Monday, April 22, 2013

Senator Steve Dickerson's session wrap-up

A Word from Senator Dickerson…

Senator Steve Dickerson
Session has come to a close!

Quite a session. We made some great progress and accomplished some great things. When I campaigned, I focused on three areas. I wanted to touch on each of those in my final weekly wrap-up of 2013.

First, make Tennessee business-friendly. I am a big believer in the concept that "the rising tide floats all boats" and if we help Tennessee's economy, we are all winners. We accomplished much in this area. We have continued to decrease Hall's tax, lowered the tax on food (which will help the poorest Tennesseans most) and reformed the Workers' Compensation system. A very good year for Tennessee's economy.

Second, improve education in Tennessee. Education is the key to a prosperous future. Our results here were more mixed. Despite our efforts, we were unable to pass legislation dealing with school vouchers or charter schools. However, we did make progress in the Governor's drive to have 55% of Tennesseans attain a post-secondary degree by 2025. The Alternative Diploma Act and our funding of the partnership with the Western Governors University are noteworthy.

Third, cut government waste. I am particularly excited by the legislation forming the Office of the Repealer. This will act to identify duplicated, unnecessary and counter-productive statutes and will give us the chance to repeal them and hopefully increase the efficiency of our state government. Finally, I have to mention the changes to the per diem. Senator Haile sponsored (and I co-sponsored) legislation that significantly decreases the per diem available to local members of the General Assembly. While the actual money saved represents only a modest part of our overall state budget, it is a great statement.

As Mark Twain said, "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” Rest easy, we are adjourned until 2014!

I also spoke with the folks from the Nashville Ledger about my first year as a State Senator. You can read the article at the following link:

State Senate approves budget and closes 2013 legislative session
The State Legislature passed a state budget and several key bills including unemployment compensation reform, education reform, school safety and prescription drug abuse before adjourning the 2013 legislative session to become a part of Tennessee history.  The action came after three and a half months of legislative deliberations and is one of the earliest adjournments in 23 years. 
The $32.8 billion budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year is fully balanced and incorporates approximately $43 million in tax cuts for Tennesseans.  Senate Bill 502 allocates $18.7 million to take the second step in a four-year process to phase out the state’s inheritance tax, also called the death tax.  It also provides $1.5 million to allow more senior citizens to qualify for Hall income tax relief and $22.2 million to reduce the state sales tax on grocery food from 5.25% to 5.0%. 
On K-12 education, the budget fully funds the Basic Education Program, invests $51 million to assist local governments in paying for technology transition upgrades in schools across the state and makes available $34 million to address ongoing capital needs that can be used for increased security measures to protect students.  It appropriates more than $35 million for K-12 teacher salary increases and provides $47 million in funding to help improve Tennessee’s lowest performing public schools.
The budget prioritizes higher education by providing $307.3 million to fund capital outlay projects in higher education, $35 million to fund the state’s new outcome-based formula adopted under the state’s Complete College Act, $5 million to provide assistance to 2,675 needy students and $16.5 million for equipment for Tennessee’s Technical Centers and Community Colleges. 
Other highlights of the budget include: 
  • $104 million cost increase for a 1.5% pay raise salary market adjustment for state employees;
  • $46.3 million cost increase for state employee group health insurance;
  • continues the state 401 (K) match at $50 per month;
  • reduces state employee positions by 299 or .08%;
  • $350 million cost increase for TennCare inflation and related expenses;
  • $8.6 million cost increase for Cover Tennessee programs;
  • $7.5 million cost increase for Children’s Services;
  • $100 million to the Rainy Day Fund, bringing it to $456 million by June 30, 2014;
  • $79.6 million cost increase for local jail payments, a new prison in Bledsoe County, medical contracts and other inflationary growth;
  • $3.9 million cost increase for mental health;
  • $4.3 million in capital outlay for the Montgomery County veterans’ home;
  • $134 million in capital outlay for state building improvements through the Facilities Revolving Fund;
  • $8 million in one-time funds for tourism marketing;
  • $1 million in one-time funds for the College 529 Savings Plan;
  • $37.9 million for health and wellness initiatives;
  • $110 million for economic development; and
  • provides tax relief for low income seniors, veterans and the disabled by fully funding the growth of the property tax freeze program enacted in 2007   
The budget assumes a general fund revenue growth of 3.89% during the 2013-14 fiscal year. 
Legislation approved this week continues the work done on unemployment compensation reform last year
State Senators approved legislation this week before adjourning the 2013 legislative session that continues the work done on unemployment compensation reform last year.   Before passage of the 2012 law, Tennessee did not have an efficient system in place to verify a claimant’s efforts of seeking employment while on unemployment benefits.  As a result of that new law, the Department of Labor is now required to conduct weekly audits to ensure that claimants are actively seeking work while on unemployment benefits. 
The Department found that claimants who are audited under the 2012 law, on average, return to work five times faster than those who were not.  This year’s legislation raises the number of audits to be conducted from 1,000 per week to 1,500 per week. 
Last year’s legislation also clarified the definition for misconduct as it affects unemployment insurance compensation so that a claimant who is consciously insubordinate, knowingly violates state regulations, has been caught stealing or is chronically absent could not  receive benefits.  Johnson said this year’s bill continues those efforts to define misconduct by adding to that definition any conduct that is constituted as a criminal offense for which the employee is seeking benefits. Senate Bill 783 applies to cases involving dishonesty that arose out of the claimant’s employment or that was committed while he or she was acting within their scope of employment. 
The legislation also helps ensure the solvency of Tennessee’s Unemployment Trust Fund by returning the base period benefits from the current level to pre-2009 stimulus funding, which required Tennessee to expand benefits.  According to the financial analysis, the total recurring savings to the Trust Fund is reasonably estimated to be over $50 million.
Senate passes “Step up Scholarships” to give students with developmental disabilities the opportunity to receive a Tennessee Lottery Scholarship
Legislation sponsored giving students with developmental disabilities the opportunity to receive a Tennessee Lottery Scholarship was approved by the State Senate on Thursday.  Senate Bill 36 would create the Tennessee STEP UP Scholarship to provide accessible funding for high school students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who have college aspirations.
“Tennessee’s lottery scholarships were created to help Tennessee’s high school graduates reach their dreams,” Senator Overbey said.  “This legislation removes the barriers so scholarship opportunities are open to everyone who shows a desire through their coursework to obtain a college degree, regardless of disability.”
Like the larger HOPE Scholarship program, the bill allocates $4,000 per year for a maximum of two years to each student who qualifies, starting for the 2013-2014 academic year.  To be eligible, a student must display Tennessee residency, graduate high school in his or her own Individual Education Program, and be admitted to and enroll in an eligible postsecondary institution no later than 16 months after graduation.
In Brief….
Crime / Gangs -- Legislation passed the full Senate on Tuesday rewriting and simplifying the state’s Criminal Gang Enhancement statute, which prosecutors report is too difficult to interpret and navigate.  Currently, prosecutors must prove the group is a “criminal gang;” show the defendant is a “criminal gang member;” demonstrate the gang and/or an individual has committed a criminal gang offense, and establish the group has a pattern of “criminal gang activity.” The revised statute lists the specific offenses considered to be criminal gang offenses rather than asking prosecutors and courts to interpret today’s more vague definition. According to 2012 data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, gang members now outnumber law enforcement officers 2 to 1 in the state.
DUI / Interlock Devices – State Senators have approved key legislation to curb drunk driving, requiring the use of ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers.  In 2011, 257 people were killed in Tennessee in alcohol-related crashes, which is approximately 27% of all traffic fatalities in the state.  Senate Bill 670 decreases from 0.15 percent to 0.08 percent, the breath or blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that is considered an enhanced offense for purposes of issuing a restricted driver license. The bill also requires the interlock device be capable of taking a photo, to ensure that another person does not provide the sample for a convicted offender.  The average first offender has been on the road 80 times drunk before their first arrest according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  Currently, 17 states require interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers.
Attorney General -- The Senate has approved a resolution sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) calling for the State Attorney General (AG) to be selected by the General Assembly, provided voters agree.  Currently, the Tennessee Attorney General is selected by the State Supreme Court and serves until he or she resigns or are replaced by the five Justices.  The resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 196 would give citizens the opportunity to vote on changing that process to provide that the Attorney General be selected in a joint convention of the legislature to a four-year term beginning in January 2019.  The constitutional amendment process requires approval by both the 108th General Assembly currently in session, and the 109th, which will take office in 2015.  If approved, the question would then go to voters in a statewide referendum in the 2018 general election.
Student Health / EpiPens -- Legislation to help ensure that every public school in the state has epinephrine injector pens on hand, or EpiPens, was approved by the full Senate.  Senate Bill 1146 would help make the EpiPens available in public schools in Tennessee in case of a life-threatening allergic reaction when the student does not have one available. The legislation authorizes the school nurse or other trained school to administer the epinephrine auto-injectors to respond to an anaphylactic reaction using protocols from a physician.
Tennessee Technology Colleges -- The name of the “Tennessee Technology Centers” will be changed under legislation passed by the full Senate this week.  Senate Bill 643 changes the name of the centers to “State Colleges of Applied Technology.” 
LEAP / Jobs and Higher Education -- Senate Bill 1330 passed the during last week of legislative action to create the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP).  The measure allows students at Tennessee's technology centers and community colleges to combine occupational training in a high-skill or high-technology industry with academic credit and to apply that experience toward a degree.  The legislation is drafted so that wages or other compensation received by students will not impact eligibility for state need-based financial assistance or grants.  The legislation is modeled after "cooperative education” programs where students are paid to learn while applying what they learn at work for credit toward a degree.  This program recognizes that an important outcome of a student's education is job opportunity.  Having employers work closely with state agencies creates increased collaboration and focus across the board, giving students the opportunity to attain credentials.
Contact Information
You may contact Senator Dickerson at
310 War Memorial Building
Nashville, TN 37243

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