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Austin Guest on August 6, 2009 - 2:39pm
For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans held control of both legislative chambers. However, the moment was fleeting. At the start of this year's session, Republican Representative Kent Williams seized the Speakership from his GOP colleagues, who had a one seat majority, by teaming up with the House Democrats, who elected him Speaker. The Tennessee Republican Party responded by banishing Speaker Williams from the Party, although he says he remains a Republican.
Budget: The state enacted a $29.6 billion budget, which is ten percent smaller than last year's budget and will result in 1,400 jobs being eliminated. The budget relies on $2.2 billion in stimulus funds and allows the state to borrow $547.3 million for university and bridge construction. Fortunately, pre-K funding received an inflationary increase of roughly $500,000, bringing total funding to $83.5 million. The stimulus program is helping to prevent some painful cuts to services and invest in the state's infrastructure, intitiatives include: $39 million in stimulus funds are going to finance the widening of Highway 66, which is a primary link to the state's main tourist attractions; $18 million are going to support rural transit programs; $19.5 million in grants will go to the state's 20 community action and human resource agencies, which provide assistance to low-income families and residents with development disabilities; and, roughly $90 million will support housing assistance.
In other budget news, showing that small steps can yield big strides, lawmakers enacted S.B. 395 which requires vending machines on state property to use energy-efficient lighting. The step will save the state $438,000. Yet, not all cost-savings initiatives are worth it. In a move the Tennessee Disability Coalition reports as "devastating," the budget eliminates by late 2010 the Family Support Program, which provides assistance to households caring for family members with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Unemployment: Lawmakers also enacted legislation increasing unemployment insurance by raising the taxable wage base to $9,000 from $7,000 and adopting a
0.6 percent premium charge. The law will enable the state to draw down
$141 million in stimulus funds. Other steps taken in order to receive
the federal funding increase included changing the number of hours for
eligibility for part-time workers from 32 to 20, and increasing
payments to applicants with dependents. The law contains triggers for
higher premiums if the state’s unemployment funds go down to insure
Health Care: The state took a number of positive steps on health care although, they deferred action on a number of highly publicizing and debates measures. Most positively, the state took action on:
- Funding: The budget raises premium taxes on Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) to draw down federal matching funds and avoid a $300 million cut to TennCare, the state's Medicaid program. HMO's will likely gain in the end, as the $136.6 million raised will result in increased TennCare funding gained under the federal matching funds.
- Home Health Care: Lawmakers enacted S.B. 851, the "Open Doors Home Health Care Act", which authorizes home health nurses and aides to accompany recipients into the community to help them conduct routine daily activities, such as outpatient medical appointments, school and other educational functions, employment and volunteer opportunities, and church and religious services. The bill was sponsored by the Tennessee Disability Coalition. Other related initiatives, include creation of a Senior Alert program modeled after Amber Alerts, increased oversight of school personnel recommendting psychotropic drugs for students, and licensure of medication aides at nursing homes. Fortunately, lawmakers defeated S.B. 2160 which would have limited the legal liability of nursing homes in cases of abuse and neglect, and thus reducing incentives to improve quality of care.
- Prescription Drug Price Transparency: Lawmakers approved the “Patient’s Right to Prescription Transparency Act of 2009" to help consumers learn what pharmacies are being paid by health plans for their prescriptions. The new law prevents a health plan or Pharmacy Benefit Management Company (PBM) from restricting or prohibiting a pharmacy from giving the patient information regarding actual reimbursement. It also defines that percentage based co-pays be calculated based on the total prescription price the plan agrees to pay to the pharmacy.
Lawmakers deferred for study many bills concerning insurance coverage: Autism Equity, this bill would require insurers to cover care for autism spectrum disorder for patients up to 16 years of age, including coverage for speech, occupational, behavioral and other therapies; Prescription Drugs, this bill would prohibit insurers from limiting or denying continuity of coverage for prescription medications if the drug was being used by the patient at the time of renewal, and if the medication was previously covered by the insurance policy; and, Hearing Aid Coverage, this bill would require a certain annual benefit for hearing aids for insureds to age 24. And despite a report by the American Cancer Socity showing Tennessee failing to act on
measures to reduce cancer rates and improve access to cancer care,
lawmakers put off a measure that would have created a comprehensive
colorectal screening program for the underserved and required insurers
to cover such screenings.
Environment: There were a few victories on the environment, although many were more limited than advocates wanted:
- Coal: Lawmakers increased the coal severence tax, resulting, in part, in additional funds to counties where coal is extracted. Unfortunately, lawmakers failed to pass limitations on surface mining within 100 feet of state waters and surface mining above 2,000 feet. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill banning certain surface mining related activities from within 100 feet of a stream's high water mark.
- Energy Efficiency: S.B. 1919 creates incentives for local governments to use tax increment financing to pay for energy efficiency costs, encourages sustainable design by including Green Globes and LEED-certification costs within the financing package, and promotes local alternative energy projects that incorporate green design principles.
- Solar Energy: As reported by the Senate Republican Caucus, the budget includes the use of $62.5 million in stimulus funds to “advance job creation, education, research, and renewable-power production in Tennessee.” The Tennessee Solar Institute at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in conjunction with Tennessee’s universities will focus on basic science and industry partnerships to improve the affordability and efficiency of solar products. The development of a West Tennessee solar farm near Brownsville will involve a five-megawatt, 20-acre power generation facility at the Haywood County industrial megasite that will be one of the largest installations in the Southeast. That facility would also serve as a demonstration tool for educational, research and economic-development purposes.
- Gasoline: S.B. 1931 allows more Tennessee products to be used in the blending process of gasoline. The bill requires suppliers of gasoline products to make gasoline available to wholesalers in a condition that allows the wholesaler to blend it with ethanol.
- Methane: Lawmakers enacted public chapter 73 to support the development and use of methane as a renewable energy source. The law makes it clear that once refined, the extracted methane is a commercial equivalent to natural gas under Tennessee law. As the Senate Republican Caucus reports, experts maintain that landfill gas emitted from decomposing garbage is a reliable and renewable fuel option that remains largely untapped at many landfills across the United States despite its many benefits. The law makes it clear that any prohibition in permits barring the burning of landfill gas must refer only to unrefined gases and not the extracted and refined methane.
Family Planning: In a swipe at Planned Parenthood and other private family planning providers, lawmakers enacted legislation to require the state to exhaust all public family planning services
before funding care provided by private agencies. The bill also
removes specific reference to consultation and coordination
with Planned Parenthood affiliates in the development of family
planning programs that are administered by the state.
Foreclosures: Lawmakers enacted a bill making it illegal to use unfair or deceptive practices when advertising foreclosure-related services.
Anti-bullying/menacing: Lawmakers enacted S.B. 113 to provide stiff penalties for people who intentionally communicate with another person with "malicious intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress". The law's application includes phone, e-mail and text-message communications.
Guns: Despite an immeasurably sensible veto by Gov. Bredesen, lawmakers pressed on and enacted H.B. 962 to allow residents with permits to carry concealed handguns to bring firearms into bars and other restaurants. The bill was enacted despite strong opposition from police and bar owners. Lawmakers also passed a law allowing guns in federal, state and local parks. The law includes an opt-out provision. Another law passed would exempt guns and ammunition made and remaining in Tennessee from Federal laws. As the New York Times reports, this is part of an emerging states-right and pro-gun initiative to test federal powers. A similar bill has been enacted in Montana.
Elsewhere, Tennessee lawmakers had the fortunate sense to pass legislation requiring people served with an order of protection granted in domestic violence cases to surrender their firearms.
Education: Tennessee raised its cap on the number of charter schools in the state, from 50 to 90 and increased the number of children eligible to attend charter schools. Tennessee is one of 5 states to share $82 million in federal competitive charter school funding grants. In other news, lawmakers deferred a bill creating an occupational diploma for students with disabilities. The diploma would be in addition to the full diploma, certificate of attendance and special education diploma currently available.
Elections: By refusing to go along with the House, the Senate effectively upheld a 2008 law mandating all Tennessee counties to obtain new voting machines with a "paper trail" in time for the 2010 elections. Elsewhere, lawmakers enacted H.B. 1421 to allow e-mail notifications of a transfer of voter registration and to allow a voter to request an absentee ballot application via e-mail.
Immigration: Lawmakers enacted S.B. 1745, which requires the Departments of Labor and Education to establish and monitor a grant program called the "We Want to Learn English Initiative" to encourage immigrant integration into local communities. This was largely due to the efforts of groups like the Tennessee Immigrant Rights and Refugee Committee. Unfortunately, other chaptered measures were more negative, including:
- S.B. 2162 which creates new barriers to undocumented immigrants injured on the job from receiving workers compensation.
- S.B. 294 creates a Class A misdemeanor offense for a person to knowingly provide, transfer, or submit to any other person false identification for the purposes of obtaining or maintaining employment.
- S.B. 10 creates a presumption that any defendant not lawfully present in the United States is a risk of flight for bail determination.