The Tennessee General Assembly returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to begin the 2016 legislative session with a host of issues slated for discussion this year including the state budget, jobs, education, criminal justice, transportation, prescription drug abuse and taxes. Before getting down to work, the State Senate stood in a moment of silence to remember the four Marines and Navy sailor who died in an act of terrorism in Chattanooga in July. Sergeant Carson A. Holmquist, Logistics Specialist Randall Smith, Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan, Lance Corporal Squire K. “Skip” Wells and Staff Sergeant David A. Wyatt were hailed for their sacrifices and heroism.
Senate Hears Update on Tennessee’s Health Status — Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, spoke to my Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week regarding the health of Tennessee citizens. Wynkoff said Tennessee ranks 43rd in overall health according to the United Health Foundation, which is up from 45th last year. He said that unhealthy choices are a key factor in the state’s low health ranking.
Wykoff explained that, of the five primary causes leading to early death, access to healthcare accounts for only 10 percent of the cause, while unhealthy choices accounts for 40 percent, genetics for 30 percent, environmental exposure for 5 percent, and social circumstances for 15 percent. He said tobacco and the obesity epidemic accounted for some of the highest death rates in the behavioral categories in Tennessee. Approximately 24.2 percent of Tennesseans smoke tobacco, making the state the 4th worst in the nation in this category. Approximately 31.2 percent are considered obese, which places the state at 36th in the nation. In addition, Tennessee is ranked 42nd in the nation for physical inactivity and is the second highest state for opioid prescriptions.
Those behaviors, he said, lead to health outcomes like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Tennessee ranks 48th in diabetes, 44th in cardiovascular deaths, and 44th in cancer deaths. To improve health in Tennessee we need to work to change behaviors, particularly the big three tobacco, obesity/physical inactivity and substance abuse. We also have to work on jobs and education.
AAA Speaks to Senate and House Transportation Committee Regarding Road Safety —
Representatives from the American Automobile Association (AAA) reported this week on the safety status of Tennessee roadways in 2016 to the Senate and House of Representatives Transportation Committees. Speaking on behalf of the organization, Regional President Tim Wright and Public Affairs Director Don Lindsey told committee members that Tennessee is continuing its trend of decreasing the number of deaths on the state’s highways, bucking the national record of increases. The number of deaths reported on Tennessee’s road for 2015 were 961, which is 30 fewer than those killed in 2014 and the third lowest since 1963. The decline is despite the fact that the overall number of automobile crashes increased by 10 percent.
Lindsey believes that a primary reason for the drop in fatalities is increased seat belt use over this time period. He thanked lawmakers for passing legislation last year aiming to get more Tennesseans to “buckle up” by increasing the nominal fines for violating the state’s seat beat law.
Lindsey said that DUI- and drug-related fatalities were also down but the state’s distracted driving crashes rose eight percent. In addition, 122 pedestrians or bicyclists were killed last year, an increase he believes could be due to more paths being located on the state’s roads. The Tennessee Highway Patrol also issued 24 percent more texting-while-driving citations in 2015 than in 2014.
Lindsey and Wright said one of the biggest threats to safety is the quality of roads as they went through a wide variety of initiatives taken by other states to improve their transportation systems. Twelve states addressed transportation funding shortfalls in 2015, including several which raised their gas tax. Other avenues included raising fees on electric vehicles and providing an index for inflation and population increases.
Following is an overview of some of the key issues for this year:
Budget — Revenues in Tennessee have shown a healthy trend over the last several months. The state collected about $353 million over budget estimates for the 2014-2015 fiscal year which ended in July. The excess revenue will most likely be used to finance projects that can be funded as one-time expenditures.
The State Funding Board met in November and projected that revenues could grow by up to $348 million during the current 2015-2016 fiscal year. The board predicted next year’s growth will range from $376 to $525 million. Although the legislature will continue a conservative fiscal approach to spending taxpayer dollars, the healthy revenue growth is very good news as the General Assembly looks ahead at the 2016-17 budget year.
Education — Among the top education issues for discussion this year is Governor Bill Haslam’s plan to ensure that colleges and universities are organized, supported and empowered in efforts to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential to 55 percent by 2025. The “Focus On College and University Success (FOCUS) Act” includes key strategies to provide more focused support for community and technical colleges, increase autonomy and local control for Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) universities and strengthen the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC).
For the 2015-2016 school year – the first year of Tennessee Promise and Reconnect – there was a 24.7 percent increase in first-time freshmen enrollment at community colleges and a 20 percent increase in first-time freshmen at Tennessee colleges of applied technology (TCATs).
Tennessee’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) also plays an important role in the effort to graduate more students with post-secondary degrees. LEAP helps students get a high quality job by working proactively with education and industry to identify and then fill skills gaps across the state.
On the K-12 level, the latest test scores show Tennessee students made significant gains in all high school subjects and in the majority of subjects in grades 3-8 in 2015 as a result of reforms passed by the General Assembly over the last several years and educators and students working hard across the state. Since 2011, 131,000 more students are on grade level in math, and nearly 60,000 more students are on grade level in science.
Judicial Confirmation — A top issue for consideration by the General Assembly this year stems from the constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2014 calling for legislative confirmation of appellate court nominees. Under the constitutional amendment, appellate judges are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. The voters of Tennessee then retain the ability to remove judges at the end of their 8-year terms. Legislation was introduced last year to put into place the framework to fulfill the constitutional mandate. An agreement, however, was not met on how the confirmation vote should be handled. Due to the pending vacancy on the State Supreme Court, expect a proposal on this matter to be one of the first issues taken up in the 2016 legislative session. On January 7, Governor Bill Haslam appointed Judge Roger Page of Jackson to the Tennessee Supreme Court, replacing Justice Gary Wade who retired in September. If the legislature does not reach resolution of the issue by March 12, Page will be confirmed by default on March 13.
Truth in Sentencing — Governor Bill Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism (on which I served) has recommended longer prison stays for more serious offenders and people convicted repeated times for home burglary, drug trafficking and domestic violence. In their report, the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism also recommended changing state law to provide “truth in sentencing” for felony convicts that result in a clear minimum period of incarceration known to victims, defenders and everyone else at the time of sentencing. Currently, convicts are given a release eligibility date that is a minimum 30 percent of the sentence but good-behavior credits earned in prison can shave more time off that prison time.
Repeat Offenders — The Sentencing and Recidivism Task Force also focused on ways to reduce the number of repeat offenders in Tennessee through transitional programing and treatment services both during and after incarceration. They recommend an individualized case management plan for felony offenders after they leave prison to help them integrate back into the community and break the cycle of crime and punishment. They also suggest developing additional alternative responses for non-compliance with conditions of probation and parole when it does not rise to the level of a new criminal offense. Forty percent of offenders in jail are people with technical violations of their probation.
The task force favors continuing to support recovery through drug treatment and other specialty courts as well.
Juvenile Justice Reform — Expect criminal justice reform efforts to provide alternatives for juvenile offenders to keep them from reoffending. This includes keeping juvenile offenders in school so they receive an education to help them gain the skills they need to put them on a productive career path, rather than a life of crime.
Opioid Addiction — Prescription drug abuse will be a key topic for discussion this year as the state continues to be one of the worst in the nation in this regard. More people die from overdoses in Tennessee than are killed in car crashes or gun-related deaths. Over the last several years, Tennessee has passed legislation to help prevent abuse by “pill mills” and to strengthen the state’s drug monitoring database. Expect this year’s legislation to further crack down on prescribers and others who abuse the system.
School Choice — Legislation to provide opportunity scholarships for students on free and reduced lunch is expected to come back to the General Assembly this session. The scholarships, which are similar to vouchers, would be offered to low income students, who are assigned to low-performing public schools.
Budget / Education — Improving teacher salaries might also be on the legislative agenda this year. Governor Haslam has prioritized teacher salary improvements over the last several years. The 2016-2017 budget proposal might also include the 12th month of funding for teacher health insurance through the Basic Education Program. In 2015, the legislature added $30.4 million to cover the 11th month.
Testing Transparency — Legislation could be discussed this year that would allow teachers and parents to see both answers and questions of state tests so they have more information to help their students/children.
Transportation Funding — The legislature will discuss Tennessee’s current $6 billion backlog in road projects during the 2016 legislative session. Debate on the matter began in 2015 after State Comptroller Justin Wilson released a report which showed that Tennessee’s fuel taxes have stagnated and are not expected to be sufficient to maintain existing infrastructure and meet long-term transportation demands. Although Governor Bill Haslam has called for a permanent solution to the road funding deficit, he has not said whether a proposal will be submitted this year. Some legislators have called for using some of the state’s $353 million in excess revenues to help fund backlogged highway projects, including a proposal that calls for paying back $261 million taken from the road fund to pay for general expenses during the recession years. Other proposals that might be debated this year include a bill to add $150 to the state’s registration fee for electric cars and $75 to the cost for hybrids and legislation to place the state’s 7 percent sales tax revenue collected from the sale of tires into the highway fund.
Hall Income Tax – Expect proposals to continue to raise exemptions on the Hall Income Tax, phase it out or cut it out altogether. The Hall tax brings in approximately $260 million for the state with 3/8ths of it going to local government.