NASHVILLE - It was a busy week on Capitol Hill as lawmakers prepared and finalized their legislation in anticipation of the General Assembly’s January 26 bill deadline. In addition, Senate committees heard testimony on a number of important state matters and debated several bills as the second week of the 2012 legislative session has concluded.
The Senate Judiciary Committee debated legislation this week that tightens a loophole in the state’s Meth Registry. Senate Bill 2190, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) adds those convicted of promoting the manufacture of methamphetamine and those who initiated a process intended to result in the manufacture of meth to the state’s Registry.
In addition, the legislation requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to collect an identification number from those listed on the Registry so innocent citizens with similar names and birthdates do not run into a roadblock when they purchase pseudoephedrine.
Methamphetamine is a powerfully addictive and illegal stimulant commonly known on the street as "Meth," "Speed," or "Crank.” The highly addictive drug can cause serious irreversible damage to the body of the user. It can also cause severe damage to the environment due to the toxic chemicals used in “cooking” meth. Tennessee reported 2,082 meth lab incidents in 2010, which is up 41 percent from the previous year.
The state’s Meth Registry was created by the General Assembly in 2005. Currently, 2,800 people are listed on the registry with 100 newly convicted persons added each month. That number, however, is expected to rise rapidly as a result of the “I Hate Meth Law” passed by the legislature last year. The law went into effect on January 1.
“One of the strongest aspects of the new law was that meth offenders would be banned from purchasing pseudoephedrine products for the entire seven years that they are listed on the Meth Offender Registry,” said Senator Beavers. “However, we have discovered that Tennessee law does not require some meth offenders to be on the Registry. This bill addresses this problem so all persons convicted of meth crimes will be on the Registry and banned from purchasing the precursors used in the manufacture of this drug.”
A vote on the bill was deferred until next week as lawmakers continue to look for the best identification method to ensure that innocent citizens who share the same name or birth date as an offender will not be denied purchases under the NPLEX system.
Tennessee’s finances are sound says State Comptroller Justin Wilson
Tennessee is in “good sound fiscal condition” according to State Comptroller Justin Wilson, who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week to deliver his “State of Fiscal Affairs” report. Wilson cited a balanced budget, low debt, a sound retirement plan, manageable retiree benefits, and a solvent unemployment trust fund as reasons that the state’s finances are in good shape.
“Not many states can say that,” Wilson said. “This is a good place to be.” He attributed the “willingness of the General Assembly to enact budgets that have forgone, reduced or eliminated expenses and services,” as another reason for Tennessee’s good financial standing.
Tennessee’s budget is nearly $32 billion, of which $11 billion is derived from state taxes and approximately $13 billion from federal revenue. Wilson said the uncertainty in Washington regarding federal budget cuts leaves effects to state budgets largely unknown. Governor Bill Haslam has made contingency plans to ensure that the state can operate efficiently if drastic federal cuts are made. Local governments have also been advised to plan for reduced funding scenarios if they depend heavily on state and federal funds.
Wilson said the General Assembly must continue to reduce expenses, and the administration should increase the efficiency of state government operations in anticipation of the tough financial challenges Tennessee is likely to face in the future.
“Projected increases in state programs are growing faster than optimistic revenue increases that we project,” Wilson said. “The cost of items like the state insurance plan, TennCare, and required pension costs are rising faster than optimistic revenue expectations.” This is in addition to any future legislative initiatives in which the General Assembly may want to enact that requires new spending, according to Wilson.
Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan (BEP) consumes about $3.8 billion, or 37% of state tax revenue, according to the report. Wilson recommended a review of the formula to make it more “transparent, verifiable and understandable. In its current state, the BEP is none of these.”
“As we continue to implement and evaluate education reform programs, we should focus on the integrity of the funding process,” said Wilson.
Future financial challenges cited in the Comptroller’s report to the Committee include:
• Continuing to reduce expenses and create efficiencies;
• Funding increases already projected and planning for federal mandates, such as President Obama’s healthcare plan;
• Making capital improvements and rebuilding the state’s reserves;
• Maintaining strong credit ratings and a manageable state debt; and,
• Improving financial reporting.
Tennessee sees substantial gains in improved health status
Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, spoke to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee regarding recent gains made in the state’s overall health ranking. Tennessee, which was once 49th in the nation, has improved ten points and is now ranked 39th in its overall health status. The state was ranked 42nd last year.
The report, conducted by the nonprofit United Health Foundation, cited improvements in the state’s rates regarding smoking and infant mortality, as well as a drop in violent crime for the consistent progress made by the state.
“What we have seen since 2006 is consistent improvement in Tennessee,” said Wykoff. “Thirty-ninth is still not acceptable. We have important opportunities for us to improve.”
Wykoff said Tennessee must reach out to the general public to educate them about public health, starting with teaching children about good habits. He also recommended educating the business community about how healthier habits among their employees impact their bottom line through productivity. He said education in the faith-based community also increases opportunities to improve health outcomes in the state.
One of the greatest challenges facing Tennessee is a high prevalence of obesity and diabetes. Over the past 10 years, obesity increased from 22.9 percent to 31.7 percent of adults. In addition, Tennessee ranks 44th in its rate of cardiovascular death and 46th in cancer. Wykoff said the state needs to explore ways to increase health screenings to address these health problems.
Wykoff urged lawmakers to continue economic development efforts, as there is a “huge life expectancy (gap) based on income.”
“If we want to improve health we must focus on economic development,” he said.