In her latest legislative report, State Senator Mae Beavers said budget issues continued to dominate discussions on Capitol Hill this week, as more of the “fine print” regarding the federal stimulus bill was revealed. Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz told members of the Senate Finance Committee that they are still studying the massive bill to see what strings are attached to the $3.8 billion that Tennessee would receive under the $787 billion federal spending package.
Goetz repeatedly cautioned state lawmakers that the federal money to begin, restore, or expand state programs would not be replaceable by the state in two years.
The stimulus package for transportation needs was discussed in the Senate Finance Committee, as well as the Transportation Committee this week, where members were told that $572 million would be available for road and bridge projects. Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely was questioned about how the projects funded with stimulus money would be prioritized. Nicely said that language in the legislation gives preference to sending the transportation money to “economically distressed areas” with high unemployment. Nicely also said they will be utilizing a list of priority projects that are “shovel ready” but still await funding. Some of those projects, however, may not be in areas listed as economically distressed.
Nicely told the committee that he expects to have the transportation projects under construction within the first 120 days. State and local governments have been working to get the project “shovel ready.” The projects must be eligible for federal funding and be complete within three years.
On unemployment, Goetz said the federal stimulus package will not help “shore up” the state’s weakening Unemployment Trust Fund. The trust fund has been stressed by the demand for benefits due to rising unemployment.
The governor has 45 days to make application to the federal government for the stimulus money. Goetz said that Tennessee’s revenues are continuing to deteriorate, making the job of balancing the state budget an increasingly difficult job. The administration must go back to the drawing board to revise their original budget draft to include the federal mandates in the stimulus package. The new budget proposal is expected by mid-March.
Missing Children Bill Debated in Judiciary
The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Beavers, began debating legislation this week. One piece of legislation was discussed to make sure child abductions are reported promptly to make sure the child is found. The bill is consistent with the “Adam Walsh” Act and says law enforcement should report a missing child to the NCIC (National Crime Investigation Center) within two hours of receiving a missing child report. This quick time period would give uniformity to reporting standards across the state.
“We need to uncover every stone possible to make sure a missing child is reported promptly into the NCIC system,” Chairman Beavers added. “Hopefully, this will help expedite the recovery of children who have been abducted.”
Other Issues in Brief
Open Records -- In committees this week, the State and Local Government Committee heard a presentation from Office of Open Records Counsel Ann Butterworth regarding how the new law, which was passed during the 2008 legislative session, is working. Butterworth said the Office of Open Records Counsel assists in obtaining public records from local government, both in guiding citizens to correct offices or officials and in working to resolve disputes regarding access to public records. Her office has been working to promote education and awareness of the Tennessee public records laws through direct outreach and through coordination with existing organizations.
Drug Database – The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee heard a presentation this week regarding the progress of the State’s Controlled Substance Database. The Tennessee Board of Pharmacy began accepting prescription information into the Controlled Substance Monitoring Database in December, 2006 after passage of legislation sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge).
The database includes data on controlled substance prescriptions of schedule II-V drugs. The information includes who the prescribing practitioner is, who filled the prescription, basic patient information, and the name and form of medication that the patient received.
The most prescribed controlled substances in Tennessee as reported in the database are hydrocodone-vicodin-loratab, Alprazolam-xanax, and oxycodone-oxycontin-percocet, respectively. The committee discussed the possibility of adding personnel to look at the overprescribing of controlled substances through the database to prevent drug abuse or fraud. They also talked about the possibility of adding carasprodol and soma to the list of drugs tracked through the database. These matters may continue to be debated during the 2009 legislative session.
Housing slump – In the Senate Commerce Committee, members were told by a panel of homebuilders that the deterioration of the housing industry is “as bad as they have seen in a quarter of a century.” The panel said the major difference in this recession and those experienced by homebuilders earlier, is that it can not be fixed by a reduction in interest rates. The homebuilders said out-of-state banks have been more difficult to work with than community banks and those chartered in Tennessee. The committee will continue to look at the banking industry and mortgage laws as the session continues.