Money, wine on lawmakers’ minds in upcoming legislative session
Budget cuts and wine in grocery stores are expected to be hot button topics for lawmakers when the Tennessee General Assembly convenes on Jan. 14.
The Tennessee general fund fell nearly $100 million short of projections in the first quarter. State budget records show corporate franchise and excise tax collections came in at $352 million, or $87 million below the budgeted estimate, and a 14 percent drop from the same year-ago period.
Sales tax collections were $1.77 billion in the quarter, missing projections by about 1 percent. But sales tax revenue posted a 3.4 percent growth compared with the first quarter of last year.
As vice-chair of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, State Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, says his focus going into the first session of the year is primarily on balancing the budget.
“So far there has been approximately $100 million less collected than we projected,” he said. “If that continues, there is going to have to be cuts made prior to the end of the fiscal year, so I am focused on balancing our budget.”
Alexander says budget cuts are inevitable if lawmakers are going to balance the state budget.
“The annual growth in Medicaid spending and the annual growth and inflation of the K-12 education funding formula take up the majority of the growth dollars that Tennessee has, so we don’t have a whole lot of options other than to look at places to reduce our budget so that we can afford those two things,” he said.
The sale of wine in grocery stores is expected to be another hot issue in the upcoming session. A bill that would allow individual municipalities to vote on whether to allow the sale of wine in grocery stores passed the Senate last year but failed in the House.
The battle that has waged for more than a decade is expected to pick up steam heading into the 2014 session.
Alexander said he believes the decision should be left up to individual municipalities and says he would support a bill to that effect.
“I don’t like the idea of wine being sold in grocery stores, as a personal opinion,” he said. “As a legislator, I believe the people of Franklin County have enough good sense about them to make that decision for themselves, and not let the state make it.
“I would be willing to vote for a bill that allowed individual cities to make that decision.”
Alexander said there is a lot of negotiating going on right now concerning the issue and how it might affect owners of Tennessee liquor stores.
As the law now stands, wine can only be purchased in a state-approved liquor store.
“One question people are asking is what will package stores be allowed to sell to make up for lost revenue,” he said. “Those store owners want to be able to sell some of the items you see in other stores, such as chips and soft drinks, that they cannot sell now.”
Other issues lawmakers are facing include legalization of medical marijuana, worker’s compensation reform, and education reform bills.
On the topic of education, Alexander says he doesn’t like the bill on education vouchers and opposes the idea of vouchers for a couple of reasons.
“I don’t like the idea of vouchers because then you’ve got public funds that can be used for or funneled into religious schools,” he said. “I have a problem with that, it bothers me and it crosses the line.”
The State Representative from Franklin County said he believes voucher programs take money out of the public education system.
“One of the reasons America is the greatest nation on Earth is because of our education system, we educate everyone, not just those who can afford it or the elites of society,” Alexander said. “These kinds of voucher programs pull money out of our public education system, and the ultimate effect that it would have on public education bothers me.”
The debate over school vouchers was a controversial one last year and is expected to be back on the table this session. Vouchers would allow parents to use tax dollars targeted for public education to pay private school tuition.
Gov. Bill Haslam pushed legislation last session that would have offered 5,000 vouchers to low-income families, but pulled it when it was met with a counter-proposal from Republican senators to double the vouchers and increase the eligibility to families earning $75,000 annually.