December Revenues, Sales Tax Streamlining Discussed at Hearings

State budget hearings with Gov. Bill Haslam continued Wednesday. Here are some highlights. (Read more from hearings earlier in the week with the departments of Education, Health, Tourist Development, Higher Education.)

Revenue

Haslam asked for the department’s read on expected collections from December, and Commissioner Richard Roberts said his department is encouraged but that he is reluctant to count funds until he sees them.

Roberts said more will be known with a report next week, but December collections are expected to be big.

Roberts said the department’s base budget has been reduced in the last three years by 12.6 percent. The department is responsible for administering state tax laws and motor vehicle title and registration laws.

The department employs 1,092 people, and potential reductions submitted to the governor include abolishing positions, many of which are vacant, including potentially knocking out 11 vacant positions in the department’s audit division.

There was considerable discussion about the streamlined sales tax system, which is aimed at simplifying collections of taxes from retailers. The issue involves many technical issues, but Revenue staff also noted the political ramifications involved in ways of collecting sales taxes. That debate is expected to continue.

Officials said about two-thirds of sales taxes are being paid electronically. The department says increasing online tax filing is one of its top priorities.

Finance and Administration

New Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes left his seat beside Haslam for the first time in the week’s budget hearings to face the governor with his department’s presentation.

While TennCare falls under this department, the state’s version of the Medicaid program will be presented as a stand-alone presentation on Thursday.

Haslam did ask several questions about the Cover Tennessee program, which was introduced under the Bredesen administration and offers limited coverage. The program has proved popular, although its adult population has been capped.

Emkes pointed to the state’s AAA bond rating as a sign of the state’s strong financial health and said the state should continue on its path of holding down spending and keeping its debt load low.

A lot of time was devoted to discussion of Edison, the software program for administrative functions that has been somewhat controversial because it is difficult to use. But Emkes said the program does work, citing success among about 75 percent of the agencies while 25 percent have struggled.

Among the many efforts the department singled out was the work of Deb Faulkner, the inspector general, who cracks down on fraud and abuse of the TennCare system.

Haslam also asked the F&A staff numerous questions about the state’s own health-care plan for workers. He was told about incentive-based programs designed to encourage better health choices and personal responsibility.