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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.

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‘Copeland Cap’ May Get Makeover

An easily circumvented Tennessee constitutional provision aimed at compelling state government to live within its means is drawing renewed attention from lawmakers who say it hasn’t had its intended effect.

The so-called “Copeland Cap,” a spending limit Tennessee voters approved for addition to the state constitution in 1978, requires the Legislature to restrict year-to-year government-expenditure growth to no more than growth in the state’s economy.

However, according to figures compiled by veteran low-tax activist Ben Cunningham, the cap has been disregarded more than a dozen times since its sponsor, former state Rep. David Copeland R-Ooltewah, guided it to passage. Currently, the General Assembly can bust the cap by a simple majority vote.

“David Copeland got concerned and worried about the fact that we might spend more than we had, which is a bad thing to do — and we’ve done that, too,” said Nashville Democrat Douglas Henry. He is sponsoring the measure meant to start a discussion about adding more heft to the government-budgeting lid so it will “do what it was designed to do.”

Under Senate Bill 1235, approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee on Wednesday, a task force would take up the matter and report back possible solutions to the General Assembly next year.

“This is the first step in a long process,” Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson, who would serve on the panel, told lawmakers during the committee hearing. The bill calls on the task force to make recommendations by Feb. 1.

Amending the state constitution takes years, including passage in two successive Legislatures — the second by a two-thirds majority — after which the people of Tennessee must approve it on a ballot that includes a gubernatorial election.

Committee chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he believes adding a two-thirds House and Senate floor-vote requirement to override the cap would be a good place to start. That’s also an idea pushed by the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee, which identified the “runaway spending” permitted under the Copeland Cap as an issue for lawmakers in its policy guide.

“(A supermajority requirement) would allow lawmakers to curb spending, while still preserving their ability to raise needed funds in times of emergency or disaster,” the Center says in its guide. (See page 13.)

The Beacon Center also supports tying the cap to population growth plus inflation, rather than personal income growth.

Senate Bill 1235 moves next to the Finance, Ways and Means Committee. The House version of the legislation, HB1154, by Sumner County Republican Courtney Rogers, has already moved through the committee system and is awaiting scheduling for a lower-chamber floor vote.

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About Half a Billion in Gov’t Bacon ID’d by Beacon

In Tennessee, taxpayer money has been used to dabble in the movie-making business, prop up car companies, and promote country music heritage — in Virginia.

Such projects are cataloged in a new Pork Report tracking $468 million in waste and public malfeasance in the past year, $216 million worth of loin, butt and chops at the state level, the Center says.

Authored by the Nashville-based Beacon Center, the report identified more than $182 million in what the center calls “corporate welfare.” Furthermore, “politicians went hog wild” spending the citizenry’s resources on what Beacon Center president Justin Owen described as “taxpayer-funded tourist traps,” including a country music museum in Virginia and a planned water-and-snow theme park in Nashville.

“Many times politicians try to convince us that somehow their visions are grander and more wonderful,” said Ben Cunningham, a Tea Party leader and spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt who Tuesday joined Owen at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “Sometimes they even try to convince us that they are a cut above — morally and intellectually above the rest of us — and that their grand, good intentions are somehow grander and more wonderful than the good intentions of the citizenry.

“But in fact, they’re ordinary human beings just like you and I, and they have to be held to the same standards that everybody else is held to.”

This is the seventh year the Beacon Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has published the Pork Report. TCPR was founded in 2004 by Johnson City-native Drew Johnson, who next month will succeed 70-year veteran Tennessee newspaperman Lee Anderson as an opinion page editor for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

State spending Beacon’s 2012 Pork Report identified as wasteful included:

  • $2 million in film incentives in 2012.
  • $1.5 million in economic incentives for GM to expand its plant in Spring Hill.
  • $266,200 to Volkswagen to put a sign, only visible from the air, atop its plant in Chattanooga.
  • $500,000 for a planned country music museum in Bristol on the Virginia side of the state line adjacent to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s district.
  • $88.7 million for pre-kindergarten, which has “repeatedly failed to have a significant lasting impact on the education of Tennessee’s children.”

“This year state and local governments didn’t hold back when spending taxpayers’ money,” said Owen.

Political responsibility for much of the iffy spending and sketchy programs pegged in the report can be assigned to fiscally conservative-talking Republicans, who run state government and are not expected to lose their grip on power in this year’s legislative elections.

“Republicans spend just like Democrats do,” Owen said. “And when you’re spending someone else’s money, you have an incentive to spend it unwisely.”

Although the report points to spending made on Gov. Bill Haslam’s watch, the governor contends his administration is already on top of cutting out pork spending.

“I can promise you that government waste has got our full attention. Now, waste is obviously defined different ways by different folks,” Haslam told reporters Tuesday after defending spending on Pre-K, economic development and tourism.

“One of the value judgements you make every year in the budget is, what are you going to fund out of a lot of potential good things and what are you going to cut out of several things that people have an opinion about whether that’s critical or just nice to have.”

The Center thinks much remains in the latter category and says the state should adopt a law to return excess revenues to taxpayers and set up a state spending commission to root out waste.

The Center advocates strengthening a 1978 state constitutional provision meant to rein in growth. If the state is considering spending that exceeds the growth rate in personal income, lawmakers are required to take a separate vote on the amount beyond that cap. The Center says this vote should require a two-thirds approval, rather than the current majority, and that the measure of personal income growth should be replaced by a figure based on population growth plus inflation.