NASHVILLE — The 2017 session of the 110th General Assembly has adjourned to become a part of Tennessee history with some of the most important bills of the year being approved during the final week of legislative action. This includes the passage of the state budget, legislation making Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college, a bill to curb the growing crime of organized retail theft, a measure enhancing penalties for convicted criminals in the U.S. unlawfully, and a proposal strengthening penalties against crooks with guns.
The $37 billion budget proposes state government spending for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, 2017 and extends to June 30, 2018. Senate Bill 483, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), maintains Tennessee’s sound fiscal practices. For a second year in a row, the state budget does not take on any new debt. It assumes an annualized growth rate of 3.17 percent, based on an economic growth forecast of 4.5 percent. Such fiscally conservative practices have resulted in Tennessee having a budget surplus rather than a deficit as many other states have experienced. This is one of the reasons Tennessee is ranked among the best managed states in the nation.
“We believe that this surplus reflects strength, not weakness – maturity as a leading state in the nation, not the malaise of those struggling under massive debt in other states delinquent in their duties and troubled by taxation,” said Norris. “A surplus, wherein revenues exceeded budgeted expectations, reflects conservatism at its best. Revenues have exceeded expectations not because we charged Tennessee taxpayers more, but because we did more with less. We cut taxes in five of the previous six years and generated more revenues as a result.”
The 2017-2018 budget cuts more than $250 million in taxes in the next fiscal year and more than $400 million in taxes annually at full implementation.
New state budget emphasizes four E’s – Education, Employment, Economic Opportunity, and Enforcement of the Law
Education, Employment, Economic Opportunity, and Enforcement of the Law are the underlying drivers of Tennessee’s 2017-2018 state budget adopted by the General Assembly this week. The budget continues Tennessee’s strong commitment to education by providing an additional $200 million to fund the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP). This includes $100 million to improve teacher salaries, $22 million to help schools serve high need students, and an additional $15 million is provided for career and technical education equipment.
It also continues several important higher education initiatives in the Drive to 55 to make sure that 55 percent of Tennesseans have a post-secondary certificate or degree by the year 2025. This includes the Reconnect Act and the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act. The Reconnect Act is a last-dollar scholarship which makes Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college. The STRONG Act creates a pilot program for those who protect and serve their state and country in the Tennessee National Guard to receive tuition funding toward a first time bachelor degree.
On employment and economic opportunity, the legislation provides $113 million in Franchise and Excise (F&E) tax cuts which are available to over 500 manufacturers in Tennessee benefitting over 310,000 of their employees. Since passage of legislation initiating the F&E cuts two weeks ago, two major industries have announced they will locate facilities in Tennessee creating a combined 520 new jobs in the state.
Also conducive to job creation is the $150 million in new, recurring revenue appropriated for improving Tennessee’s roads, making them inviting to new industries looking to locate in the state. The improvements are also essential for road safety. Presently, 40 percent of the state’s major urban roads are in less than fair condition. Likewise, approximately 19 percent of Tennessee bridges are in need of repair, five percent are structurally deficient, and 14 percent are functionally obsolete.
On enforcement of the law, the budget provides 30 new positions for district attorneys, 18 new public defenders, 25 new Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers, and new funding to increase coverage for families of police and firefighters who lose their life in the line of duty. It provides more than $2 million in recurring funds to incarcerate felons with firearms and abusers of the elderly and to enhance sentences against illegal aliens who commit unlawful acts. It also provides $5 million in funding to increase the per diem paid to local jails for housing state prisoners and $29.5 million for a new multi-agency law enforcement training center.
Other highlights of the budget include:
• $8 million for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to purchase an airplane to assist in criminal investigations and manhunts;
• $55 million for utilization grants for TennCare;
• Adds 715 more slots to the Employment and Community First Choices (EFC) Program to provide long-term services and supports;
• $1 million for the OPTIONS program which gives home- and community-based service choices to the elderly, as well as adults with disabilities;
• $10.3 million to improve access to broadband in Tennessee;
• $8 million to increase the reimbursement rate for direct support professionals who provide home and community-based services through the Department of Intellectual Disabilities (DIDD);
• $11.5 million for substance abuse and crisis services;
• $21.7 million in a new money to help fund rural initiatives as recommended by the Rural Development Task Force Study;
• $40 million toward the cost of a new State Library and Archives building to collect and preserve Tennessee records of historical, documentary and reference value;
• $10.65 million for disaster relief in Gatlinburg and Sevier County after the devastating wildfires in November 2016;
• $77 million for state employee pay increases and market rate adjustments targeting high-turnover positions in state government;
• $614 million in state dollars for maintenance and new buildings across general government and higher education;
• $25 million for higher education outcome formula increases of the Complete College Act;
• $132 million in non-recurring funds to the state’s Rainy Day Fund to an all-time high of $800 million, well on the way to a target of $1 billion;
• Full restoration of property tax relief for veterans, disabled and the elderly; and,
• $18 million for the next state veterans’ home in West Tennessee.
In his closing presentation on the budget, Norris spoke of General Assembly fulfilling the constitutional mandate for the “peace, safety and happiness of the people of Tennessee.” He stated that the priorities outlined in the budget made clear that state government stands behind “the elderly, the vulnerable, the sick and the unfortunate.”
“It matters who governs,” concluded Norris. “And by this Act – we do.”
State Senate approves legislation addressing the growing problem of organized retail crime
Legislation addressing the growing problem of organized retail crime in Tennessee was approved by the Tennessee Senate on Tuesday as the General Assembly prepared to close the 2017 session. The Organized Retail Crime Prevention Act, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), defines organized retail crime and creates two new theft offenses for the purpose of prosecuting individuals who return stolen merchandise to receive money or store credit.
Tennessee is one of only 17 states that does not have Organized Retail Crime legislation. It is estimated that in 2015 the state lost over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lost over $200 million related to return fraud.
“We have a crisis in Tennessee where goods are stolen and then returned to retailers for credit on a gift card,” said Senator Briggs. “Based on City Per Capita, Knoxville is number one in the nation for card abuse and theft. It has severe impact on the retailers in our community, as well as to the State of Tennessee. This legislation begins to address this growing problem, including proper monitoring of the resale exchange market to isolate these crimes.”
Senate Bill 120 would allow local law enforcement accurately to track gift card purchases and their resale. The measure applies to cards that are resold when the buyer knows the card was obtained fraudulently. It also establishes a reporting requirement that would allow authorities to collect the needed data to demonstrate the fiscal impact of the crime. After reviewing the data, Briggs said the legislature may come back next year to stiffen the penalties. The legislation does not apply to prepaid value cards like the Visa/MC or AMEX cards that can be used at any merchant.
Briggs said the problem also affects Tennessee’s growing drug abuse problem. Expert testimony revealed that there were 19 overdoses due to opioids during the last month in Knox County in which 16 had sold gift cards on the resale market for cash.
“This cash was used for drugs, and eventually led to their death,” added Briggs.
The bill is supported by Tennessee’s Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs’ Association as well as the Tennessee Retailers Association, who agree the legislation is essential in curbing this crime.
General Assembly passes legislation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college
The General Assembly approved major legislation during the final week of the 2017 session to make Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college. The Tennessee Reconnect Act establishes a last-dollar scholarship for adults to attend a community college tuition-free. Senate Bill 1218, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), expands a grant program launched in 2015 that aims to attract approximately 900,000 Tennesseans who have earned some college credit but no degree.
Adults without a certificate can already attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) tuition-free under the current Reconnect program. This proposal would expand that program’s access to community colleges and relieves some of the previous requirements to receive assistance. The Reconnect expansion would be funded out of lottery reserves at no cost to taxpayers.
In other higher education action this week, the Senate approved a bill that changes the requirement that students applying for dual enrollment grants submit their application once an academic year instead of the current requirement of once every semester. Senate bill 585, sponsored by Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), comes from the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation with the goal of reducing paperwork and aiding students.
It also provides flexibility to state employees using tuition fee waivers by exempting those who qualify from the provision that the waiver courses be taken one at a time, as long as they don’t exceed the allowed four courses per year. To be eligible for the exemption, the supervisor must certify that the state employee is in a position that requires them to work hours beyond a normal work week for several weeks of the year.
Citizens with Disabilities / Workplace — Legislation passed during the final week of the 2017 session which aims to support disability-owned businesses by adding them to the Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise. The Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise is the central point of contact to attract and assist certain types of business owners interested in competing in the State of Tennessee procurement and contracting activities. It includes businesses owned by minorities, women and service-disabled veterans, in addition to the small business enterprise. Senate Bill 1224 will help attract and assist certain types of business owners interested in participating in procurement and contracting activities in the State of Tennessee and complements Governor Bill Haslam’s Executive Order making Tennessee an employment first state. The legislation supports the full inclusion of individuals with varying degrees of abilities in the workplace and community. It is sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville).
Convicted Criminals Unlawfully in the U.S. — The full Senate approved legislation on Tuesday that would allow courts in Tennessee to enhance the sentence of a convicted criminal who is unlawfully in the U.S. Under present state law, status as an illegal alien is a factor that can be considered on the front end of the court process, as it relates to bond for example, but it’s not included at the end of the process. Senate Bill 1260, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), creates a new enhancement factor that a judge can consider in sentencing if the defendant was illegally or unlawfully in the U.S. at the time the offense was committed.
Tennessee History — The General Assembly approved a bill before adjourning requiring a course in Tennessee history for students beginning in the 2018-2019 school year. The Senator Douglas Henry Tennessee History Act, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), finds that Tennessee History is essential for all citizens to know and understand. Senate Bill 864 states, “A clear and full understanding of Tennessee’s history is fundamental to understanding Tennessee’s place in the United States and the world. Providing and promoting Tennessee history should be a core mission of our system of education.”
Crooks with Guns — Legislation enhancing the charge of possession of a firearm by a person with a prior felony conviction involving the use or attempted use of force from a Class C to a Class B felony was approved during the final days of the 2017 legislative session. The bill also enhances the charge of the possession of a firearm by a person with a prior felony drug conviction from a Class D to a Class C felony. Senate Bill 1241 continues a series of anti-crime laws dubbed “Crooks with Guns” passed over the last decade to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping violent criminals behind bars longer to protect the public. It is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
Energy — This week the Senate Government Operations Committee met to discuss Senate Bill 1250, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), to support the development of a reliable and adequate supply of energy for Tennessee. The goal is to encourage the growth of a secure, stable, and predictable energy source to facilitate economic growth, job creation, and expansion of business and industry opportunities. To accomplish this, the proposal creates a State Energy Policy Council that would be responsible for advising and making recommendations to the Governor and the General Assembly concerning the state’s energy resources, including exploration development and production within Tennessee. Other duties of the 13-member council include creating annual reports that assess the energy sector, developing comprehensive state energy policy plans, and providing the public with education and informational tools. The University of Tennessee Baker Center of Public Policy would facilitate the annual assessment of the state’s energy sector as a result of the proposed legislation.
HERO Act — Legislation aiding the families of law enforcement officers who are killed in the line of duty has passed. Senate Bill 1059 calls for a $250,000 death benefit from the State of Tennessee for any firefighter, volunteer rescue worker, or law enforcement officer who is killed in the line of duty. The Helping Emergency Response Officials (HERO) Act would significantly increase the current lump sum of $25,000 paid at the time of death to a $250,000 annuity with the first responder’s estate receiving annual installments of $50,000 per year. It is sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma).
Boating – During the last week of legislative action, the Senate approved a bill which provides additional funds to maintain and repair Tennessee’s boating infrastructure, ensuring Tennesseans have good access the state’s waterways. Senate Bill 230, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), allocates a greater percentage of fuel taxes collected at Tennessee marinas to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for that purpose. “The intent of this bill is to make sure that money collected on the water, stays on the water and much like what we have heard about our roads and bridges needing repair, the same holds true about our boating infrastructure,” Sen. Bailey said. The boating industry in Tennessee is a $3 billion industry.
Physical Education in Schools – The Senate approved legislation requiring each student in elementary school to participate in a physical education class (PE) at least twice a week for a combined total of no less than 60 minutes. The Tom Cronan Physical Education Act helps ensure that students get more physical activity in schools. Obesity is one of the most pressing health concerns in Tennessee. The state ranks 49th in the United States in physical inactivity and 47th in obesity. The percentage of overweight/obese students is highest for 6th graders. Under the legislation, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), the PE class must be taught by a teacher with a physical education endorsement. The legislation also requires local education agencies (LEAs) to verify compliance with the act annually. The bill is named for the late Dr. Thomas Cronan, who was Professor Emeritus of Exercise Physiology at Carson-Newman College and a lifelong promoter of wellness. He was the husband of former University of Tennessee Women’s Athletics Director Joan Cronan, who with Coach Pat Summitt, led the Lady Vols to multiple national basketball championships. The bill now awaits approval in the House of Representative next year.