NASHVILLE — Senate Committees advanced a number of important bills this week, including the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act which proposes a responsible path to improve access to broadband through investment, deregulation, and education. Senate Bill 1215, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Senate State and Local Government Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), would spur deployment in rural unserved areas, opening them up to economic investment and job growth.
This week’s action was also highlighted by a visit from President Donald Trump who delivered remarks at The Hermitage in Nashville recognizing the 250th birthday of President Andrew Jackson, before holding a rally at the Municipal Auditorium where he talked about reducing taxes, bringing back jobs, and repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Broadband — The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s NextTennessee legislative plan to build and sustain the state’s competitiveness for the next generation of Tennesseans. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility. While only two percent of the state’s urban citizens lack access, 34 percent of rural residents are without coverage at recognized minimum standards due to low population density and challenging geography.
“We need better access, not bigger government,” said Sen. Norris. “Broadband is critical to commerce and the quality of life of every Tennessean and is essential for our current and future education and economic initiatives.”
The legislation calls for a three-year investment of $45 million in grants and tax credits that focus on the state’s unserved areas. This includes a $30 million “Broadband Accessibility Grant Program” and $15 million in tax credits to private service providers based on the purchase of broadband equipment used to provide access in the most economically challenged counties.
On deregulation, the proposal permits the state’s private, nonprofit electric co-operatives to provide broadband and cable video services. The co-ops are currently restricted from providing retail broadband services. To protect co-op ratepayers, the legislation prevents the use of electric system assets to subsidize broadband services.
Senator Bell said, “The co-ops have many years of experience in providing service to rural communities in the state. It’s what they were created to do, so they are uniquely qualified to expand broadband to unserved areas.” Bell said his support for the proposal stems “not from the people who want to watch Netflix, but for the people who have to drive 10 miles or more to truck stops to do homework.” Education is a key component of the broadband legislation as the digital divide is preventing thousands of Tennessee students in unserved areas from being able to do homework that requires Internet access.
The bill expands opportunities for education by providing grants to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve their digital literacy skills and maximize the benefits of broadband. This is in addition to education efforts by the state’s Rural Task Force and other groups to drive broadband adoption in unserved areas of Tennessee.
Bell said in addition to increasing education opportunities, the improved connectivity would also assist in promoting agriculture advancements and providing health care options, like telemedicine.
The legislation comes after an extensive report was issued by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), chaired by Leader Norris, regarding the subject of broadband accessibility which significantly contributed to the broadband proposal.
President Trump’s Tennessee Visit — State senators made news this week as President Donald Trump came to Nashville to visit the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s home and final resting place, on the 250th anniversary of the seventh president’s birth. President Trump and the Hermitage’s Andrew Jackson Foundation graciously extended invitations to state legislators to join the president at the Hermitage. Lt. Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell cancelled afternoon committee meetings Wednesday so that roughly 100 of the 132 members of the General Assembly could attend.
Traveling with Governor Bill Haslam, Senator Bob Corker and Senator Lamar Alexander, Trump arrived at the Hermitage in the late afternoon, took a brief tour of the Hermitage and then laid a wreath at the grave of President Jackson. Calling it an “inspirational visit,” President Trump gave a brief address to the intimate gathering. The speech focused on President Jackson’s life, sacrifices and rise to power. Calling Jackson a “military hero and genius” as well as a “flawed man,” Trump noted various parallels between himself and the seventh President. Trump especially identified with Jackson’s defiance of “an arrogant elite” that often questioned his legitimacy.
Trump left the Hermitage and made a longer campaign-style address to a large crowd at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville. Two State Senators had speaking roles at the Municipal event. Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) spoke about taking back our country after “eight years of disaster.” Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) touted Tennessee’s low debt, making a passionate appeal to repeal Obamacare, and talked about the needs of our nation’s soldiers. Trump’s Municipal Auditorium speech ran the gamut on issues from the progress on the border wall, repealing Obamacare to school choice.
President Trump generated national news at the Nashville speech, making his first public comments on a federal judge’s restraining order against his revised executive order on immigration and travel. Trump, who vowed to fight the judge’s decision, threw out the possibility he might reissue his original executive order.
Tennessee files first lawsuit in the nation challenging constitutionality of the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program
A lawsuit was filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee challenging the constitutionality of the federal refugee resettlement program on behalf of the State of Tennessee, the Tennessee General Assembly, Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster). The state is challenging the program on the basis that it violates the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the principles of State sovereignty.
The Thomas More Law Center, a national nonprofit public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, MI, is representing the state in the case pro bono.
The lawsuit comes after the Tennessee General Assembly overwhelmingly passed Senate Joint Resolution 467 during the 2016 legislative session, authorizing legal action to stop the federal government from unconstitutionally commandeering State funds to finance the federal refugee resettlement program. It was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
Norris emphasized the point that the lawsuit should not be taken as a criticism of the Trump Administration, stating “We want to convey to the President that we support his efforts concerning immigration and refugee resettlement and believe this suit for declaratory relief is consistent with what would likely be his position regarding states like Tennessee which have withdrawn from the refugee resettlement program but are forced to continue paying costs associated with it.”
Senator Stevens stated, “Through federal economic dragooning of our State’s budget, past Presidents and Congresses have quieted my vote and thereby my constituents’ voices. President Trump, through executive action, has reversed the overreaches of the Obama Administration in numerous ways. I trust President Trump in this regard. However, he needs our help.”
“The Constitution does not allow the Federal Government to force me as the elected representative of the 24th Senate District to implement federal programs while they sit in Washington insulated from the consequences,” Stevens continued.
The state is seeking a court declaration that the federal government has violated the Tenth Amendment and an order permanently enjoining the federal government from forcing the State of Tennessee to pay money out of its treasury to finance the federal refugee resettlement program.
When Congress enacted the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980, the explicit intent was to assure full federal reimbursement of the costs for each refugee resettled and participating in benefit programs provided by the states. Eventually, however, federal reimbursements to the states for these benefit programs were reduced and, by 1991, eliminated entirely. The states thereby became responsible for the costs of the programs originally covered by the federal government. Tennessee officially withdrew from participation in the refugee resettlement program in 2007. However, instead of honoring Tennessee’s decision to withdraw from the program, the federal government merely bypassed the State and appointed a private, non-governmental organization to administer the program.
Senate Transportation Committee amends IMPROVE Act with deeper tax cuts
An improved version of Governor Bill Haslam’s Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE Act) advanced in the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week with several significant tax cuts added by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). This includes a 20 percent reduction in the food tax. Norris said the move to reduce the food tax from five to four percent is designed to help Tennesseans “save more at the store than they pay at the pump.”
The committee action continues ongoing efforts to reduce taxes made by Norris in 2013 when the food tax was cut from 5.25 percent to 5 percent.
The purpose of the IMPROVE Act is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayer’s return on that investment. While one category, the gas tax, increases, it would be more than offset by the widespread cuts that most people pay for other necessities.
Senate Bill 1221, as amended, reduces the governor’s proposed increase from 7 to 6 cents on a gallon of gas and from 12 to 11 cents on a gallon of diesel, phasing them in over a three-year period. Other improvements made in the Senate bill include:
● Removal of the provision to index the tax to adjust for inflation;
● Removal of the proposed surcharge on rental cars; and,
● Addition of more property tax relief for veterans and the elderly/disabled by moving the property value threshold from $100,000 to $135,100 for veterans and from $23,500 to $27,000 for the elderly/disabled, adjusting for inflation in future years.
The legislation maintains the governor’s proposal to make Tennessee’s franchise and excise (F&E) tax on manufacturing business more competitive by allowing companies to go to a single weighted sales factor. This provision aims to attract new and better paying manufacturing jobs to Tennessee which currently has higher F&E taxes than some neighboring states. It also provides for a one percent reduction in the Hall Income Tax.
The legislation continues the state’s long-time reliance on user fees rather than sales taxes to fund highway improvements. Tennessee does not use debt financing, tolls, or general fund revenues to fund roads. This pay-as-you-go practice has been credited as one of the reasons for the state’s top financial rankings and is especially important due to the instability of federal transportation funds over the past decade.
Tennessee has approximately 11,000 local roads, 40 percent of which are over 50 years old. Likewise, there are 8,000 state bridges in which 40 percent are over 40 years old. The aged bridges are causing significant safety concerns, as some are unsafe for the travel of heavy equipment, including fire trucks, ambulances, school buses and vehicles used in farming.
The legislation lists 962 projects identified by the governor as priorities. It includes 45 projects to improve interstates, 89 projects to improve road access in rural communities, 51 projects geared toward creating economic opportunities and 724 total bridge replacements.
Governor Haslam has said, “Scores of mayors across Tennessee – cities and counties, rural and urban – have told me that, if we don’t do something to address the fuel tax, they will have no alternative but to raise the property tax in their municipalities.” The governor’s proposal would mean $70 million annually in increased revenue for county road projects in Tennessee and $35 million for cities.
The bill now moves to the Senate State and Local Government Committee for consideration.
General Assembly celebrates Tennessee’s farming communities with “Ag Day on the Hill”
The Tennessee General Assembly recognized the contributions of farmers and forestland owners on Tuesday as part of national and state “Ag Day on the Hill” activities. Farm animals and a variety of agricultural equipment were on display at the entrance to the Legislative Plaza. Agricultural organizations were also available to discuss programs and opportunities with lawmakers and citizens participating in the event.
Agriculture is one of the top industries in Tennessee, contributing more than $70 billion a year to the state’s economy and employing more than 340,000 citizens. The state has more than 66,000 farms representing 10.8 million acres.
A highlight of the festivities included a race between representatives of the Senate and the House of Representatives to see who could bag potatoes and bottle feed a calf the fastest. State Senators Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) and Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) led the Senate to victory in the calf-feeding contest. In honor of the victors, the Farm and Forest Families of Tennessee organization presented a check to Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.
In other action this week, legislation was approved by the full Senate to help encourage the growing and selling of Tennessee-based agricultural products. Senate Bill 1187, sponsored by Senate Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), exempts small food manufacturers, or domestic kitchens, from licensing and inspection if they meet certain criteria. It includes kitchens which have no full-time regular employees and who sell direct retail products which are properly labeled and are non-hazardous.
The “eat locally produced food” movement has encouraged many individuals to produce food items that were not economically feasible previously. The businesses affected are typically very small start-up companies that would be encouraged to grow without unnecessary fees. The size of these businesses and the type of food most often produced poses little health risk compared to the cost of inspecting and licensing them. This legislation will allow for growth of small business start-ups in Tennessee’s rural communities across the state.
Finally, the full Senate approved legislation that would add beekeeping to practices included in the Tennessee Community Gardening Act. Senate Bill 337, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R – Strawberry Plains), is a proactive measure that would allow for the urban gardening of honey bees.
Adoption of the bill followed a presentation to committee members regarding the importance of honey bees to the agricultural community and challenges faced by Tennessee’s bee farmers. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating about one-third on the foods consumed.
Since 1987, there is no longer a feral population of honey bees in Tennessee; therefore, pollination relies solely on the managed colonies. Due to this decline, the state is currently at around seven percent of the number of honey bees and 37 percent of the number of colonies needed to optimally pollinate. In order to ensure the survival of colonies, beekeepers must monitor their colonies for pesticides, treat diseases, and use local, acclimated stock when an issue arises to breed for resistant bees.
Good Samaritans / Move Over Law — The Senate voted Monday to extend Tennessee’s “Move Over Law” to include good Samaritans who stop to help a distressed motorist and are displaying their flashing lights to indicate an emergency. Tennessee law requires motorists to move over into the adjacent lane of traffic, when safe to do so, or alternatively to slow down for emergency vehicles and utility service equipment. Senate Bill 964 comes after a 16-year-old Tennessean, Franklin Frazier, was found 70 percent liable for damage done to his automobile which was struck on the side of the road as he was aiding a motorist in dire need of assistance. His car was deemed as being illegally parked. It is hoped that this legislation, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), will continue to encourage good Samaritans to assist in such emergency situations, while directing other motorists to move over for the protection of all concerned.
Cannabinioid Oil — Unanimous approval was given by the full Senate this week to legislation that excludes from the definition of marijuana a cannabidiol product which is approved as a prescription medication by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA). Tennessee law defines marijuana broadly to include all parts of the cannibas plant and any derivatives, even though oil and hemp are exempted. Unlike the main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabinioid oil does not produce euphoria or intoxication. Senate Bill 385 ensures that USDA-approved medications containing cannabidiol oil, which are used for a variety of medical conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and certain mental health disorders, are allowed under Tennessee law. The bill is sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville).
Wildfires / Disasters / Property Tax Relief — Legislation designed to give victims of the wildfires and tornadoes which ravaged Tennessee this fall a measure of property tax relief was passed unanimously by the General Assembly on Monday. Senate Bill 114, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), allows a local governing body, by a two-thirds vote, to provide tax relief on real and personal property damaged by the wildfire. The tax relief bill is modeled after similar legislation which granted tax relief to victims of the 2010 floods in Nashville. The legislation calls for prorating the 2016 tax assessment for a homeowner’s real property or business owner’s personal property, if the property was damaged by 50 percent or more in a disaster certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) between September 1 and December 30, 2016. If the tax computed for the 2016 tax year has been paid prior to the proration, the victim would receive a refund under the bill. The legislation is retroactive to January 1, 2016. The bill now goes to the Governor for his signature.
Wildfires / Clean-up – Similarly, the Senate approved Senate Bill 964, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), which gives local governments the authority to go on private property at the request of the property owner to clean up debris caused by a natural disaster. The clean-up bill would help Gatlinburg get reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for removing debris on private residential property that is not low income, elderly or disabled, like those in which the owners live out-of-state. The clean-up of properties left by the wildfire is important to the recovery effort as tourism is essential to Gatlinburg’s economy. This legislation will assist in those efforts, allowing Gatlinburg to get reimbursement from FEMA for that purpose.
Memphis Belle / Official State Airplane – Legislation naming the Memphis Belle as the Tennessee’s official state airplane was approved by the General Assembly this week. The Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress, which is arguably one of the five most famous aircraft in U.S. history, completed twenty-five missions in World War II with only minor damage and without the loss of any crew member. The heavy bomber was named for pilot Robert K. Morgan’s sweetheart, Memphis native Margaret Polk. The airplane and crew visited thirty-two U.S. cities, including Memphis, after World War II ended on a war bond tour before the airplane was retired. It was later brought to Memphis where it has been on public display for 59 years under the care of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association. The Memphis Belle is currently being restored to pristine condition as preparations are being made for a week-long “roll-out” ceremony of the airplane in May 2018 – the 75th anniversary of the Belle’s twenty-fifth mission over Nazi-occupied Europe. Senate Bill 1263 is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
James K. Polk Gravesite — Legislation which supports the relocation of President James K. Polk’s tomb from the State Capitol grounds to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site in Columbia, Tennessee, advanced through the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday. Senate Joint Resolution 141, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), aims to make the gravesite more accessible and bring better recognition to the 11th President of the U.S., who was one of only three Tennesseans ever to hold the nation’s highest office. The action to move the tomb to the state-owned site in Columbia is supported by the James K. Polk Memorial Association who requested the relocation. Both of Tennessee’s other presidents, President Andrew Johnson and President Andrew Jackson, are buried on land they owned. Polk had requested burial at his home, Polk Place, which no longer stands. The James K. Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site in Columbia was Polk’s only other residence, besides his residency at the White House. Senate passage of the resolution is part of a multi-step process before relocation can occur with the next step being approval by Tennessee’s Historical Commission.
Excessive Regulations — The full Senate passed legislation on Thursday to exempt those whose sole professional responsibility is that of shampooing hair from having to have a barber or cosmetology license. Senate Bill 1194, sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), is part of the effort to relieve the burden of excessive regulation on the right of an individual to pursue a chosen business or profession when it does not directly pertain to the health, safety and welfare of the general public.
Similarly, the Senate approved legislation which authorizes any individual, firm, or corporation that holds a cosmetology, manicurist, aesthetician, or natural hair styling license to practice in a customer’s home or place of business. Presently, with a few exceptions, cosmetology services must be provided in a salon. Senate Bill 797, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), removes that restriction and allows for willing providers and willing recipients to transact that business outside of a salon.
Provider Stability Act — Legislation which seeks to provide greater transparency between healthcare providers and health insurance payers was approved by the Senate this week. Senate Bill 437, sponsored by Senator Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga), also limits fee schedule changes to once a year. Under the bill, insurers must provide 60-day notice of a material change in the insurance carrier’s provider manual reimbursement rule or policy, and a 90-day notice of any change to health provider’s fee schedule. The legislation requires insurance companies to identify and provide notice of any change they make to the provider’s fee schedule, including the effective date. The notice only applies to changes made in the carrier’s sole discretion and is applicable to increases and decreases in the reimbursement for services for a procedure performed pursuant to a provider’s contract with the carrier. The bill would give health care providers more financial predictability and stability in their business.
Retired Teachers / Substitute Teachers — The Senate has approved Senate Bill 379 which guarantees a teacher without an active license that has retired within the last five years, is eligible for the same rate of pay as retired teachers that have maintained their licenses. The goal of legislation is to address the need for short-term substitute teachers who are highly qualified by giving an incentive for retired teachers to go back into the substitute teacher pool, even if they have not renewed their licenses. The bill is sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville).
Body Cams / Law Enforcement Officers – Legislation was given final approval by the Senate this week which seeks to set the right balance between privacy and transparency in public access of body camera (cam) footage taken by law enforcement officers. Body cams are becoming more common, which has brought the need for clarity regarding public access to footage. Senate Bill 442 creates exceptions to the public records request law when the footage involves minors at an elementary, middle or high school; when the body cam was filmed inside a hospital or medical facility that provides healthcare or mental healthcare; or when it is obtained in a private residence that is not being investigated as a crime scene. It would further provide that nothing would prevent the information from being used in criminal proceedings by a District Attorney (DA) or an Attorney General (AG) or defense counsel. It would also ensure access to the footage by law enforcement courts or other governmental agencies. The legislation is sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).
Drivers License / Underage Drinking – Legislation has received final Senate approval that requires all new drivers’ licenses issued to persons under the age of 21 in Tennessee be printed in a vertical format to help businesses easily identify those who cannot drink alcohol. Senate Bill 384 would give drivers the option to change their license to horizontal upon turning age 21 for the reduced cost of a duplicate license. Presently, a tiny red bar along the side of the photo on the license indicates a person is under the age of 21. In 2016, there were 28 traffic fatalities in Tennessee with youth aged 15 to 20 years old measuring a blood alcohol level greater than .01 percent. Reports also indicate that the percentage of young Tennesseans ages 12 to 20 who consumed alcohol in the past month was almost 17 percent. More than two-thirds of the states across the nation have vertical licenses for drivers under the age of 21. The bill is sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville).
Veterans / Employment – The full Senate approved and sent to Governor Bill Haslam a bill which provides protections to employers if they give hiring preference to honorably discharged veterans, their spouses, in certain cases, or survivors. It includes spouses of a veteran with a service-connected disability, unremarried widows or widowers of a veteran who died of a service-connected disability, and unremarried widows or widowers of a member of the military who died in the line of duty. Senate Bill 209 gives companies that would like to give special consideration for hiring veterans because of their unique skill sets, proven work ethic, and reliability but may be hesitant to do so out of concern of being sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII, Section 11 of the Civil Rights Act contains a carve-out that exempts veterans’ preference processes that are authorized by state statute. It is sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville).
Veterans / Yellow DOT Program — Legislation has received final Senate approval that extends the state’s Yellow DOT Program to include veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). The Yellow DOT Program is designed to provide first responders with an individual’s medical information in the event of an emergency on Tennessee’s roadways. Senate Bill 1304 calls for including veterans, should they choose to opt in, to inform the police officers and other responders of a potential medical situation due to PTSD. It also authorizes TDOT to publicize the Yellow Dot Program in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Services and agencies providing services to veterans. The bill is sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).
States / Policies Differences and Travel Bans — A resolution, which points out the absurdity of California’s ban of state-funded and state-sponsored travel based on a policy difference with Tennessee, was approved on final consideration by the Senate this week. After passage of Assembly Bill 1887 last summer, the State of California’s Department of Justice issued a travel ban based on Tennessee’s passage of Public Chapter 926. That law protected the rights of counselors to refer a client to another therapist when the goals, outcomes, or behaviors for which they are seeking counseling are a violation of his or her sincerely held beliefs. The ban applies to California’s state agencies, departments, boards, authorities, and commissions, including an agency, department, board, authority, or commission of the University of California, the Board of Regents of the University of California, and the California State University. California’s travel ban also applies to North Carolina, Mississippi and Kansas based on other policy differences. Senate Joint Resolution 111, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), points out that travel bans based on policy differences can lead to economic warfare and are counterproductive to the common objectives that all states have. It also points out that the Tenth Amendment grants states sovereignty in addressing issues solely within their jurisdiction.
Schools / Opioid Antagonist — The full Senate approved Senate Bill 458 that requires the State Board of Education (SBE) to develop guidelines to help ensure that every public school in the state has an opioid antagonist on hand to counteract a life-threatening opioid drug overdose by a student. The legislation also requires each local education agency (LEA) implement a plan based on those guidelines. Schools would then be authorized to purchase two doses if the medication is not available through donation. The opioid antagonist, Naloxone, is sold under the brand name Narcan among others, and is a safe medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdose. The life-saving medication may be administered through a nasal spray or injected. The legislation is sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville).