Area state legislators met with local journalists and a few interested citizens at today's legislative preview hosted by the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists. Several topics came up in the informal discussion, and one was conspicuously missing.
In attendance (in order of seating) were Rep. Art Swann (R-Maryville), Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), Rep. Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville), Rep. Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville), Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Sen. Becky Duncan-Massey (R-Knoxville), Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), and Rep. Joe Armstrong (D-Knoxville). Sen. Stacey Campfield declined to attend.
(Rep. Armstrong had to leave early because an urgent situation came up demanding his attention.)
Moderator Brandon Hollingsworth of WUOT/NPR sat in for Tom Humhprey, who unfortunately was not able to make it over from Nashville due to the weather. The discussion started with audience questions (we may get to that later in part 2) and somewhere in the middle Greg Johnson asked if each legislator could summarize their focus for the upcoming session.
Rep. Swann is chair of the Business and Utilities sub-committee (formerly Commerce). He is working on a bill that will require the state dept. of Economic and Community Development to allocate at least 50% for small business as opposed to "trophy hunting." He will also propose term limits. He also wants to look at passenger rail and extending rail freight.
Rep. Brooks said that his focus remains on education and making sure every child has every opportunity to be prepared for post-secondary education or a career. He also mentioned going back to fund BEP components that have not been funded.
Rep. Haynes is chair of the State Government Committee (formerly State and Local Government). Will have a bill requiring that public notices are published in newspapers. He is also on the Civil Justice committee and will pursue the Constitutional amendment requiring merit selection of judges v. election. He said he was previously opposed to it but has come around.
Rep. Ramsey is on the State Government and the Health Committees. He will be working on the Financial Management Act of 2013 to standardize county financial management statewide. He will also work on the Step Up bill which allocates lottery scholarship funds for intellectually disabled students to attend special post-secondary education programs. Ramsey also praised Speaker Harwell's committee reorganization, and in the process made an interesting point that committees are where the public (and special interests) can be heard on issues before the legislature.
Sen. McNally chairs the Finance Ways and Means committee which controls the state's purse strings. He said Gov. Haslam will introduce the state budget at Monday's state of the state, and that the legislature would have its first hearing Tuesday morning. He expects it to be a $32 billion budget. He noted that the budget was cut $1.5 billion during the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and that since then revenues have grown but not as fast as expected and that sales tax growth has been stagnant. He also said there are still structural imbalances in the budget. He also noted that rainy day funds are too low, down from $1.2 billion to $400 to $500 million. He also mentioned he would be working on criminal justice and drug laws, saying justice has gone overboard protecting criminals. He cited a case of a defendant with $500 million in assets claiming indigence and getting a state appointed lawyer.
Sen. Massey said she has spent time meeting and getting to know every state commissioner. She is on the Calendar Committee which schedules floor votes. In Government Operations, she said road projects are always popular topics, and mentioned the South Knoxville meeting on the James White Parkway extension. On Health, she noted that the state has moved up in rankings from number 42 to 39 but more work is needed. She would like to focus more on preventive health. She will also be working on pain clinic regulation.
Rep. Johnson, noting that she's the "new kid on the block," said she would sponsor the Scenic Vistas mountaintop removal prevention bill. She said that although she's not on the education committee she would be introducing legislation on education.
Sen. Overbey is working on an Assisted Outpatient Treatment mental health bill started by Tim Burchett. Sen. Overbey said 44 states have one and he doesn't understand why they are able to figure it out and we can't. He said there's a pilot program in Knoxville and now Shelby County wants to do one and he will support it. He also mentioned Medicaid expansion, and said that while it's difficult to think about putting 250,000 people back on the rolls in the current budget environment, hospitals and particularly rural hospitals are still treating these patients but not getting paid. He said he is waiting for Gov. Bredesen's leadership, noting that the Gov. has a full time job with a full-time staff of commissioners and advisers to assist him on policy v. legislators who are part time. Sen. Overbey is also working to get the judicial selection constitutional amendment on the ballot for the 2014 election. He proposes legislation to extend the current system until voters decide. On lottery scholarships, Sen. Overbey said he warned about problems with the 120 hour cap when it passed and will introduce legislation to fix it. His bill would fund eight full semesters regardless if the student has taken more than the required hours to graduate. He is also working on the Step Up scholarships for people with intellectual disabilities, noting that Vanderbilt and UT have programs for these students.
Rep. Dunn said that in April he would introduce a resolution honoring the Lady Vols and Coach Warlick on their National Championship. On a more serious note, he said this is an exciting time of education reform in Tennessee and that the state is making progress in "leaps and bounds" and getting on the national radar. He expects to follow the path set out by Gov. Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
Rep. Armstrong had already left by this time, but in an earlier discussion about Medicaid expansion he expressed strong support for participating and for establishing our own state health insurance exchange. He said that we should be the rulers of our own destiny on this instead of letting the DHHS Secretary in Washington write rules for us. He noted that most of the beneficiaries would be people aged 55 to 65, and that the preventive health features would save taxpayers and TennCare money by treating things like heart disease early instead of waiting to pay $250,000 for heart surgery later. He also recognized UT graduate Nancy-Ann DeParle, who grew up in Rockwood, as Obama's chief architect of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The topic of school vouchers did not come up. It was supposed to be on the moderator's agenda, but the Q&A session went in other directions. The legislative priority statements by each legislator began before I had a chance to ask about it, and then it was over. Sen. Overbey told me before the meeting got underway that he was still waiting for Gov. Haslam's proposal.
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