(Updates earlier post)
The Senate voted 25-5 Thursday to impose a 3.52 percent “enhanced coverage assessment” on hospital revenues for the next year to avoid $659 million in cuts that hospitals would otherwise see in payments from TennCare.
Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryille, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said the move means that the hospitals, by paying about $230 million, will “temporarily step into the state’s shoes” and receive an extra $439 million from the federal government.
The bill (SB3528, as amended) now goes to the House, where a vote is scheduled Monday night with Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville as sponsor. It appears virtually certain to pass, though some legislators have expressed concern they will be accused of voting for a tax increase in an election year.
All five of those voting no in the Senate are involved in hotly contested election campaigns. They were Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who is running for governor; and Sens. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet; Diane Black, R-Gallatin; Lowe Finney, D-Jackson; and Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyille.
Black and Tracy are running against each other for the Republican nomination in the 6th District Congressional race while Beavers and Finney both face prominent challengers to re-election this year.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp released Thursday a copy of his 2009 federal income tax return, showing he paid $18,240 in federal taxes on $166,707 his income as a U.S. congressman.
Wamp and his wife, Kimberly, had $52,296 in deducations – more than half of that as interest on their home mortgage. The couple gave $4,988 to charity.
The Wamp form 1040 shows he actually overpaid his taxes by $10,681 last year and received a refund for that amount.
Wamp’s campaign also called on his Republican primary opponents, Bill Haslam and Ron Ramsey, to release their returns as well.
A Wamp campaign news release is available by clicking below.
From the AP:
Permit owners could once again bring their handguns into establishments that serve alcohol under a bill passed by the Senate.
The Senate voted 23-9 to approve the measure sponsored by Democratic Sen. Doug Jackson of Dickson (SB3012). A similar law was declared unconstitutionally vague by a Nashville judge last year.
The bill would maintain an existing prohibition on drinking alcohol while carrying a gun and violators would face a three-year suspension of their permit.
The measure is opposed by law enforcement, prosecutors and restaurant groups.
The Senate bill does not include a provision in the House version that would effectively exclude bars from the measure. A House vote is scheduled for Wednesday.
(The roll call vote is available by clicking below)
The Chattanooga Times-Free Press describes “a game of political pingpong” over former Gov. Mike Huckabee campaigning Chuck Fleischmann in the 3rd Congressional District Republican primary.
On the other side of the pingpong table from Huckabee and Fleischman was Robin Smith and her campaign crew. A highlight of the events included Huckabee declaring Smith “dishonest.”
An excerpt from the article:
Mrs. Smith has claimed that Mr. Huckabee’s real supporters, including Team Huck Tennessee (his PAC), have endorsed her, but the Team Huck website claims it endorsed Mr. Fleischmann.
The author of the release announcing the Team Huck endorsement, Ted Boyatt, sent out another e-mail Wednesday, claiming Huckabee delegates were coerced into retracting their endorsements for Mrs. Smith.
Mr. Boyatt, who resigned from Team Huck, sent out his e-mail after Mr. Fleischmann’s camp put out a news release saying Mrs. Smith’s claims of Huckabee delegates endorsing her were “fabricated.”
Mrs. Smith claims Mr. Huckabee is in town not because he supports Mr. Fleischmann, but because Mr. Fleischmann employs former Huckabee staff. It is true that some of his former staff work for Mr. Fleischmann, but Mr. Huckabee said Wednesday that is unrelated to his appearance here.
Mrs. Smith also posed the question of whether Mr. Huckabee is being paid to speak on behalf of Mr. Fleischmann. Mr. Fleischmann said he is not.
Speaking to media after he landed at the Chattanooga airport, Mr. Huckabee called Mrs. Smith’s tactics dishonest.
“If a person is dishonest in getting a job they will be dishonest in the manner in which they carry out the job,” Mr. Huckabee said.
A Republican alternative plan to close Tennessee’s budget gap won’t include changes to the state’s pre-kindergarten program, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said.
Ramsey, a Blountville auctioneer who is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, said that while he has been a skeptic of expanding pre-K in the past, there will be no effort to cut the program.
“I’ve never been a proponent of pre-K, I’ll be right upfront about that,” Ramsey told reporters at the Capitol.
“But I’m politically realistic enough to know that we can’t back up all the stuff we’ve already done,” he said. “So what we do is we draw a line in the sand right now and don’t expand it any further.”
Republicans are working to craft an alternative to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s proposal to raise $85 million by lifting a sales tax cap on big-ticket items. The overall projected shortfall for the upcoming budget year is about $150 million beyond what Bredesen addressed in his original spending plan.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin suggested earlier this week that changing the funding mechanism for the $83 million-per-year pre-K program could be a way to find extra money.
The pre-K program is currently available to children who qualify for free and reduced priced meals. Since 2005, the Bredesen administration has created 786 new pre-K classrooms. There are now a total of 934 state-funded classrooms in the state, serving more than 18,000 children a year.
Budget constraints forced Bredesen to abandon his plans to expand the pre-K program to make it available to all families that chose to participate. But he has called efforts to trim back the program a “line in the sand, lay in the road kind of issue.”
“I made my strong feelings about the pre-K through 12 program being preserved through all this, and I’m delighted he’s in the same place,” Bredesen said. “That takes a load of my mind.”
House Speaker Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, a vocal opponent changing the funding, said he welcomes the Ramsey announcement.
“I’m glad that it’s off the table now,” Williams said. “It was probably being considered, but the votes in the House weren’t there.”
Williams said the House took a significant step toward finding a solution to the budget gap when the Budget Subcommittee advanced Bredesen’s effort to net $21 million in driver’s license fees.
The measure would increase the renewal cycle for a driver’s license or photo identification from five to eight years. The annual fee would increase by $2.
The companion bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate Transportation Committee.
Williams said Ramsey has informed him that the Senate GOP plan will be ready around the beginning of next week.
From the AP:
Legislation that would declare an income tax and payroll tax unconstitutional in Tennessee could be in jeopardy.
The House Budget Subcommittee on a voice vote Wednesday placed the measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport behind the budget, meaning the proposal will be revisited if any money is left after the state’s spending plan is set.
The panel’s action was because of a cost for publishing notification of the amendment. (The requirement for publishing notification was added in the House panel by an amendment. Typically, it costs about $20,000 to publish official notice in newspapers. The Senate version requires publication only on state Internet websites.)
Even though the measure (SJR763) passed the Senate 25-7 last month, the tight budget year may prevent the bill’s passage.
If it does pass, the earliest it could go before voters is 2014.
The Tennessee Health Freedom Act was put on hold in a House subcommittee Wednesday, but the sponsor said he remains optimistic for ultimate passage of the measure declaring Tennesseans can ignore a federal health care law.
Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he had received assurances that the bill (HB3142) will eventually get an up-or-down vote.
“It will be close. I am very hopeful that the votes will be there,” he said.
Officially, the bill was placed “behind the budget,” meaning there will be no vote taken on the measure until after the state budget bill has been approved by the subcommittee.
Budget Subcommittee Chairman Harry Tindell, D-Nashville, said that is following normal procedure for legislation that could cost the state money. He said the bill, which calls on the attorney general to file a lawsuit against the federal health care reform law, could cost the state between $5,000 and $50,000 for that reason.
Bell questioned the cost, saying that filing lawsuits is part of the attorney general’s normal duties.
Asked abut Bell’s statement on assurances of a vote ultimately being taken, Tindell said, “You can’t make assurances until the committee votes.”
Tindell said he suspects the bill will likely face a tie partisan vote on the subcommittee when it does come up, probably with House Speaker Kent Williams stepping up to break the tie in favor of passage.
The bill passed the Senate with little debate or controversy in February, but it has inspired much debate and controversy in a series of House commtitees. Bell said Congress’ approval of the health care law had “raised the consciousness both of supporters and opponents,” making the issue much more contested in the House.
The House Budget Subcommittee apparently resolved Wednesday a long-running dispute over how far to go in requiring more convicted drunk drivers to install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles.
The panel opted in favor of a bill (HB2768) by Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, likely clearing the way for prompt passage. The companion Senate bill has already passed unanimously.
Left stalled in the Budget Subcomittee was a measure (HB2917) by Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, who complained to the panel that his bill “is tougher and would have saved more lives.”
A key difference is that Shipley’s bill would require interlock devices for all persons convicted of drunken driving with a blood alcohol content of .15 or higher. The Fincher bill would have applied to those with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, the same standard set for conviction on drunken driving charges.
Both bills would also require the devices for persons who refuse to take a test for alcohol.
House Finance Committee Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, observed that, as a practical matter, the Senate companion to Fincher’s bill is “dead in the Senate.”
Budget Subcommittee Chairman Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, said afterwards that “more of a consensus” had developed behind Shipley’s bill and he now believes it is “on a fast track” for passage.
An interlock device prevents a car from starting until the driver blows into a tube that checks for alcohol. Under the bill, those required to install an interlock device would pay a $30 per month fee, a portion going into a fund that would cover the costs of the devices being installed on vehicles operated by the indigent.
A House Republican Caucus news release on the Shipley bill is below.
(Updates earlier post)
By Erik Schelzig:
Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey in his latest political advertisement promises to cut seven of 22 state agencies if elected Tennessee governor.
The Blountville auctioneer’s new ad launched Tuesday night also features a familiar line from the campaign trail about how he started his first surveying businesses.
“I came up the hard way — started my business with just a pickup truck and prayer,” Ramsey says in the ad. “Now, I’m the conservative candidate for governor.”
Spokeswoman Rachel Taylor said Wednesday that Ramsey’s proposal would include folding the Department of Children’s Services into the Department of Human Services; Mental Health would become part of the state Health Department; and the Revenue and Financial Institutions departments would be placed under the Department of Finance and Administration.
The initial buy for the new ad is worth $128,000, about the same as his first ad, Taylor said.
Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who can’t run again because of term limits, said Tennessee’s experience in merging the responsibilities of five agencies into the Department of Children’s Services in 1996 turned out to be “a very mixed blessing.”
“I don’t know if it’s achieved much in the way of savings, and even today … there is still factions in that department and difficulties that arrive out of that,” Bredesen told reporters.
“There may be some place it makes sense, but I don’t think of it as some massive ability to save money in the operation of the departments,” Bredesen said.
The governor said as the leader of the Republican majority in the Legislature, Ramsey could have already put his plan in motion.
“You could do it this year if you want,” Bredesen said with a laugh. “Just tell me what they are and let’s talk about what the effects would be.”
Gun Records Bill Fails
From the AP:
A proposal to close access to the names of people who hold state-issued permits to carry loaded handguns has likely failed this session.
The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Dewayne Bunch of Cleveland (SB3745) was removed from consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday after an amendment was added that essentially rewrote the bill.
The original proposal would have allowed information to be released on revoked permits. But the new version would close all material, except in a few instances that included law enforcement use and child support purposes. The companion bill is waiting to be scheduled for a full House vote. A similar bill, which is opposed by advocates for open government, passed the House last year but failed in the Senate.
Cut in Jobless Benefits Fails
From Rick Locker
Last year in the depths of the recession, state lawmakers extended the benefit period and increased the benefit amount for dependent children of Tennesseans who lost their jobs, qualifying the state for $142 million more in federal aid. This year, state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, wants to repeal the extension and the extra $35 weekly benefit per dependant.
A House subcommittee killed the repeal bill March 24, but Kelsey pushed forward with it in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, arguing that it would save $4.5 million a year from the employer-funded unemployment trust fund. But the bill failed there, too, when the committee deadlocked 5-5 after a short debate in which Kelsey said he wanted to ensure that “Tennesseans won’t be left footing the bill” when the additional federal money expires.
The state has $221 million in its unemployment trust fund, and the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development said federal money is paying for all of the extension of benefits — from the 13 weeks in effect before last year to 26 weeks.
Super Speeder Bill
Motorists driving 25 mph over the speed limit in Tennessee could be fined as much as $500 under a proposal advancing in the Senate.
The “super speeder” bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin (SB2523) was approved Tuesday by the Senate Transportation Committee on an 8-0 vote with one abstention.
Johnson said the bill is needed because Tennessee court rulings have found that excessive speed alone is not enough to charge motorists with reckless driving. The move to add penalties also comes amid dwindling ticket citations issued by the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Troopers wrote half as many speeding tickets in 2008 as in 2001. The companion to the Tennessee proposal is awaiting a vote in the House Finance Committee.