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Legislators receive 612-page budget, begin deliberations

The 106th General Assembly was presented with the proposed 2010-2011 state budget, as the Governor addressed a joint convention last Monday. Overall, the proposal includes a 5 to 6 percent decrease in the budget total, with roughly $200 million being used from both the Rainy Day Fund and the TennCare reserve fund.
Budget hearings are beginning in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee. Representatives from the various departments will be available during the hearings to answer questions.
In his speech, the Governor presented a quick overview of the 612-page budget that was delivered to legislators’ offices the same day. Though some specifics regarding revenue and proposed expenditures were outlined, I remain committed to fully discussing the budget over the coming weeks as I learn more details.
The Department of Safety had originally prepared to cut state troopers in 13 rural counties, but the proposed budget includes a driver’s license renewal fee increase intended to avoid layoffs and pay for new radio equipment for state troopers. Currently, it costs $19.50 every five years to renew a Tennessee driver’s license. The proposal increases that fee to $46 every eight years, which state officials say will make the process more efficient. Please let me know how you feel about this proposed fee increase.
The Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System was not on the chopping block, as the system will receive an infusion of $82 million to shore up the fund. K-12 also escaped major cuts, with the proposal protecting BEP funding and even includes $47 million in growth. K-12 capital projects were cut, as were many capital projects across the state. However, money will not leave the classrooms in the budget as proposed.
In addition, the state will mostly avoid mass layoffs and the budget includes a one-time bonus of 3 percent for state employees. The Governor did outline a plan to eliminate 456 unfilled positions. The Governor addressed, that we “must adjust our expenses to match our income.” With the state in its 20th straight month of revenue decline—a record—some reductions are inevitable. They include $200 million in recurring reductions in TennCare; $64 million reduction in higher education; $20 million recurring reductions in K-12 capital projects; and $16 million in recurring Child Services.
The technical corrections bill originates in the Department of Revenue and proposes revenue increases through specific changes to the Tennessee Code.
This year, the legislation includes a tax on real estate investment trusts, and an increase in the cable tax, totaling $49.8 million among a few other smaller proposals.
The first $15 of cable TV service is currently taxed at 8.25 percent, with the rest being exempt. On the other hand, satellite TV is taxed at 8.25 percent, but without the $15 exemption. The technical corrections bill proposes to tax an entire cable TV bill at 8.25, bringing it in line with satellite service. Again, I would like your input on this proposed increase.
The “Secret Ballot Protection Act” appeared in the Employee Affairs Subcommittee last week, and was killed by Democrats on a straight party line vote. The proposal defines the denial of secret-ballot elections as an unfair labor practice. It also establishes penalties (class C misdemeanor) and civil remedies for violation.
The bill is a remedy for “card check,” which has been proposed in Congress. Card check would require unionization ballots to be public, so that unions could see if a worker voted for or against unionization. Currently, the vote on whether to unionize is a secret ballot, which protects workers from undue harassment by union leaders. The Secret Ballot Protection Act would declare that those votes remain private in order to protect workers.
The Republican sponsor argued that voting is sacred whether it is in the voting booth or the workplace, and that the bill is consistent with the state’s Constitution in guaranteeing ballot secrecy. Ultimately, however, the bill failed along party lines.
A bill that would have barred some local entities from requiring nutritional labeling on menus passed both the House and Senate last year, but was then vetoed by the Governor. Last year, lawmakers arguing in favor of the bill said mandating chain restaurants to put certain nutritional information on menus places an unnecessary burden on restaurant owners in an already struggling economy and creates an atmosphere that is unfriendly to business owners.
The legislation was amended to prohibit non-elected bodies from making the decision to require nutritional information on menus. It also specifies that if the federal government passes legislation requiring menu labeling and the federal action specifically authorizes state departments to enforce such action, then the Tennessee Department of Health will be the department that is primarily responsible for the implementation and supervision of the new requirements.
The Senate has already voted on the veto override, with a vote of 24- to 7. The House is expected to take up the veto override this week.
I am looking forward to seeing you and your family at one of my town hall meetings this week. I will be hosting meetings Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Cranberry Thistle, on Main Street in Jonesborough. We will meet from 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m. I will also be at the Telford Diner Friday, Feb. 12, from 5:30 p.m.- 7 p.m. Thank you for allowing me to serve you in Nashville.