Budget talks continue for state legislature

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By Dennis Powers

 Budget hearings continue as funding board projects higher revenues

The governor continued budget hearings this week, meeting with key officials from each department for a briefing on state finances. State leaders are working to fill a $1.5 billion hole, as the state staved off many reductions last year with the assistance of federal funding. The hearings covered budgetary items from TennCare to weather-related expenses.

Reductions are expected to be made across the board, with each department potentially cutting up to three percent. Several officials noted that they are prepared to deal with the reductions that are expected, while others also had suggested improvements. For example, higher education officials would like to see some funding dedicated to capital outlay, to pay for maintenance of existing buildings on the state’s campuses, and the construction of new ones.

TennCare is expecting reductions in payments to healthcare providers, and may also end payments for hospice care. The Department of Mental Health and the Department of Intellectual Disabilities will also make reductions in employees, and in some cases, facilities.

The state had originally budgeted $14 million for ice and snow removal, but has already spent nearly $25 million as Tennessee has been blasted for two and a half months with below frigid temperatures and an above average number of snowy days.

Despite the relative doom and gloom of the budget hearings, the state funding board met Wednesday to discuss projections for the current budget years. The panel determined that the state might be able to expect about $162 million more than originally projected for this year. The State Funding Board is made up of the Commissioner of Finance and Administration, the Comptroller of the Treasury, the Treasurer, and the Secretary of State.


Republicans file legislation to combat meth, “bath salts”

Republican members filed legislation this week to crack down on meth, a growing problem in Tennessee. Recent reports say that the state had a record-setting year for meth-lab seizures in 2010, with an average of five labs a day being seized. To that end, Republican lawmakers introduced House Bill 234 today that calls for the adoption of a statewide, industry-funded electronic tracking system, called NPLEx (the National Precursor Log Exchange), to monitor and stop illicit purchases of over-the-counter cold and allergy products containing pseudoephedrine (PSE), an ingredient sometimes used to illegally manufacture methamphetamine.

There is currently no mechanism in place in Tennessee to block illegal sales in real time, as many pharmacies and retailers rely on handwritten, paper logbooks to track purchases. As a result, criminals have learned to circumvent the current system. House Bill 234 would provide a secure, interconnected electronic logbook that allows pharmacists and retailers to refuse an illegal sale based on purchases made elsewhere in the state or beyond its borders. Most importantly, the legislation preserves access to the PSE medicines consumers rely on and trust for cold and allergy relief.

Lawmakers also filed a bill this week that would aim to crack down on a derivative of methamphetamine. Known as "bath salts," the drug affects the central nervous system and can cause chest pain, heart attack, and stroke, as well as delusions and psychosis. An increasing number of emergency room visits and deaths have been linked to the use of the drug. In addition, it has been named a "drug of concern" by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

The sponsor indicated the problem is growing and is a grave threat to communities across the state. Proponents of the legislation pointed out it will also be another step forward in the state’s battle against meth. House Bill 457 would make the use of six compounds tied to bath salts illegal and impose a $1,500 fine.

In case you missed it…

The House Conservation and Environment Committee was given a presentation by representatives from Hemlock Semiconductor, which Tennessee lured here in 2008. The company located a polycrystalline silicon manufacturing operation at the Commerce Park megasite in Clarksville, Tennessee.

The house approved Senate 25 on Thursday, with a vote of 64-31. The legislation delays a potential merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems. A referendum on the issue will take place with early voting starting later this month.

Legislative members, staff, and guests were treated to a screening of Waiting for Superman on Tuesday, a documentary analyzing American public school education. The screening was especially timely, as education reform is a major focus of the General Assembly and Tennessee’s new Governor.