Tennessee’s General Assembly was busy this session trying to balance the budget with declining state revenues and a grim economic outlook.
But even with all the budgetary woes, Rutherford County’s legislative delegation still passed legislation that benefits their constituency. Mostly, the delegation agreed their crowning achievement this session was balancing this state’s massive budget with no new taxes.
“With tight budgetary times, we did a good job keeping taxes low for the families of Rutherford County. We did like what families are doing and cut our budget,” said Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), who also sponsored the Senate version of the texting while driving ban.
The state legislature managed to pull together a bipartisan state budget that cut spending by $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2010.
“We reduced the governor’s budget by $65 million without cutting a large number programs that affect the people,” Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) said.
He compared it to setting up a serve in volleyball. “It set us up for when we reconvene next year,” Ketron said, adding current economic projections have an even slimmer budget for the state next year. MTSU science building and education funding.
Overall, the delegation is most proud of preserving education funding. Both Tracy and Rep. Kent Coleman (D-Murfreesboro) said funding MTSU’s new behavioral science and education building and science building was most important to the county.
Tracy added he is also happy with the legislature’s funding the Basic Education Program (BEP 2.0) for kindergarten-12th grade. Tracy did want to fund more opportunities to train workers in the down economy.
“Statewide I wanted to put more emphasis on career and technical education but we couldn’t do it because of the budget situation,” he said, adding investing in jobs and workers is important not only to Rutherford County, but also the state as a whole.
Liquor Laws Amending the state liquor laws saw both victories and defeats in the General Assembly this session. Rep. Joe Carr (D-Lascassas) pushed a bill through that allows the manufacture of liquor in counties that have approved retail package and liquor-by-the-drink sales through voter referendum, as along as the county’s legislative body agrees and the manufacturer is appropriately licensed.
“This is the law that allows distillers to come to Rutherford County,” Carr said, adding it has the possibility to bring more jobs to the county.
Coleman wasn’t as pleased with the bill’s passage as Carr was. “I had also hoped that the bill which removed the referendum requirement for liquor stills to be located within Rutherford County would be defeated, but it had sufficient representative support to pass,” he said.
Ketron was disappointed himself when he had to withdraw his bill to allow wine sales in grocery stores. “It was a convenience issue, but the lobbyists were pretty entrenched,” he said, adding it would have added $17 million in tax revenues. But he had to withdraw the bill for lack of support and send it to summer committee for review of the state’s liquor laws and how they apply to the issue.
Wheel tax enforcement Carr was also pleased to help Rutherford County enforce the wheel tax with legislation he sponsored in the House. Ketron sponsored the Senate version of the bill, which gives the Rutherford County Wheel tax officer is ability to check registration compliance on state-funded roadways. Carr said it passed on the consent calendar without any discussion.
“The rest of them I had to work to get passed,” Carr said about the seven bills he sponsored. Carr is also pleased his bills dealing with identity theft for the purpose of gaining employment and closing a loophole that allowed underage drinking on private property also passed.
Transparency in government Tennesseans can now easily track how their taxes are being spent, thanks to one senator from Rutherford County. Ketron introduced legislation that would have required the state to post all budget and contracts on a searchable Web site, but before the bill could come to a vote the state commissioner of finance went ahead a created www.tn.gov/opengov.
Information available at Tennessee’s Open Government Web site includes vendor payments, organized quarterly and by department; travel expenses paid to all state workers, including cabinet-level out-of-state travel; and employee salary information.
“I had the bill amended to say we will give the authority to the comptroller to ensure they continue doing it,” Ketron said. One of Ketron’s bills that Coleman wasn’t pleased with was legislation that merged the Tennessee Ethics Commission with the Registry of Election Finance. “I had voted against the ethics commission being abolished but there were enough votes on the representative side that I was unsuccessful in retaining the commission as an independent body,” he said. Ketron justified the move as a savings measure.
“It saves the taxpayers $300,000 a year and makes government more efficient without deleting and diluting the ethics laws,” Ketron said.
Coleman is happy with a bill that keeps cash and special interests out of the judicial selection process. “One of most important bills passed this session … was a form of judicial selection for the court of appeals and (Tennessee) supreme court judges that will be based on merit and retention actions and avoid the influx of millions of dollars into our judicial election process,” Coleman said.
He said the change was needed to avoid issues raised in a recent federal case, which found due process violations when campaign donations enter the picture. “You don’t want cash in these judicial elections,” he said.
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.