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From the Hill: State leaders work to shrink budget shortfall, save major money

By State Rep. Matt Hill
Lawmakers continued their examination of the budget last week, amid reports that revenues continue to slide.
The state has seen revenues decline for 20 straight months, a new record. Despite the dismal numbers, leaders remain focused on their goal of a balanced budget that keeps priorities in place and view the current budget situation as an opportunity to return government to the basics.
Based on tentative numbers, the total budget will shrink this fiscal year by roughly $1.5 billion. Analysts say the state’s sales tax revenue—the primary source of revenue—has dropped sharply over the last 20 months.
KEEPING SOME ‘CLAWBACK PAYMENTS’
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that Tennessee could keep some of the “clawback payments” associated with prescription drug coverage. The temporary change means the state could save $120 million, going a long way in softening the blow of the Governor’s call for $200 million in reductions from TennCare.
Some Tennesseans that are Medicaid-waiver enrollees are also enrolled in Medicare. The federal government requires the state to contribute some of its TennCare funds in lieu of paying twice for the benefits that both programs cover, called “clawback payments.” Temporarily, the federal government will be forgiving those payments, thus saving the $120 million.
Tennessee joined several other states in asking the federal government to suspend the payments, because the federal stimulus aid for Medicaid meant the state would have paid less for prescription drugs in the next two budgets. At the end of last week the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services agreed, leading them to temporarily suspend the payments.
PASS THE BOTTLE LEGISLATION
The ‘Pass the Bottle’ legislation appeared before the House Local Government Subcommittee, eventually winning the approval of the committee. The bill passed with a 5-3 vote. House Bill 2744 would ban open containers in the passenger areas of vehicles, and make a violation a misdemeanor, subjecting a guilty party to a fine. Currently, no driver may consume an alcoholic beverage or possess an open container of such while operating a motor vehicle, but passengers may consume alcohol. The sponsor argued this policy invites drivers to drink as long as there is a passenger to which they can “pass the bottle.”
The bill was filed last year and experienced resistance in subcommittees.
Opponents expressed concern over the ability of sober drivers to take friends home who are drinking, and also regarding sporting events, such as University of Tennessee football games. Despite these objections, the sponsor said the state must reform its drunk driving laws.
In 2008, an estimated 11,773 people died in drunk driving related crashes.
Alcohol-related crashes in the United States cost the public an estimated $114.3 billion in 2000, including $51.1 billion in monetary costs and an estimated $63.2 billion in quality of life losses. People other than the drinking driver paid $71.6 billion of the alcohol-related crash bill, which is 63 percent of the total cost of these crashes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Having won approval from the Local Government Subcommittee, the bill now faces the full House State and Local Government Committee and is scheduled to be heard today.
TRAFFIC CAMERAS CONTROVERSY
The controversy over traffic cameras continues, and legislation that would place a two-year moratorium on the cameras is being held in the Transportation Committee until April 1. The bill would prohibit city and county governments from signing new contracts for a two-year period, giving the Tennessee General Assembly time to study the issue further.
The state’s Attorney General also released an opinion last week that said the cameras are constitutional. A lawmaker asked the Attorney General to decide whether or not the cameras violate the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause, which allows the accused to confront any witnesses against them. The AG opinion stated, in response, “The confrontation clause embraces testimonial statements. Photographs are not testimonial statements.”
Although the opinion did not directly address many of the issues the legislature is examining, it indicated there are certain areas that could be open to scrutiny. The opinion also stated that certain restrictions the legislature is considering placing on the cameras would be constitutional, as long as the restrictions were “reasonable.”
The City of Gallatin in Sumner County was the first to implement the cameras in 2006, and has since added additional cameras. City officials say the cameras have significantly reduced T-bone crashes at major intersections.
Currently, 16 Tennessee cities utilize the cameras for traffic enforcement, including red light and speed cameras.
FELONY MEANS FORFEIT
House Bill 2349 would require any member of the General Assembly convicted of a felony related to public office to forfeit their state health benefits.
The measure would allow family members who may be covered under the plan to continue utilizing it provided they continue paying the premiums. The bill advanced from the House State and Local Government Committee and will next be heard in the Budget Subcommittee. Because the legislation will not cost the state any money, leaders are optimistic it will advance through Finance, Ways and Means.
STATE GOVERNMENT EFFICIENCY
House Bill 3007, which encourages state government efficiency through innovative techniques and public input, moved through the committee system and could be set for a vote on the floor as early as this week.
House Bill 270, requiring citizenship status to be proven prior to registration to vote was passed out of the House State and Local Government Committee last week.