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State lawmakers discuss Constitutional amendments, Obamacare

State lawmakers from Williamson County convened a public round table Feb. 25 hosted by the Williamson County Chamber of Commerce to discuss two Constitutional amendments, per diem, Medicaid expansion and bills affecting school systems statewide.

Sen. Jack Johnson’s proposal for a Constitutional amendment would reshape how Tennessee Supreme Court and appellate court judge vacancies are filled. If passed, it would appear as a referendum on the state’s ballot for the 2014 general election.

The Constitution currently states, the qualified voters of the state shall elect judges. As currently interpreted, a judicial vacancy is filled by an appointed committee of lawyers who vet candidates and choose three names to be sent to the governor, who then makes the appointment and the electorate votes to retain or not to retain the judge.

Johnson’s resolution is modeled after the federal government’s process. However, approval of the governor’s choice will be made by both houses of the general assembly, not just the senate. According to Johnson, members of the state’s high courts should not have to raise money and face a popularity election.

“Judges currently stand a retention election, not a contested election,” Johnson said. “The Constitutional debate is about what the Constitution says.”

The resolution, which passed the 107th General Assembly two years ago, needs a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the 108th General Assembly this time. Last week the resolution passed the Senate.

The House is scheduled to vote on the issue this week.

The other amendment will put an end to any further discussion about instituting a state income tax. According to Rep. Glen Casada, some Attorneys General Constitutional interpretations allow a state income tax.

“We are writing a clearly written statement banning an earned income tax in the State of Tennessee,” Casada said.

This year, “we are starting to do away with the Hall Tax,” a tax on income earned from investment dividends, Sargent added.

A change in the daily $173 per Diem legislators receive will be reduced to $114 for lawmakers who live fewer than 50 miles from the capitol. The reduction is for lodging they don’t need, however they will continue to receive compensation for gas and food.

The bill is making its way through committees and a vote is projected to come within a few weeks. However, the change will not go into effect until 2015.

While the governor is still deliberating accepting the federal expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee, Rep. Jeremy Durham has presented a bill that will make that decision moot. Durham’s bill would prevent Tennessee’s Medicaid roles expanding to 133 percent of the poverty level as prescribed by the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.”

The contested law plans for the federal government to fund 100 percent of the expansion for the first three years and then reduce its contribution to 90 percent by 2020.

“Many of us feel the federal government can’t do that, and federal funds will go away,” Durham said. “In 2005, Tennessee had to cut roles because TennCare was causing the state to go bankrupt. It is extremely important not to expand Medicaid in Tennessee. We have to be responsible and not raise the national debt – this is not just about state moneys.”

At present there are about 35,000 to 60,000 people who are eligible but are not enrolled in the Medicaid program in Tennessee but will be added when the Affordable Care Act goes into affect, “and that has nothing to do with expansion,” Rep. Charles Sargent said.

“We are already going to have Medicaid expansion,” Sargent added. “This bill prevents us from going deeper into debt.”

Although Tennessee public education ranks 46th nationally, there are several schools districts, including Williamson County and Franklin Special Schools, that have achieved high national rankings. The High Performance Flexibility Act is designed to exempt high-performing school districts from burdensome regulations and give them more latitude.

“If we don’t continue to improve, we’re not going to progress [as a state],” said Johnson. “We want to take burdens off those systems who are performing.”

Posted on: 2/26/2013


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