State Senate reviews how taxpayer dollars are spent as lawmakers begin month-long examination of departmental budgets
Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as State Senators examined the budgets of 12 agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills.
The budget hearings are part of the process of reviewing how taxpayer dollars are spent to examine whether the money is being used efficiently and effectively to meet the state’s goals for each department or agency. Particular scrutiny is given to any proposed reductions or recommendations for improvements sent to the legislature by the Governor. The hearings will continue through March 25 until the budgets of all agencies and departments have been reviewed. Adoption of the budget is traditionally one of the last bills to be passed before adjournment.
Decline in Tennessee Traffic Fatalities linked to Increased Seat Belt Use
Representatives from the Knoxville American Automobile Association (AAA) reported this week on the safety status of Tennessee roadways in 2014 to the Senate Transportation Committee. Speaking on behalf of the organization, Tim Wright and Don Lindsey told committee members that the increase of seat belt use is the primary reason for a drop in fatalities on Tennessee roads over the past six years.
Traffic fatalities exceeded 1,000 per year from 1964 to 2008, killing over 55,000 Tennesseans. In 2009, traffic deaths decreased below 1,000 per year and have only climbed above that mark in two of the past six years.
Tennessee suffered 967 fatalities in 2014, down three percent or 28 deaths, from the previous year. The decline is despite the fact that the number of automobile crashes increased by 4 percent. Lindsey said this was due to record 87.7 percent seat belt use. “In 2014, the 12 percent who chose not to buckle up made up about half the deaths of passenger vehicles, about 367 people,” Lindsey said.
Tennessee’s TNStars College Savings Plan ranked top in the nation
TNStars College Savings 529 plan has just been recognized as the top direct-sold plan in the nation. The savings plan was among topics discussed by Tennessee Treasurer David Lillard and members of the Senate Finance Committee during an examination of the State Treasurer’s budget.
The plan was designed to give Tennessee families high quality investment options at low cost to help them pay for education and receive tax advantages. Families of all income levels are served by the plan. Of the new accounts opened from September to December 2014, 15 percent were opened by families making less than $50,000 annually.
All families who open savings accounts with TNStars can receive up to $375 in incentives. Some families will also qualify for a four-to-one match of up to $1,500 per child. Funds and extra incentives saved in a TNStars account can be used not only for post-secondary education tuition and fees but also for related expenses, including room and board, textbooks and supplies.
Research shows that children with a college savings account are six to seven times more likely to attend a four-year college compared with children with no dedicated account.
During the presentation, Treasurer Lillard also said Tennessee’s retirement fund for state government, higher education and other public employees is the fifth best funded state public pension plan in the country. The AAA-rated plan has 347,000 active and retired enrollees with assets of $43 billion. This makes it the 24th largest pension plan in the nation and one of the largest in the world. Lillard said the pension plan had a solid 16.7 percent gain during the past year on its investments.
Issues in Brief
Bright Spots and Challenges in Tennessee’s Health Status – Department of Health Commissioner John J. Dreyzehner made a budget presentation in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week which included a report on the “bright spots” and challenges regarding Tennessee’s health status. Dreyzehner said that infant mortality is the lowest ever in Tennessee at 6.8 per 1,000 live births. Other bright spots include a two percent drop in childhood obesity, a 40 percent reduction in doctor shopping since 2012, and a five percent decrease in the amount of morphine dispensed. On the upward trend is increased life expectancy, which is now 76.6 years; and a rise in the number of Tennesseans who receive the flu vaccine, which now stands at 52.7 percent. The state is rated among the top five in the U.S. for its disease outbreak response as well. Dreyzehner said the state still faces challenges with the “big three” causes for poor health in Tennessee. These are tobacco use, obesity and physical activity. He also said the state ranks 40th in the nation in drug deaths.
Baby Boomers / Elderly Care – Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability Director Jim Shulman told lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week that there has been an 8.54 percent increase in the number of senior citizens in Tennessee over the past year. Seniors are growing faster than any other sector of the population due to the arrival of baby boomers who have reached their golden years. Baby boomers are typically defined as those individuals born between 1946 and 1964. Shulman told the committee that it is important that Tennessee is efficient with its resources to serve an increasingly larger aging population. Shulman also said that 110,000 Tennesseans have Alzheimers, a condition which refers to memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life.
Forest Report – The Tennessee Forestry Commission presented their 2014 annual report to the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week regarding the health of Tennessee’s forests. The Commission reported the state fought 1,346 forest fires that burned 20,968 acres, the highest since 2007. The Commission has also been working aggressively to eradicate the ever-increasing number of native and non-native pests encroaching on Tennessee’s forests. These include the gypsy moth, hemlock woolly adelgid and southern pine beetle. In June 2014, 7,400 gypsy moth detection and delimiting traps were placed in 93 counties. The Commission also worked to detect and monitor thousand cankers disease, emerald ash borer and exotic bark beetles. The Commission has held its first meeting of the Tennessee Forest Health Council, a group consisting of representatives from all agencies and organizations involved in promoting and improving the health of Tennessee’s forests.
Opioid Abuse – The full Senate approved legislation to repeal Tennessee’s Intractable Pain Treatment Act in an effort to reduce opioid abuse in Tennessee. Senate Bill 157 is supported by the state’s districts attorney and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The Intractable Pain Treatment Act was passed in 2001 and includes a “Pain Patient’s Bill of Rights” which gave patients a great amount of responsibility to choose opiate medications as a first line of treatment even through other modalities of pain relief exist. Under the law’s “Patient Bill of Rights,” physicians are required either to provide requested opiate medication or refer to physicians who will. Since the passage of the 2001 law, Tennessee has experienced multiple negative consequences, including being ranked second in the nation for the rate of opioid pain relievers sold per 10,000 persons. Prescription opioids also rank as the worst abused drug among individuals receiving state-funded treatment services in Tennessee.
Education / Teacher Fellowship – The Tennessee Department of Education and the Hope Street Group announced a new statewide partnership this week to raise educator voices and strengthen teacher leadership opportunities. Hope Street Group is a national nonprofit organization known for its role in teacher engagement. Hope Street Group will select teachers to participate in the 12-month fellowship set to begin in the summer of 2015. This is one of many programs Tennessee has launched over the past few years to elevate the teaching profession and the voice of educators. Fellows will be given the opportunity to attend professional development trainings, interact with their colleagues and collect data and feedback from teachers.
KIDS COUNT – A new KIDS COUNT report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that refundable tax credits, such as the child care tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), are the single most effective policies to help children living in poverty. The report, Measuring Access to Opportunity in the United States, assesses the improvements of the percentage of children suffering from poverty. The reports also notes that Tennessee is one of the cheapest states to live in according to the cost of living index with lower taxes which helps Tennesseans with lower incomes stretch their money.
Tennessee Promise / Soldiers – Legislation which aims to ensure that the Tennessee Promise scholarship is available to soldiers has received final Senate approval. Senate Bill 56 cleans up language in the law to help high school students who train between their junior and senior year in the National Guard and/or go to their advanced individual training after their senior year. These soldiers are not currently eligible for Tennessee Promise. Soldiers are provided other scholarships which could cover them as Tennessee Promise is a “last dollar” scholarship. This legislation gives them an option to ensure they have access to Tennessee Promise just in case they don’t.
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