Politics have been at the forefront of a lot of minds recently. Many people are concerned about different legislations coming up both in the state and federal Congress. On Tuesday, January 17th, State Representative Kelly Keisling conducted a Pre-Legislative Town Hall at the courthouse in Lafayette to speak with citizens and take questions about locals’ concerns.
The focal point of Representative Keisling’s meeting was the Tennessee state budget. Tennessee legislators passed a $34.9 billion state budget this year. He added, “state revenues generate over fifteen billion. Now the federal government comes in, bringing us thirteen billion…”
Keisling then broke down the expenditures of the budget. “What costs us the most, TennCare,… $10.3 billion, Basic Education Program, over four billion, higher education, over four billion, TDOT Operations, two billion, and corrections coming in at number five [in spending], just under one billion.” He elaborated more on the budget’s expenditures, explaining to the audience about the state’s “Rainy Day Fund.” “We have [had a Rainy Day Fund] for a long, long time… We placed a hundred million in our Rainy Day fund, which brings that up to a total of $668 million. Our goal is a billion. … I think it’s a good thing and I support this goal of one billion, because you never know. The Governor said the time to really address, really work on saving money is during the good times, it’s too late when the bad times hit.”
He continued that $55 million of the budget went to capital improvements and maintenance at state parks, however, Keisling continued that $32 million of that went to a new lodge at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Van Buran County without his knowledge. “We didn’t know it… And what they’re going to do is trying to contract the management of that… They’re going to privatize it.”
$43 million of the budget went to roads across the state of Tennessee. Macon County received $168,687 from the state and the county supplied $3,443 for a total of $172,130 of State Aid Highway Funds for the 2015-2016 Fiscal Year. Road Supervisor Audi Cook pointed out that the money only went to “state aid roads” which connect two state roads together. “That’s what it’s got to be used for.”
Keisling then moved on to what bills and legislations could be coming next to the Tennessee State Congress, and while he admitted he does not know for sure, he brought a few ideas and rumors to present to the citizens of Macon County.
The first new piece of legislation has to do with the franchise and excise tax Tennessee currently has. “If you’re a corporation, a limited partnership, a limited liability company, or a business trust chartered or organized in this state or doing business in Tennessee then you must register for and pay franchise and excise tax,” Keisling explained. “Franchise is based on the greater of net worth or the book value of real or tangible personal property owned or used… The excise tax is based on net earnings or income for that tax year.”
The current franchise/excise tax in Tennessee is 6.5%, but Keisling said he and many others feel that needs to be decreased. “Within the previous six months we have lost, our state has lost four huge, mega manufacturing companies to other states because of this…” Tennessee is currently ranked 40th worst or highest in franchise/excise tax. If the tax is dropped from 6.5% to 6%, that would move Tennessee to the 20th highest. Keisling added that he would like to drop the tax more than that.
Another major issue coming to this year’s legislative session is the “push to allow municipal electric utilities with broadband service to expand their internet and TV offerings to areas outside their electric service footprint.” Keisling says that private companies, such as AT&T and Comcast, are upset with the idea and argue that “that the government shouldn’t empower public entities to compete with private companies.”
The next issue Keisling presented to the attendants was seatbelts on school busses. This drew many voicings of disapproval and many in the crowd stated they thought it would be too expensive. Keisling said that the National Transportation Safety Board recommended installing the seatbelts on busses, however, he pointed out some drawbacks. In addition to the installation of the seatbelts being incredibly expensive, Keisling added that it would limit the amount of kids a bus is able to carry, as only two children would be allowed in a seat.
“Could that mean having to increase the fleet of busses? Of course it could!” He also added that bus drivers would not be able to tell whether or not students were buckled up and there were concerns that older students would use the belts to “cause disruption or hit younger students.” Keisling continued that students do not want seatbelts on busses either. He said that Clay County fifth grade students came to visit the chamber and conducted a mock debate and vote and overwhelmingly voted against seatbelts on busses.
Another issue expected to be discussed by Tennessee state congress this month relates to taxes from online sales. “The Tennessee Department of Revenue estimates that in Tennessee we’re losing $300 to $450 million annually in uncollected sales tax of online sales. Currently, our state… can require an online vendor to collect local and state taxes on a sale provided that the annual sales within the state exceed half a million dollars and that the vendor has a physical presence within [the state of Tennessee]’s border.” He clarifies that those vendors without a physical presence would not be required to collect taxes.
The last issue Keisling presented to the crowd was a possible gas tax proposal. Tennessee’s current tax on gasoline is 21.4 cents a gallon, which generates $633 million annually. Tennessee’s diesel tax is 18.4 cents, which generates $167 million. Keisling says the tax on gas has not increased since 1989. “During that time, tax revenue hasn’t kept pace with the construction and maintenance costs. It just hasn’t… And now we have hybrid vehicles and now we have electric cars, so a lot of people just aren’t paying taxes.”
Jim Wrye of the Tennessee Education Association also spoke to the crowd at the courthouse. Wrye spoke about vouchers, which “take public school money to pay for private school tuition.” However, Wrye assured the audience that all bills proposing vouchers in Tennessee school systems had so far been voted down.
Representative Keisling ended the meeting by saying that the state “has a surplus right now. Next to a billion dollars in surplus revenue, close to a billion reoccurring. It’s just tremendous… Since January of 2011 we have created, within this state, over 325,000 new jobs within our border… Our district, Macon County,… [has] 4.4 unemployment. The Upper Cumberland averages 5.4, the state has 4.8, which is tremendous… Finally, we’re the first state in the country to offer high school grads two years of community college free of tuition and fees, and doing so without raising taxes.” He added, “We’re rocking and rolling, folks.”
Reach Kayla Fleming at 615-666-2440.