Tennessee's bleak financial picture: The State Senate tackled a number of important issues this week, as committees began to close, including competitive cable services, healthcare, illegal immigration, and lottery scholarship funds. However, it was the state's bleak revenue picture that took paramount importance, with the announcement that March, 2008 revenues were 65-million dollars less than the state had budgeted.

To date, Tennessee's budget is 275.8-million dollars below projections for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2008. Economists expect this gap to continue to grow over the next three months to more than 300-million dollars in the best case scenario, and could be as high as a half-billion dollars. Key taxes that have lagged behind in the first three quarters of the fiscal year are the state's franchise and excise, sales, and cigarette taxes. The current year budget was based on sales tax growth of just over four percent, but the actual growth rate has been below two percent. The franchise and excise taxes are now 86-million dollars below estimate. Gasoline and motor fuel collections also decreased for March, 2008 by 4.9%.

The Funding Board, comprised of the state's top economists, is expected to meet again at the end of April, 2008 to re-evaluate Tennessee's economy. April is a key month in projecting the health of the state's franchise and excise taxes and the Hall (individual) income tax. The board will then give lawmakers and the governor its forecast on both how much Tennessee will need to close out the current fiscal year, and what to expect as far as revising projections for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

The governor's budget was based on the assumption that the state would have an under-collection in total taxes in the amount of 180-million dollars. However, the governor said he would handle the budget shortfall through departmental cuts and through savings in TennCare and Cover Tennessee, where the state has accumulated reserves in the prior and current fiscal year. As the gap grows above this mark, the task of making cuts shifts to either improvements in the budget or current state government programs. Governor Bredesen and Finance and Administration Commissioner Goetz have already begun to indicate that they may have to cut substantially improvements slated for state employee pay raises, expansion of pre-K, and scheduled salary improvements for teachers that were to be phased-in as part of the Basic Education Program 2.0 (BEP 2.0) reforms approved last year.

Consensus on competitive cable bill: Legislative leaders working to provide competitive cable and video services in Tennessee held a press conference on Monday to announce they have come to a consensus on the highly publicized bill. Representatives from the competing cable industries have worked on a compromise with legislative and state government leadership for the past fourteen weeks. The result, they say, will bring competition, choice, jobs, and investments in Tennessee's broadband infrastructure.

Under the bill, new cable competitors could obtain a 10-year franchise certificate from the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) beginning July 1, 2008. Existing providers would continue to pay local franchise fees directly to local government. New competitors operating under a state franchise would also pay local governments franchise fees of five percent quarterly. The right of local governments to continue to issue permits for right of ways for cable lines is preserved. Additionally, the bill requires service providers to continue PEG (Public Education and Government) access and support to protect public, education, and government programming.

Addressing consumer protection, the bill specifically prohibits discrimination for access based on income or race, with strong penalties for violation. Similarly, existing cable companies would be required to continue to serve unprofitable areas. New providers must demonstrate at the end of 3.5 years that 25 percent of households with access to the service are low income. All providers must also meet FCC-mandated customer service standards and the TRA can require credits, if a provider does not remedy service complaints.

Expansion of high speed broadband service to unserved and underserved communities was one of the key provisions in the legislation to foster access to rural areas of the state. Video providers that deploy broadband in new areas would get a four to one credit against their video build-out requirements in unserved areas, and a two to one credit in underserved areas, under the proposal. Local governments may subsidize broadband deployment to underserved areas, if a TRA review determines no private sector interest exists.

Reduction of MRSA infections: Legislation advanced through the Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Services Committee this week to reduce the spread of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in Tennessee health care facilities and nursing homes. MRSA is a staphylococcal strain which emerged in hospitals that is resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it.

The bill would require healthcare facilities that have infection programs to do a MRSA risk assessment and develop practices to try to reduce the infection. It would also address the monitoring of these programs, particularly hand hygiene, which is considered an important method to guard against the spread of MRSA. In addition, it develops communication protocols between facilities so that a receiving facility can take the appropriate precautions to contain any transfer of bacteria in a patient that is infected or colonized.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Department of Health's expert on MRSA told committee members that Tennessee has about 2,000 cases yearly, which represents 33 cases per 100,000 persons. The disease strikes mostly those who are ill or whose immune system are compromised. Approximately 30 percent of people have MRSA, but it does not become a health problem for them until it gets into the bloodstream or organs through a skin abrasion, invasive procedure or a compromising illness.

"Sanctuary city" ban: The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation to eliminate economic and community grant funds to any Tennessee city that might declare itself a "sanctuary city" for illegal aliens. The bill aims to deter the creation of any local zones where aliens could live illegally in the state.

Sanctuary communities are a danger to the public because illegal immigrants who commit crimes are able to repeat their offenses instead of being dealt with by immigration officials. During a time when our borders are being used as gateways for terrorists and other illegal activities, there is no reason for providing illegal aliens with sanctuary from prosecution.

A sanctuary city is a city in the United States that follows certain practices to protect illegal aliens. The term generally applies to cities that do not allow municipal funds or resources to be used to cooperate with federal immigration laws. This practice most commonly occurs when cities do not allow police or municipal employees to inquire about one's immigration status.

Thirty-eight cities in the United States have been recognized as sanctuary cities. However, many sources have identified more than 200 city or county governments nationwide as having practiced such policies. Thus far, no Tennessee city has been identified in this group.

The legislation is strictly a preemptive measure to guard against adoption of any policy by cities in the state to provide a sanctuary for illegal aliens in Tennessee. This would enable police to do their job and see that criminal aliens are not allowed to live invisibly among our communities.

Lottery scholarship funding: Several bills offering additional lottery scholarship opportunities for Tennessee students advanced in the Senate Education Committee this week. There lottery reserve account exceeds 460-million dollars, of which 50-million dollars must be kept in savings under current law. Lawmakers on a subcommittee studying disbursement of the funds voted to increase the savings to 100-million dollars in order to provide a greater cushion to protect scholarships in case of a downturn in lottery revenues.

Veterans: The Education Committee approved a subcommittee recommendation on legislation to set up a 25-million dollar endowment fund for Tennessee veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill would provide a scholarship of up to 1,000 dollars per semester for the veterans. Total benefits would be capped at 8,000 dollars, which education experts believe would bridge the scholarship gap veterans face with the GI Bill to complete studies for a degree. Over 12,000 Tennesseans have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Energy Efficient Schools: The Education Committee also recommended passage of legislation that would set up an energy efficient school program aimed at helping schools save money on their energy bills. The proposal partners the state with TVA, Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and other energy experts by setting up a Council that would guide schools in energy-saving options. The program could result in a savings of 18.5 per cent– or 29-million dollars annually– on energy bills, if the schools implement the upgrades and utilize some of the best practices for energy conservation.

TSAC grants: Education Committee members approved the use of 200-million dollars of the lottery surplus to create an endowment for the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC), which makes grants to low-income college students. The bill would allow the distribution of approximately 9-million dollars in grants derived from the interest from the endowment. Last year, this committee approved legislation for TSAC grants to allow more non-traditional students to have access to grants. These newly recommended grants would provide scholarship opportunities for an additional 13,500 students from interest earnings.

Virtual schools: The Education Committee also approved legislation that sets up a pilot project in two schools in each of the state's grand divisions to provide "virtual classrooms" for students who are dually enrolled in high school and college courses. The bill would help provide laptops to junior and senior high school students who are also enrolled in college classes for the pilot program. The lottery currently pays for one class for high school juniors and seniors who are dually enrolled.

Tax Freedom Day: Tax Freedom Day will come to Tennessee on April 11, instead of the national average of April 23, according to the Tax Foundation's calculation. This means Tennesseans will work from January 1 to April 11, before they have earned enough money to pay this year's tax obligations at the federal, state, and local levels. The Tax Freedom Day in individual states range from the states with the highest tax burden– Connecticut, New Jersey and New York– to the states with the lowest tax burden– Alaska, Mississippi, and Montana. Tennessee is 44th in the nation in tax burden.

Technological sunshine: A bill that proposes to harness technology for the purpose of opening the government process to the public successfully passed out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. The "technological sunshine bill" would set up a pilot program in Knox County, authorizing Websites where government officials can instant message one another. These "conversations" would be available for the public and the media's viewing. This bill is designed to make it easier for officials to conduct business, while balancing the public's right to know.

Special committee to investigate removal of a district attorney: The full Senate approved a resolution this week that sets up a special committee and procedure to investigate the removal of William E. Gibson from the office of District Attorney General of the Tennessee's Thirteenth Judicial District. Tennessee's Constitution provides that attorneys for the state may be removed from office by a concurrent two-thirds vote of both Houses of the General Assembly, each House voting separately. Gibson has been sanctioned with the temporary removal of his law license by the Board of Professional Responsibility which supervises the ethical conduct of attorneys.

DUI ignition interlock: The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would require ignition interlock devices to be installed on motor vehicles driven by DUI offenders with alcohol concentration levels exceeding 0.20 g/dL, or for repeat offenders. The bill requires the Department of Safety to create an interlock indigency fund for offenders who cannot afford the installation of the interlock equipment by adding a 50-dollar alcohol and drug addiction treatment fee for DUI offenders. Research shows that ignition interlock devices are one of the most effective ways to keep drunk drivers from continuing to drive drunk. Unfortunately, they are significantly underused across the state. Passage of legislation to require use of these devices will greatly help in our efforts to get drunk drivers off our roads.

DUI education: The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that gives judges the option to order DUI offenders to attend victim impact panel programs. The bill authorizes the court to assess a fee ranging from 25 to 50 dollars to offset the cost of the program.

Rewarding students: Certain at-risk students would be rewarded monetarily for academic achievement under legislation approved by the Senate Education Committee this week. The bill creates a pilot program targeting high risk youth in Knox, Hamilton, Shelby, and Davidson Counties with funds coming from unused community enhancement grants and private funds. Public-private partnerships to reward students that might otherwise fail or drop out of school, have been successful in 13 other states. Several foundations and corporations are supportive of the efforts to provide monetary rewards to students, and this legislation sets up the framework to possibly receive such funds.

Use of restraints: The Senate Education Committee gave approval to a bill that comes from the Joint Committee on Children and Youth addressing restraints of Special Education students. The bill makes it clear that if restraints are used, they are done so in a consistent manner and in very limited situations to calm the student or to lead them to safety. The measure calls for local Special Education Associations to develop and provide training for the proper use of the restraints.

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