With organizational tasks out of the way, the 106th General Assembly will soon reconvene to tackle the important issues facing Tennessee during the new legislative session. Topping this year's agenda will be consideration of a balanced budget in one of the worst financial years faced by lawmakers in a long time. "We cannot afford to continue to live beyond our means, as we have gone from a surplus to a massive deficit in only a few years," said Senator Mae Beavers. Being one of the only Senators to vote against Gov. Bredesen's budgets in the past, Sen. Beavers will once again scrutinize the way this state's finances are operated. Tennessee's year-to-date collections for five months are currently $407.8 million below the budgeted estimate. The state could be left to deal with as much as $780 million to a $1 billion shortfall by the end of the budget year in June.
One of the most concerning trends affecting our state's budget is the rising unemployment rate. Most lawmakers agree that Tennessee must be aggressive in bringing new jobs to better weather the economic storm. This makes economic development and job creation a top priority of the upcoming legislative session. Job losses have accelerated to around 7 percent. That number could rise to 8.5 percent to 9 percent before the economy turns around according to the state's leading economists. Almost all sectors of jobs are in decline, bringing forward the issue of how the state's unemployment fund will fare if the economy does not turn around.
Expect the solvency of the fund to be a topic for discussion this session when the General Assembly convenes. Tennessee's unemployment fund had a balance of about $517 million as of November. Experts say a drop below the $400 million level would cause great concern.
Finally, legislation is expected to be introduced again this year to provide a two-thirds majority to override Tennessee's constitutional amendment that requires state spending to stay within the rate of growth of Tennessee's economy. Called the "Copeland Cap," this amendment to the state's constitution was approved by Tennessee voters in 1978. It stipulates that state spending cannot grow faster than the rate of growth of the state's economy, measured by the growth of incomes of Tennesseans. The goal is to keep spending growth at a level where the people's income growth can afford it without a tax increase. Currently the cap can be overridden with a simple majority vote.
The state's economic downturn and the rise in unemployment provides legislators with serious challenges. The General Assembly has adjourned until February 9, 2009 to assign offices and await budget details. The governor is expected to deliver his budget address at that time.
Judicial Selection Commission -- Legislation that would continue the current Judicial Selection Commission stalled during the last legislative session, an action that puts the Judicial Selection Commission, which makes recommendations for the selection of the state's judges, in wind down this year. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Beavers will be at the center of the discussion on how to constitutionally and effectively select Tennessee's judges. At a minimum, Senate Republicans want to see a change in the way the Judicial Selection Commission functions, allowing more input from groups seeking membership on the commission. Currently members of the commission are selected from a list of special interest groups as prescribed by law.
Many legislators believe there are important constitutional issues which need to be addressed and that reform is needed to have a fairer and more open process with greater accountability. The state's constitution in Article VI, Sections 3 and 4, says judges shall be elected by qualified voters. Expect the Judiciary Committee and legislature to debate whether or not the Tennessee Plan, which does allow for a retention ('yes' or 'no') vote after a judge's term, satisfies that requirement in its current form. This issue will be one of the key matters for legislators to act upon during the 2009 legislative session.
Open Containers - Sen. Beavers will soon file a bill to curb drunk driving that is more likely to receive favorable consideration of lawmakers, due to the positive financial impact. This bill bans open containers of alcohol in vehicles in Tennessee, and would allow the state to have control over $12 million in federal highway funds. Currently, if a state does not achieve compliance with this federal program requirement, a portion of that state's federal-aid highway construction funds are redirected. Passage of this legislation would not only curb drunk driving, but provide needed flexibility with road money as revenues for transportation needs are dire.
Constitutional Amendments - Thus far, three constitutional amendments await action this year. One is a resolution that would give Tennesseans the opportunity to restore their voice in determining what state law should be regarding commonsense protections for abortions. The resolution failed in a Democrat-controlled House subcommittee last year, despite strong support among members of both the House and Senate. The election of four new Republicans in the House may boost its chances this year. Sen. Beavers pledges to fight for the unborn as she plans to once again co-sponsor the resolution.
A second constitutional resolution would amend the Tennessee Constitution by protecting the right to hunt and fish, while a third would clarify the current prohibition of a state income tax. The amendment specifies that the legislature as well as Tennessee counties and cities shall be prohibited from passing either an income tax or a payroll tax, which is a tax on employers that is measured by the wages they pay workers. A payroll tax has been proposed by elected officials in Shelby County and elsewhere as a way around an income tax ban. "I will continue to take every measure possible to ensure that the people of the 17th District and this state do not reap the devastating consequences of a state income or payroll tax," said Sen. Beavers.