Capitol Hill Review: Past legislative successes inspire a good outlook
by Eric Watson
Dec 01, 2013 | 508 views | 0 0 comments | 40 40 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As I mentioned in last week’s column, the second half of the 108th General Session is fast approaching. Anyone who had anything to do with our work in the first half, or who contributed input, ideas or suggestions, certainly understands why I am excited.

In the first few months of 2013 through late April, we accomplished a great deal for the good of Tennesseans statewide. You can expect more great work to come in 2014.

For the record, the second half of our legislative session gets underway on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, at noon.

As I’ve already said, but as I’ll repeat because it points to my enthusiasm over the potential that another session brings, I am looking forward to returning to Nashville to continue the work for the citizens of my district. We have worked hard to achieve the tax cuts, the improvements in education and tougher laws on crime.

As a refresher, here’s a look at some of what we accomplished in early 2013. One of the biggest achievements came in our budget. Here are some of this year’s budget highlights:

Tax cuts

- 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 2012 legislative session which reduced the sales tax on food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent. I know that many people work hard to make ends meet. Every bit helps when you can put your hard-earned money back into your pocket.

- Implementation of the second phase to eliminate Tennessee’s death tax, which is set to be completely phased out by 2016. House Republicans agree 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, Republican 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.

- 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

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

Law and safety

Earlier in the year, Gov. Bill 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. I am very excited about the key areas that I have fought for stricter laws on.

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 budget passed this year reflects a commitment by GOP lawmakers to foster an environment for job growth across Tennessee. Republican 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;

- 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 in the last five years.

Moving Tennessee

forward is our focus

As many across our Volunteer State now know, Fitch Ratings, one of the country's top bond agencies, has officially named Tennessee the lowest debt state in the nation.

One of the things that we have worked tirelessly for is to lead by example. Just as with your own personal finances, you try and live within your means, Tennessee has strived to do the same. To be named the lowest debt state in the nation was a prime example of why many are choosing to move to this great state.

The news is based on an analysis of total debt ratios in all 50 states. The calculation is measured by combining each state’s total debt and unfunded liabilities and measuring them against the state’s average individual income level.

The special report from Fitch revealed that the median level for states' combined debt measures 7 percent of 2012 personal income. Tennessee's was lowest at 1.8 percent. The nation's highest percentage was Illinois at 24.8 percent.

Fitch plans to use the debt ratios as a factor in evaluating states’ credit ratings. Favorable ratings from Fitch and the other rating agencies means lower interest rates when the state borrows money, resulting in big savings for taxpayers across the board.

There’s a simple reason why our state’s debt rate is so low. We borrow a small amount of money relative to the size of our government and we repay it quickly, according to Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Justin P. Wilson. In the comptroller’s view, “That’s a credit to our state legislators who have managed our finances very wisely. They have helped keep the burden that future generations of Tennesseans will have to repay low.”

The award from Fitch complements other recent accolades given to the state which honor Tennessee's top-rated fiscal environment, including placing as the 3rd best-managed state in the country by Barron’s Magazine and being named the No. 1 state in the nation for retirement by Bankrate.com.

These important rankings come on the heels of legislators wrapping up one of the most successful legislative sessions in Tennessee history, where efforts were focused on cutting taxes, decreasing the size of government and passing commonsense reforms that make it as easy as possible to start and operate a business in Tennessee.

With the second half of the 108th General Assembly now just a few weeks away, this most recent round of business-friendly awards prove that in Tennessee, things are moving in the right direction. Through the hard work and dedication of the governor and legislative leadership, state government has been successful in coming together to attract job-creators, to inspire entrepreneurs and to put Tennesseans back to work.

Do you think the leaders in Washington, D.C. could learn from us? I think they could. But, let me hear from you. Let them hear from you. Make your voice heard.