(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), January 12, 2017 — The 110th General Assembly has begun as state lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to take the oath of office, elect officers and organize the business of the 2017-2018 legislative sessions. The first order of business after the 16 newly-elected senators were sworn in was the election of Lt. Governor Randy McNally, who also serves as Speaker of the Senate. McNally, who is the second Republican Lt. Governor since reconstruction, follows Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey who did not seek re-election last fall.
“I am humbled by the trust you have placed in me,” McNally said. “I want to thank each and every one of you not only for the vote today, but the sacrifices you make on a daily basis to better Tennessee and make us the number one state in the nation.”
In his address, McNally recognized the fiscal progress Tennessee has made in the last 10 years, which includes regaining the state’s AAA rating, the highest rating given by federal credit rating agencies. Credit rating agencies assign the grades to states by taking into account a state’s ability to pay debts and the general health of the state’s economy. He also recognized the volunteers who donated time or money to help victims of the fires in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge saying they “demonstrated the volunteer spirit.”
The Senate welcomed one freshman member to the chambers, Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), who was elected to fill Ramsey’s seat in Senate District 4. The district is comprised of Johnson, Carter and Sullivan Counties. Lundberg previously served in the State House of Representatives.
General Assembly re-elects Tennessee’s Constitutional Officers
The opening week of the 110th General Assembly was also marked by re-election of the state’s three constitutional officers, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Treasurer David Lillard and Comptroller Justin Wilson. The state’s constitution provides that the legislature selects the officers in a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives during the organizational session of each General Assembly. The comptroller audits state agencies and county governments to ensure they are run well. The treasurer keeps track of the state’s coffers, its investments and its pension funds. The Secretary of State has a wide variety of duties, including keeping all acts and resolutions adopted into law. The three constitutional officers serve on several key boards together, such as the State Building Commission, which maintains all state-owned public buildings; the Funding Board, which helps guide budgeting; and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which helps provide citizens with affordable housing.
The Treasurer and Comptroller serve two-year terms, while the Secretary of State, serves a four-year term.
“Our constitutional officers have done an outstanding job,” said Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). “They have played a key role in making Tennessee state government work more efficiently and effectively for the benefit of our citizens.”
Legislators, Cabinet Members, Supreme Court Justices, Constitutional Officers and Attorney General pack meals for Tennessee Food Banks
Members of the Tennessee General Assembly, the Governor’s cabinet, the Supreme Court, and the state’s constitutional officers participated in a major effort this week to restock Tennessee’s food banks. The third annual “Campaign Against Hunger” event was sponsored by the General Assembly’s Nutrition Caucus in conjunction with Outeach, Inc.
“As we prepare to tackle public safety, education and workforce development issues, it is important to remember that hunger is a factor,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) who, as Chairman of the Council of State Governments led national efforts to combat nutrition and food insecurity. “Food insecurity has been shown to be closely related to health problems, including an increased risk in the development of chronic diseases. It can cause impairment of psychological and cognitive functioning among children and studies show that those who are seeking employment can be negatively affected in their search for work if they, or their family, are hungry.”
The group packaged approximately 51,000 meals for food banks serving all 95 Tennessee counties. Norris said the event is timely as stock in the pantries is usually low after the holiday season.
State Senate recognizes Human Trafficking Awareness Day
Lawmakers also recognize victims and responders of Sevier County wildfires and children who died in Chattanooga school bus tragedy
State Senators paused to recognize National Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Wednesday and reflect on Tennessee’s continuing efforts to combat this growing crime. The recognition follows the arrest on Tuesday of 23 people in Bradley County in an operation targeting human-trafficking networks and prostitution.
“I wanted to bring to attention that this is the day we recognize human trafficking,” said Senator Mike Bell (R-Cleveland). “It’s not just a problem in Bangkok, Thailand, but it’s a problem we have here in this country, and a problem that we have here in this state.”
The General Assembly has approved a series of bills over the past five years addressing the problem after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. A follow up to the 2011 report was released in 2014 that shows sex trafficking of minors occurs in rural and urban areas of Tennessee and has an effect in both wealthy and poor households. It was also discovered that minors who come from impoverished households are especially vulnerable to victimization.
The legislature is expected to continue to address human trafficking in the 2017 legislative session.
In other action on the Senate floor this week, Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson) and Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) called on the State Senate to pray for the families of the six victims who were tragically killed in a school bus crash in Chattanooga in November.
Governor Haslam has called for a wide-ranging look at school bus safety, including how private transportation companies are selected and standards for drivers. Training for school bus drivers is another safety measure that could come under discussion during the 2017 legislative session.
In addition, the General Assembly unanimously adopted House Joint Resolution 23, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), recognizing the victims of the Sevier County wildfires and expressing appreciation to those who provided assistance.
“This resolution is in honor and tribute to the 14 people who lost their lives during the wildfires and to all the first responders and emergency personnel who gave hours and hours in battling the wildfires, bringing them under control and putting them out,” said Overbey.
State lawmakers urge Tennessee General Assembly to call for a convention of the states
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Lt. Governor Randy McNally, Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) attended a press conference this week announcing a resolution that calls for a convention of states in Nashville for the purpose of adopting a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Senate Joint Resolution 9 and House Joint Resolution 24 provide that the convention of states would be for the limited purposes of 1) planning for, and recommending rules and procedures for an Article V Convention to amend the U.S. Constitution and 2) recommending to Congress the initial date and location in which they would meet.
Article V provides that upon the application of two-thirds of the state legislatures, Congress shall call a convention of the states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“It is necessary for the states to plan ahead of time for the convention because there has never been a convention to propose an amendment to the Constitution,” remarked Senator Kelsey. “The Tennessee Balanced Budget Amendment Planning Convention will create a structure for the Balanced Budget Amendment Convention and will address many of the unanswered questions as to how an amendment convention will function.”
“This is an important first step to reversing the catastrophic accumulation of debt by the Federal government,” said Senator Stevens. “To protect our future national security interests and safety net programs, the political will must be provided by the states.”
The legislation sets the date for a convention of states for July 11, 2017, with the Article V Convention following as early as November. This convention would be the first formal meeting of the states since 1861.
Presently, 28 of the necessary 34 states have passed the application resolution limited to proposing a balanced budget amendment (BBA).
The organizational structure for the Tennessee BBA Planning Convention will be virtually the same as the convention for proposing the balanced budget amendment as each are a convention of the states. State legislatures will choose a delegation to represent the state at the convention, each state will have one vote, and the convention will deliberate and make recommendations.
Budget, Healthcare, Education, Jobs are Top Issues in 2017 Legislative Session
With organizational tasks out of the way, the General Assembly can now get to work on the issues facing Tennessee. Passage of a conservative balanced budget that continues the priorities set over the last several years — education, job creation, and public safety — will be a priority again in 2017. Tennessee rates high as a low tax, low debt state with one of the best bond ratings in the U.S. It is the 49th lowest in the nation in state and local tax revenue as a percentage of personal income according to the Federation of Tax Administrators. In addition, the state is lauded for continuous sound management of its long-term liabilities. The effort this year will be to keep these sound financial practices on track. The governor will present his budget to state lawmakers on January 30.
Tax Reduction – Tennessee’s positive revenue outlook means lawmakers could look at further tax reduction measures in 2017. The General Assembly has cut or reduced taxes every year since 2011. These cuts have included repealing the gift tax, eliminating the death tax, reducing the sales tax on food, exempting the sales tax on certain machinery and medical supplies, and phasing out the Hall Income Tax.
In 2016, a new law reducing the Hall tax rate from six percent to five percent was approved which called for an annual reduction of at least one percent each year until it is eliminated by January 1, 2022. Other tax cuts that could be considered this year include the professional privilege tax, franchise and excise tax, and further reduction of the sales tax on food.
State Budget Needs — The state will have additional spending needs during the upcoming budget year including full funding for the Basic Education Program and salary increases. One specific area of concern regarding the budget is TennCare funding. During the last legislative session, $95 million in reserves were used to meet increasing costs of the program. That cost is expected to rise substantially in the 2017-2018 budget year. Improvements to meet state’s pension funding needs may also be considered this year. In addition, the state’s Rainy Day fund is still short of the pre-recession years’ levels. The Rainy Day Fund which acts as a savings account to help the state weather downturns in the economy or emergencies, dipped from $750 million in 2008 to $284 million in 2011.
Federal / State Issues — Several federal issues may come before lawmakers in 2017 as a result of the 2016 presidential election. Three of the most prominent include federal infrastructure investment, school choice and healthcare reform. It is too early to tell exactly what federal healthcare changes will be enacted; however, with over 30 percent of the state’s budget going to healthcare, the General Assembly will be watching the action coming out of Washington very closely.
Jobs — On the economic development front, efforts will continue during the 2017 legislative session to keep Tennessee moving forward as the fastest growing state in the Southeast in job creation. Over the past several years, several job-killing regulations have been repealed, tort reform and worker’s compensation have been overhauled and the state has become a national leader on education and job training.
Job Skills / Higher Education — Jobs and education go hand in hand. With businesses looking for highly skilled workers, expect lawmakers to continue efforts to help students realize the dream of a college education and good job opportunities. Over the past six years, legislation has been approved to identify and proactively fill the job skills gap through attainment of higher education credentials. Legislative action has been taken to better prepare students by helping to reduce the need for remedial courses; increase dual enrollment and dual credit; enhance programs to increase graduation rates; provide high school students with the opportunity to go to a community college; and to better serve the adults with some college but no degree.
K-12 Education — In K-12 education expect to see the 110th General Assembly continue to build on the successes that students have made over the past several years. From 2011 to 2015, Tennessee’s National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test scores for 4th and 8th grade math, reading and science have shown substantial improvement. Education has been a top priority over the past five years, with Tennessee being one of a very small number of states to consistently increase K-12 funding. Expect education funding efforts to continue in 2017.
Broadband — Access to broadband is expected to be an issue for the 2017 legislative session. Recent legislation calling for municipal utilities to provide fiber optic services beyond their current service area prompted a study by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) regarding the state’s access to broadband and the needs of citizens and businesses to those high speed Internet services. Their report could serve as a foundation for legislation this year. Of particular concern is providing broadband to underserved rural areas. One of the topics for consideration could be whether rural electric cooperatives should be allowed to provide Internet services in partnership with existing providers, including municipal electric utilities or private companies. Governor Haslam may also have a proposal to expand broadband services resulting from a study done by the Department of Economic and Community Development on the matter.
Roads — The legislature will discuss Tennessee’s current $6 billion backlog in road projects during the 2017 legislative session. Debate on the matter began in 2015 after State Comptroller Justin Wilson released a report which showed that Tennessee’s fuel taxes have stagnated and are not expected to be sufficient to maintain existing infrastructure and meet long-term transportation demands. In his study, the Comptroller listed 11 wide-ranging options from raising rates on motor fuel and taxing alternative fuel vehicles, to tolls and debt financing. Tennessee relies on fuel taxes to fund its highways and does not use debt financing, tolls, or general fund revenues. Those taxes are levied on a per-gallon basis, not on price, and drivers now purchase fewer gallons a year than they used to, as vehicle mileage has improved. In addition, electric cars do not pay any road construction and maintenance taxes and hybrids pay only a portion. The state’s gasoline tax rate at 21.4 cents per gallon was last raised in 1989. The state’s diesel fuel tax rate at 18.4 cents per gallon was last raised in 1990.
Opiate Abuse — Prescription drug abuse will again be a key topic for discussion in the Tennessee General Assembly as the state continues to be one of the worst in the nation for abuse. More people die from overdoses in Tennessee than are killed in car crashes or gun-related deaths. Over the last several years, Tennessee has passed legislation to help prevent abuse by “pill mills” and to strengthen the state’s drug monitoring database. Even so, opiate-related deaths continue to plague the state making it a critical health concern. In addition, Tennessee must combat heroin abuse which has increased 600 percent since 1999. Opioid abusers often turn to heroin when they cannot afford or access prescription drugs.
Juvenile Justice Reform — The General Assembly could tackle several criminal justice reform measures during the 2017 session, including proposals which come from the Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force on the most effective ways to deter juvenile crime. While Tennessee has made recent progress in reducing the number of incarcerated youth, the state still lags behind in other ways.
Criminal Justice Reform – Similarly, expect criminal justice reform measures to be debated this year which come from organizations looking to promote rehabilitation and re-entry for convicted offenders, a move they say will relieve overcrowding in local jails. Part of the proposal includes seeking education opportunities that will give offenders a stable career or the ability to learn specific vocations or trades. Another key proposal includes increasing the employability of those with criminal convictions by taking steps to help them keep or obtain driver’s licenses or state photo identifications.
Law Enforcement / Attacks — In the wake of national attention regarding attacks on police officers, three proposals have been announced to protect members of Tennessee’s law enforcement. These proposals include elevating an assault of a law enforcement officer from a Class A or B misdemeanor to a Class E felony with an increase in the fine of up to $5,000 for an assault and up to $15,000 for an aggravated assault. The Peace Officer Safety Institute’s Center for the Study of Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) reports officer fatalities have increased by 20 percent in 2016.
Police Officers / Body Cameras — The use of body cameras worn by law enforcement officers is also expected to come before lawmakers in 2017. A group is looking at transparency, privacy and the scope of open records regarding the use of cameras. This could prompt legislation regarding the parameters of the video and public access to it.
Elderly Abuse / Financial Exploitation – Expect the General Assembly to continue to tackle the growing problem of abuse of the elderly. Last year, the General Assembly passed several bills to protect the elderly from physical abuse and those efforts could continue this year. In addition, a resolution was passed to address financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. The measure resolved that the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability would work with the Tennessee Bankers Association, the Tennessee Credit Union League and other appropriate organizations to develop a list of recommended changes to current law that would assist financial institutions in protecting vulnerable adults from fraudulent and other questionable transactions. The task force findings could result in legislative action in 2017.
Medical Cannabis – Plans to introduce a medical cannabis bill have already been announced. The legislation would allow the licensed growing, manufacturing, dispensing and usage of the whole cannabis plant for individuals with cancer, HIV / AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Multiple Sclerosis, Painful Peripheral Neuropathy, Intractable Pain, Refractory Seizures, Seizure Disorder, Spasticity, Parkinson’s Disease and Cerebral Palsy.