continue to modify them  Our new measure will keep the law ahead of the drug pushers.

We also began a program to drug test those receiving government assistance.  This will end the taxpayer subsidy of illegal drugs. We as a society are never going to prevent every motivated user from consuming drugs – but we certainly don’t have to pay for it.

This is why we constructed a constitutionally sound bill that will allow us to remove drug users from the welfare rolls while offering them help. This protects taxpayers and attacks addiction. It is a win-win for Tennessee.

Protecting citizenship

While we continue to implement our new Photo ID law protecting citizenship at the ballot box, we have taken further steps to protect the rights of citizens.

While I’m a conservative who believes in personal responsibly and limited government, we as a society do need to provide some sort of safety net.  However, that net must be for citizens only. That is why I aided passage this session of the Eligibility Verification Act.  It ensures that only those in the United States legally receive any taxpayer-funded benefit.

Again, this is common sense but it was left undone by our Democrat predecessors.

Tax cuts, smaller government and job creation – this is conservative government in action. It is what Tennesseans asked for and it is what Tennessee shall get as long as you allow me to serve as Lt. Governor.

I humbly appreciate the support of all Tennesseans as the legislature continues to work hard to make Tennessee the best state in the nation in which to live, work and raise a family.

Sincerely,

Ronald L. Ramsey

Lieutenant Governor

Speaker of the Senate

 

Haslam Signs State’s $31.5B Budget

Gov. Bill Haslam says he signed the state’s $31.5 billion spending plan Tuesday, putting into action a state budget that is $627 million less than this year’s.

In an interview with TNReport Tuesday afternoon, Haslam said he’s proud of the budget plan, which spends about $400 million more than he originally pitched to lawmakers and the public back in January.

“The ultimate budget had a lot of the things that we added back in when the revenue numbers improved,” Haslam said. The state spending plan runs from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013.

“I am somebody who believes in smaller government. I also think though, there’s critical services that we provide,” he said. “While we want to be really tough on how we spend taxpayers dollars, we also want to make certain we’re taking care of people we’re supposed to.”

The governor and Republicans heralded this year’s legislative session as a fiscal success story. Elimination of the state’s gift tax, phasing out the tax on wealthy inheritances and slightly trimming the tax on food were all noteworthy accomplishments, Haslam said.

The spending plan also put $133.4 million back into the budget to restore funding to so-called “core services” originally on the chopping block, such as $3.9 million fund Healthy Start and Child Health and Development programs and $1.4 million for mental health peer support centers.

This year’s budget is expected to top off at $32.1 billion by June 30, the end of the spending year, according to budget highlights from the General Assembly’s conference committee that hammered out final details of the budget.

The year before, Tennessee closed the books on $31.1 billion in spending, according to the governor’s original 2012-13 budget proposal.

The governor’s budget includes spending on projects and programs lawmakers at one point flagged as pork barrel spending, including a $500,000 for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Va., across the street from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s Republican district Bristol in Tennessee.

“It’s kind of an easy target to say, oh that’s in Virginia. Why are we funding it when it’s yards from Tennessee?” he said. “It’s not like we funded something that’s in northwest Virginia.”

When asked if he was “comfortable” funding the museum, he said “I think I am… it’s a little different situation because of the way the city of Bristol is laid out.”

“Now, it is a fair question to say, ‘What are a local responsibility and what are private, philanthropy dollars,’” he said. “In the end, it’s always a judgment call on those.”

Transparency in Tennessee: Assessing the 107th General Assembly

Commentary by Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, May 3, 2012:

Secrecy seemed to be a common thread running through the session of the Tennessee Legislature that ended May 1. The latest “secret” revealed is that key members of the Legislature met on April 23 at a Nashville restaurant of the session to work out deals on amendments to the governor’s $34.1 billion state budget proposal.

The secret session was revealed in an Associated Press story filed the following day. No one in the Legislature or the governor’s office seemed upset that the meeting was held or revealed in news stories. But a representative of Gov. Bill Haslam did take care to note that no one from the governor’s office participated in the weekend meeting.

Tennessee political reporters and observer s know that this happens near the end of every legislative session in Tennessee. And it’s the reason the State Integrity Investigation, a national project to determine the potential for corruption in all 50 states, gave Tennessee a score of 0 out of a possible 100 on whether the “state budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner.”

“There have been secret meetings, I’m not going to deny,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told the AP. “There’s been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s always been.”

Despite a flare-up between Senate and House members over so-called pork barrel projects and efforts by the minority Democrats, the budget passed largely as hammered out during that weekend meeting.

Over all, State Integrity gave Tennessee a C+ for receiving 79 points out of 100 for the transparency of its budgeting process even with that big fat 0.

Secrecy was the major sticking point in another bill presented by Gov. Haslam’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which wants to give incentive grants to private companies to bring jobs to the state. In order to perform the department’s due diligence in checking out privately held companies, the state wanted to keep confidential the companies’ identity and all proprietary information. The administration and legislators were unable to reach agreement on confidentiality and the measure did not pass.

On the other hand, public teacher evaluation scores, under a new system developed last year, will remain confidential under legislation negotiated between the governor and Legislature with the Tennessee Education Association.

The bill to amend the public records act was passed quickly and with little fanfare through the use of a “caption” bill, which was passed largely unnoticed in a Senate committee before open government activists had a chance to oppose it. The only relevant element on the caption bill was the reference to “public records” before the rest of the caption was rewritten to keep teacher evaluation scores secret.

Still another bill brought by the administration would keep secret the names of all applicants for the top job at Tennessee’s universities and colleges except for the finalists. The amended bill called for finalists’ names to be announced at least 15 days before the appointment is made and required that officials publicly name at least three finalists for each post.

To find out more about issues of transparency in Tennessee, visit the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.