General Assembly passes a balanced state budget
Apr 19, 2013 | 616 views | 0 0 comments | 1 1 recommendations | email to a friend | print
(Editor’s Note: The following summarization of this week’s actions by the 108th Session of the Tennessee General Assembly has been filed jointly to the Cleveland Daily Banner by State Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, who represents the 24th Legislative District, and State Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, who represents the 22nd Legislative District).

In the final week of the legislative session, the House of Representatives passed Tennessee’s annual budget with an 83–14 vote. The bill’s passage was the culmination of months of tireless work crafting a fiscally responsible and balanced budget. The $32.6 billion budget cuts taxes, puts $100 million in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, improves our educational system and provides an even better environment for businesses to grow and for jobs to flourish.

At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers promised Tennesseans that fiscal responsibility would be a priority. The budget they crafted holds true to that principle while ensuring Tennesseans get the services they expect.

Following passage of the budget, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, stated, “I want to thank my colleagues for a job well done. With the help of Gov. [Bill] Haslam, the House and Senate worked seamlessly to pass a forward-thinking budget that embodies the principles and priorities of all Tennesseans.”

Budget highlights include:

Tax cuts

At the beginning of this legislative session, House leaders promised they would do everything to maintain the state’s strong financial record, balance the budget and return hard-earned tax dollars back to all Tennesseans. Over the last several months, they have followed through on that promise, ensuring every Tennessean across the state will realize tax savings to the tune of $43 million this year, including:

- A drop in the state sales tax on groceries from 5.25 percent to a flat 5 percent rate which will save taxpayers approximately $25 million statewide. This tax reduction builds on efforts during the last legislative session which reduced the sales tax on food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent. Lawmakers hope to continue this trend in years to come.

- Implementation of the second phase to eliminate Tennessee’s death tax which is set to be completely phased out by 2016. Lawmakers argue the death tax breaks up family farms and small businesses, forcing families to make tough decisions during what is often the most difficult times in their lives: the passing of a loved one. In many cases, families are faced with selling off parts of farms and land or closing a small, family-owned business in order to pay the tax bill. The full repeal of the death tax will represent a $94.6 million tax cut.

- A cut in the Hall tax for seniors 65 and older. The Hall tax is imposed on income derived from interest on bonds, notes and stock dividends. Since enactment of the Hall tax in 1929, the use of investment savings has grown as a primary source of retirement income. Because of this fact, lawmakers argue the Hall tax is actually an income tax, especially for seniors living on a fixed income. The Hall tax cut approved in the budget raises the income exemption level from $26,200 to $33,000 for single filers and from $37,000 to $59,000 for joint filers. Lawmakers have promised to build on this tax cut in the future.

- And, a continuation of property tax relief efforts passed in previous years to help veterans, seniors and the disabled population of Tennessee.

Education improvements

The state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) — the mechanism for funding public schools — is fully funded in this year’s budget at $4 billion. In addition, the budget provides:

- Increased funding for information technology upgrades at K–12 schools statewide;

- Increased funding for need-based financial aid;

- Funding for a new building at the Tennessee School for the Deaf;

- Continued funding for the state’s Science Alliance Museums, the Governor’s School and Family Resource Centers, the Arts Academy and the Tennessee Holocaust Commission;

- Increased funding for statewide equipment upgrades at community and technical colleges; and,

- Over $300 million for capital outlay and maintenance projects at public colleges across the state.

Law and safety

Earlier in the year, Gov. Haslam announced his plan to address violent crime in Tennessee. Among the measures fully funded in this year’s budget are laws addressing gang violence, prescription drug abuse, repeat domestic violence offenders, and synthetic drugs. These measures include:

- Funding for increased sentencing for gang-related crimes;

- Funding for the expansion of the Southeastern Tennessee Regional Correctional Facility;

- Funding to address an increase in the number of felons in local jails; and

- An array of measures designed to battle the rise of human trafficking across the state.

Workforce development

The 2013-2014 budget passed this week reflects a commitment by GOP lawmakers to foster an environment for job growth across Tennessee. Legislators understand that in order for our economy to continue improving, government must stay out of the way of job creators and ensure it is not placing unnecessary burdens on business. The budget passed this session includes multiple programs to help business owners grow and thrive, including:

- A continuation in funding of the state’s FastTrack Infrastructure and Job Training program which aids businesses across the state in securing funding for expansion projects and ensuring employees are trained to their fullest potential;

- An increase in funding to Tennessee’s nine regional development districts to help local governments implement important infrastructure projects and recruit new business; and

- Continued funding to recruit and develop the state’s film and television industry which has steadily grown in recent years and helped bring in millions of film and tourism dollars.

Since January 2011, nearly 80,000 new jobs have been created in Tennessee and the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since October 2008.

Public survey

Tennesseans give high marks to the governor, the Legislature and education reforms passed into law according to a recent poll commissioned by StudentsFirst, a nonprofit organization advocating reforms in public education.

The group had a well-respected polling organization, Public Opinion Strategies, conduct the statewide poll to test voter attitudes about recent education reforms and attitudes about leadership in Tennessee. The firm has a long history of accuracy in Tennessee as it has extensive experience polling for many groups across the state.

The numbers reveal a public wanting serious education reform and an electorate that believes the governor and General Assembly are moving Tennessee in the right direction.

A brief overview of the numbers:

- 54 percent believe the state is headed in the right direction.

- 73 percent approve of the governor’s performance.

- 61 percent of the voters approve of the job of the Legislature.

- 93 percent of Tennesseans want change of some kind to their public education system.

To reinforce that call for desired change, Tennesseans are reacting to the positive education transformations that are already taking place. In 2012, only 39 percent of Tennesseans said that K-12 public schools are headed in the right direction. This year, that number rose to 42 percent.