(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), January 14, 2016 – The Tennessee General Assembly returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to begin the 2016 legislative session with a host of issues slated for discussion this year including the state budget, jobs, education, criminal justice, transportation, prescription drug abuse and taxes. Before getting down to work, the State Senate stood in a moment of silence to remember the four Marines and Navy sailor who died in an act of terrorism in Chattanooga in July. Sergeant Carson A. Holmquist, Logistics Specialist Randall Smith, Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan, Lance Corporal Squire K. “Skip” Wells and Staff Sergeant David A. Wyatt were hailed for their sacrifices and heroism. A resolution expressing the State of Tennessee’s deepest sympathy and offering condolences to the families of the fallen soldiers, which was approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, is pending in the Senate Calendar Committee and could be up for final consideration next week.
Judicial Confirmation Conference Committee Appointed – On the first day of the Senate’s 2016 legislative session, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey appointed a new conference committee to meet with the House of Representatives to work out differences on Senate Bill 1 sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Memphis). Those appointed were Senator Kelsey, Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville).
The legislation was introduced last year to put into place the framework to fulfill the constitutional mandate adopted by voters in 2014 calling for legislative confirmation of appellate court nominees. Under the constitutional amendment, appellate judges are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. The voters of Tennessee have the ability to vote to retain or not retain judges at the end of their 8-year terms. The House and Senate agreed on most provisions of the bill, except how the confirmation vote should be handled.
The conference committee met on Thursday and plans to meet again on Tuesday to discuss various options and other details of the bill. The amended constitution provides for “confirmation by default” if an unconfirmed appointee is not rejected within 60 days of the appointment or of the first day of session if the appointment is made out of session.
On January 7, Governor Bill Haslam appointed Judge Roger Page of Jackson to the Tennessee Supreme Court, replacing Justice Gary Wade who retired in September. If the legislature does not reach resolution of the issue by March 12, Judge Page will be confirmed by default on March 13.
Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act – Two bills were approved by Senate Committees this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8 to 0 to approve Senate Bill 326, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which sets the framework for how provisions can be made by persons while living for alternative access to digital assets such as Facebook, Linked-in and email accounts. The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act makes such access after death of the account holder consistent with other existing Tennessee statutes on estates and related matters.
The bill follows cases where heirs were unable to terminate or access digital accounts after the death of a family member or loved one. “After folks die, according to the terms of their user agreement, they don’t have a right to assign their password or access to the account to anyone else and there it remains,” said Senator Norris. “It’s not only accounts like Facebook, but it’s email accounts and other digital records that remain after the person passes.”
The bill clarifies that, if done in accordance with the proposed law, access to digital assets is not a violation of Tennessee’s Personal and Commercial Computer Act. It also adds a new section to the Uniform Durable Power of Attorney Act providing the authority to access any catalog of electronic communications and any other assets by power of attorney. In addition, it provides that heirs can use online tools or a power of attorney to override the terms of agreement that does not require the deceased account holder to act affirmatively.
“I am very pleased this bill is advancing,” said Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), who is a member of the committee. “It is important that we update our laws to keep up with this emerging technology.”
School Buses — The Senate Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 433 to allow Boards of Education to permit the use of Type A school buses for a period of fifteen years of service if they were manufactured after July 1, 2005. A Type “A” school bus is a van conversion or bus constructed utilizing a cutaway front section vehicle with a left side driver’s door. Rules promulgated by the State Board of Education require Type A buses (single rear wheels) have no more than 10 years of service and Type A buses (dual rear wheels) have no more than 12 years of service. This “housekeeping” bill would extend the maximum years of service of all Type A buses to 15 years. It is sponsored by Senator Bowling.
Senate Hears Update on Tennessee’s Health Status — Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, spoke to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week regarding the health of Tennessee citizens. Wynkoff said Tennessee ranks 43rd in overall health according to the United Health Foundation, which is up from 45th last year. He said that unhealthy choices are a key factor in the state’s low health ranking.
Wykoff explained that, of the five primary causes leading to early death, access to healthcare accounts for only 10 percent of the cause, while unhealthy choices accounts for 40 percent, genetics for 30 percent, environmental exposure for 5 percent, and social circumstances for 15 percent. He said tobacco and the obesity epidemic accounted for some of the highest death rates in the behavioral categories in Tennessee. Approximately 24.2 percent of Tennesseans smoke tobacco, making the state the 4th worst in the nation in this category. Approximately 31.2 percent are considered obese, which places the state at 36th in the nation. In addition, Tennessee is ranked 42nd in the nation for physical inactivity and is the second highest state for opioid prescriptions.
Those behaviors, he said, lead to health outcomes like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Tennessee ranks 48th in diabetes, 44th in cardiovascular deaths, and 44th in cancer deaths.
Wykoff also linked economic development and educational attainment to poor health outcomes among Tennesseans. He urged lawmakers to continue pushing for education attainment and economic development improvements, as there is a huge life expectancy gap that is growing based on income.
“If you believe as I do that education is related to health, you begin to realize that we won’t be successful in improving health until we get more successful in getting more kids through high school, junior college, college and even into the graduate schools,” he said. “It really comes down to the same message, what do we need to do to improve health in Tennessee or in the nation as a whole? We need to make sure that people will have access to healthcare, that’s always important, it’s necessary but it’s not sufficient. We need to work to change behaviors, particularly the big three tobacco, obesity/physical inactivity and substance abuse. We also have to work on jobs and education.”
Among Tennessee’s strengths listed by the United Health Foundation was the ready availability of primary care physicians. Tennessee ranks 18th in the nation in the number per 100,000 population with a value of 126.4.
“Dr. Wykoff provides very valuable information to us each year, especially his emphasis on the need to encourage healthier behaviors to prevent premature death in our state,” said Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City). “We are all very appreciative of his testimony.”
AAA Speaks to Senate and House Transportation Committee Regarding Road Safety —
Representatives from the American Automobile Association (AAA) reported this week on the safety status of Tennessee roadways in 2016 to the Senate and House of Representatives Transportation Committees. Speaking on behalf of the organization, Regional President Tim Wright and Public Affairs Director Don Lindsey told committee members that Tennessee is continuing its trend of decreasing the number of deaths on the state’s highways, bucking the national record of increases. The number of deaths reported on Tennessee’s road for 2015 were 961, which is 30 fewer than those killed in 2014. The decline is despite the fact that the overall number of automobile crashes increased by 10 percent. Lindsey said the state’s fatality rate would have been much better except for an unusually high number of deaths that occurred in December.
Traffic fatalities exceeded 1,000 per year from 1964 to 2008, killing over 55,000 Tennesseans. In 2009, traffic deaths decreased below 1,000 per year and have climbed above that mark in only one of the past five years. Lindsey believes that a primary reason for the drop in fatalities is increased seat belt use over this time period. He thanked lawmakers for passing legislation last year aiming to get more Tennesseans to “buckle up” by increasing the nominal fines for violating the state’s seat beat law.
Lindsey said that DUI- and drug-related fatalities were also down but the state’s distracted driving crashes rose eight percent. In addition, 122 pedestrians or bicyclists were killed last year, an increase he believes could be due to more paths being located on the state’s roads. The Tennessee Highway Patrol also issued 24 percent more texting-while-driving citations in 2015 than in 2014.
“Texting is an extremely dangerous form of distracted driving,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) who sponsored the state’s ban on texting while driving law. “When drivers take their eyes off the road to read or send messages, they pose a great danger to all who cross their path.”
Lindsey and Wright said one of the biggest threats to safety is the quality of roads as they went through a wide variety of initiatives taken by other states to improve their transportation systems. Twelve states addressed transportation funding shortfalls in 2015, including several which raised their gas tax. Other avenues included raising fees on electric vehicles and providing an index for inflation and population increases.
Credit Recovery / Schools — The Senate Education Committee heard from the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability this week about how Tennessee High Schools use Credit Recovery programs. Credit recovery is a strategy that permits high school students who have failed courses to recover course credits, allowing them to graduate. Students are eligible for credit recovery after failing one or more high school courses that are required for graduation. Districts that reported data for the survey served more than 7,600 students in credit recovery during the 2014-15 school year. In Tennessee, as in most states, credit recovery programs are designed and implemented at the district and school levels, with a modicum of oversight by state education officials. In an effort to provide more clarity around the administration of credit recovery courses, the State Board of Education is actively working to consider what additional policies or guidance may be needed concerning credit recovery.
Taxable Wage Base – Tennessee’s taxable wage base will be reduced to $8,000 from the present $9,000 with the first quarterly tax report due in April according to Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Phillip Burns, who appeared before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week. Employers will be paying taxes on the first $8,000 they have paid to their employees. In 2009, the legislature passed a bill to keep the state’s unemployment fund solvent which increased unemployment insurance triggered by the amount of money remaining in the fund. The fund was in the red in February 2010 due to high unemployment during the recession. Because the fund now stands at $909 million which is above the $900 million trigger, the taxable wage base will be reduced. Burns believes that Tennessee should have about $1.3 billion in its Unemployment Fund in order to sustain it a “worst case” recessionary period.
Bill Filing Deadline – The Senate has adopted a bill filing deadline of January 21, 2016. This means that all proposals except bills of local application must be filed by that deadline in order to be considered in the 2016 legislative session.
Senate Finance Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee — The Senate Finance Committee’s Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee held their first meeting this week. The committee, led by Chairman Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), reviewed block grants and other reports submitted by the Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The subcommittee was created to ensure that agencies of state government are accountable in reporting the appropriate financial information to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee. The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee has the responsibility of considering all measures dealing with the appropriation of state funds and has oversight regarding legislation pertaining to bonds, pensions, investments or indebtedness.