Tax Relief, Prescription Drug Abuse, Courts, Anti-Crime Legislation headline week on Capitol Hill

(NASHVILLE, TN), March 15, 2012 –  Two tax relief bills that aim to keep senior citizens in Tennessee during their retirement years have begun moving through the State Senate in a week that was filled with action on some of the most important bills of the 2012 legislative session.  One bill continues an incremental approach in phasing out Tennessee’s Hall Income Tax for senior citizens, while the other would provide relief by raising the inheritance tax exemption level to $1.25 million with the objective of reaching a $5 million level in subsequent years.   

Hall Tax Relief — The Hall Tax is imposed on individuals and other entities receiving interest from bonds, notes and dividends from stock.  Enacted in 1929, this tax collects approximately $190 million in revenue, with about one-third going to local governments.  Last year, legislation was passed to provide Hall Tax relief to citizens age 65 and older by raising the standard income exemption from $16,200 to $26,200 for single filers and from $27,000 to $37,000 for joint filers. 

Of the individuals who pay the tax, 48 percent are age 65 and older.

Senate Bill 2535, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), further raises the exemption for citizens 65 years of age and older to $36,200 for single filers and $47,000 for those filing jointly beginning January 1, 2013.

“I am very pleased that this bill was recommended,” said Senator Yager.  “It will help many senior citizens across Tennessee.  It particularly helps keep seniors who rely on investment earnings for retirement stay in our state.  It is very important that we continue with the second phase of implementing this tax relief for our senior citizens.”

“Raising the exemption on the Hall Tax will protect the nest eggs of fixed-income seniors who have saved responsibly for retirement,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville). “Continuing to chip away at this tax shows the nation that Tennessee rewards personal responsibility and is serious about becoming a top-flight retirement destination.”

The Senate Tax Subcommittee also approved Senate Bill 2535, sponsored by Senator Yager, that would require annual adjustment on July 1 each year, to the maximum allowable income exemption levels, for single and joint filers of the Hall Income Tax who are 65 years of age or older.  The adjustment would apply to the percent change of the consumer price index as published by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Inheritance Tax Relief —  Similarly, Senate Bill 3762, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and endorsed by Governor Bill Haslam, takes a first step towards providing inheritance or estate tax relief, which is also called the death tax.  Currently, the tax applies to estates worth more than $1 million.  Tennessee has a higher inheritance tax when compared to its neighbors, which range from 5.5 percent to 9.5 percent.   

“Tennessee’s current inheritance tax hurts farmers and small business owners who have scrimped, sacrificed and saved their entire lives to build up a family business,” Norris said.  “It is also a factor for senior citizens moving to other states that have a higher exemption level which hurts Tennessee’s economy.”

Reduction of Sales Tax on Food — In addition, the Senate Tax Subcommittee recommended key legislation to reduce the state portion of the sales tax on grocery food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent, with the goal of lowering it to 5.0 percent in three years.  Senate Bill 3763, sponsored by Leader Norris, has been a goal of many Republicans in the General Assembly over the past several years.  This year it was included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package and is funded in the budget, which gives it a major boost towards passage. 

“We need to not only keep our focus on the state budget, but also on the family budget,” said Leader Norris.  “This bill implements the first phase in providing grocery tax relief in Tennessee.”

Prescription drug abuse legislation approved by Senate Judiciary Committee

Legislation, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), that would curb prescription drug abuse in Tennessee was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.  Tennessee ranks second in the nation in regard to the overutilization of prescription pain medications.  The bill would require doctors or their designees to check the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database for patients’ prescription history before prescribing an opioid or benzodiazepine substance.  

Opioids are painkillers such as morphine, methadone, buprenorphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone.  Statistics from the Tennessee Drug Diversion Task Force show that 56 percent of patients who receive opioid prescriptions have filled another opioid prescription within the previous 30 days.  Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs such as alprazolam, clonazepam, diazepam, lorazepam and triazolam.  Young adults ages 18 to 25 have the highest annual rates of prescription drug abuse.

“Tennessee today faces an epidemic of prescription drug misuse or illegal use of prescription drugs, and the crisis that is caused by that epidemic affects our economy, the public safety, and the public health,” said Senator Yager.  “I ask any one of you to talk to your sheriff or local police chief who will tell you that 80 percent of the people sitting in the local jail are there because of a drug or a drug-related charge.  This bill strikes a hard blow at one of the sources of this poison — doctor shopping.”

Yager said that in the last ten years, more than 8,000 Tennesseans have lost their lives from drug overdoses. Last year, there were more deaths in Tennessee due to drug overdoses than motor vehicle accidents, homicide or suicide.

“In many Tennessee counties, the death rate for accidental overdose is far in excess of the national average,” Yager added.   “In the 12th district where I represent and many rural counties where it’s very pronounced, the rates are double the national average on the death rate for accidental overdose.”

Senate Bill 2733, which is included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, requires pharmacies to collect a patient’s prescription information and report that information to the database within seven days.  Currently it must be reported within 40 days.  The bill also enhances penalties for doctor shopping from a Class A misdemeanor offense to a Class E Felony when it involves 250 or more pills.  The stiffer penalties allow law enforcement officials to go after dealers who distribute the drugs illegally. 

Under the legislation, information from the database regarding patients’ prescription information can be released to law enforcement officials if they are engaged in an investigation or through a court order.  With appropriate board approval, doctors’ and pharmacists’ prescribing / dispensing information could also be released to departmental investigators to help identify those medical professionals who are contributing to Tennessee’s prescription drug problem.

“This is a public health epidemic,” said John Dreyzehner, Commissioner of Public Health.  “At root, this bill is about patient safety and it’s about the lives of Tennesseans. As we sit here today, an average of three Tennesseans will lose their lives to drug overdose deaths just today. As we sit here this week, we will see 20 Tennesseans on average lose their lives from drug overdose deaths.  These are not just statistics. These are mothers, fathers and parents that are loved by lots of other people. Many of these deaths could be avoided if physicians like me would take it upon ourselves to check that database and make sure that we know what our patients are taking.”

The bill now goes to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee for consideration.

Legislation replaces Court of the Judiciary with new panel

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation to address concerns regarding the transparency and effectiveness of the Court of the Judiciary, the body charged with investigating and disciplining judges. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), seeks to exercise the legislature’s constitutional duty to remove judges for misconduct and the Judiciary’s obligation to police its own members.

The bill follows hearings initiated by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) to investigate the practices and procedures of the judicial oversight body. It also comes after recent reports in Knoxville and Nashville regarding judicial misconduct that exposed some deficiencies of the body and its effectiveness in exercising the legislature’s obligation to remove judges guilty of misconduct.

“The bill provides a balanced approach in the body that disciplines judges,” said Senator Faulk.  “I believe the ends of justice are served by this legislation.”

The Court of the Judiciary was created by the legislature to investigate and, when warranted, act on complaints against judges. Currently, six of the eleven-member board is appointed by the Supreme Court and three are selected by the Tennessee Bar Association.  The Court has broad jurisdiction to internally investigate, hear and determine charges sufficient to warrant discipline or removal of a judge. 

Senate Bill 2671 abolishes the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary and replaces it with a new body, the Judicial Board of Conduct.   Under the bill, appointments would be made by the Tennessee Judicial Conference, the Speakers of the House and Senate, and the Governor.  Furthermore, it provides for a less restrictive standard that must be met for a complaint to move forward, as well as more transparency in regards to its reporting to the legislature and to the public.  The Board would have the authority to take action against state judges and could endorse punishment, including removal. 

“This bill moves us in the right direction,” said Senator Beavers.  “Simply sitting by and doing nothing would be a travesty to many Tennesseans who hope to have fair and impartial judicial proceedings.”

The bill now goes to the full Senate floor for final consideration. 
 
“Felons with firearms” bill and legislation addressing gang activity approved in Senate Finance Committee

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) led passage of two key bills through the Senate Finance Committee this week.  One bill would enact tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions, while the other would enhance penalties for certain crimes committed by gangs. 

Norris sponsored a series of anti-crime laws dubbed “Crooks with Guns” passed in recent years designed to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping these criminals behind bars longer to protect the public.  “This is a continuation of those efforts to give law enforcement authorities stronger tools to curb violence in Tennessee,” he said.

Currently, illegal possession of a firearm for convicted violent felons is punishable as a Class E felony, which carries a one to six-year sentence and up to $3,000 in fines.  Senate Bill 2250 would increase the offense to a Class C felony, which is punishable by a 3 to 15-year sentence and up to $10,000 in fines for convicted felons carrying a firearm whose crime involved the use of force, violence or a deadly weapon.  The punishment would be a Class D felony for felons whose conviction involved a drug offense.

Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons told members of the Senate Finance Committee that over the last 10 years, approximately 19,000 people arrested in Memphis possessed a firearm when charged.  About thirty percent of those arrested had been previously convicted.  He said the scope of the problem was increased by a rise in drug trafficking and gang activity.  Gibbons said the proliferation of crimes involving firearms pointed to the need for a “more effective hammer” to deter felons from going armed.

The second measure, Senate Bill 2252, would enhance penalties for certain gang-related crimes committed by groups of three or more people one classification higher than if they had acted alone. 

“A person robbed or assaulted by more than one assailant has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death,” said Senator Norris.  “This bill would keep them behind bars longer by bumping up penalties by one classification for aggravated assault, robbery or aggravated burglary, if the crime is committed in concert with two or more persons.”

“We have made a lot of progress in the last couple of years addressing the problem of violent crime in our state,” said Commissioner Gibbons.  “You passed Crooks with Guns 1 and then Crooks with Guns 2, which addressed certain types of violent crimes and provided enhanced sentences for those if the offender was carrying a gun.  You also passed some very important legislation dealing with aggravated robbery, upping the percentage that an individual has to serve before being eligible for parole.  This bill addresses certain types of serious crimes not covered by that previous legislation.”

Norris said both bills are part of a package of public safety bills included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda.  The bills were recommended by a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group composed of more than 10 government agencies which held meetings with over 300 leaders in law enforcement, substance abuse and corrections.   The group developed 11 objectives and 40 action steps in their multi-year safety action plan with the goal of significantly reducing drug abuse and drug trafficking; curbing violent crime; and lowering the rate of repeat offenders in Tennessee.  

Education proposal approved by Senate Education Committee creates a new teacher licensing option for subject experts

The Senate Education Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson) that would give subject matter experts with a passion for teaching a fast track into the classroom.   Senate Bill 2298 directs the State Board of Education to create an alternative teacher licensing option for individuals with professional and academic expertise.   

The bill is promoted by Students First organization, a nationwide grassroots movement designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout country, and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results in student achievement. 

“The most important factor in a child’s success is the presence of an effective teacher in the classroom,” said Senator Summerville. “Deep content learning and a passion for teaching are the most important factors in determining whether or not a student will learn, together with the important skills needed for mentoring.” 

Alternative teachers licensed under the proposed law could only teach in grades seven through twelve.  The bill requires applicants to have substantial professional or academic expertise, with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.  They must also participate in classroom management or mentoring education provided by the local education agency (LEA).  The classroom training could be done by a local university or any other partner as authorized by the State Board of Education. 

The legislation requires that alternatively licensed teachers pass the PRAXIS test, which tests subject content knowledge, or a similar exam as determined by the State Board of Education.  Whether or not to hire a person with this license would be at the discretion of the LEA.  The alternatively licensed teachers would be evaluated in the same rigorous manner as all other traditionally-licensed teachers as provided by Tennessee law. 

“The Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s report card on teacher effectiveness demonstrates that alternatively licensed teachers, like those with Teach for America, perform on par or better than teachers who have completed traditional programs,” added Senator Summerville.  “This bill allows us to expand the pool of licensed, qualified applicants for hard to staff positions, especially those in the area of math and science where we have teacher shortages.”

Issues in Brief
 
Nursing homes / Physicians –  The full Senate approved Senate Bill 3263 which provides a monumental change to the way medical care is delivered to nursing home patients.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Cleveland), allows a nursing home facility to directly hire a doctor.  The bill is modeled after the corporate practice law that was passed in 1996 to allow hospitals to hire doctors.  Bell said the bill should lead to better care and shorter, less frequent trips to hospitals for nursing home patients.

Cooperative purchasing / Local Governments  – Legislation authorizes counties and municipalities to utilize pricing discounts offered from any nationwide or regional competitive bid cooperative purchasing program was approved in the Senate State and Local Government Committee.  Senate Bill 2289 would help local governments when purchasing supplies and equipment by ensuring that when it is required by charter or private act to purchase by competitive bidding, the procuring governmental unit is authorized to consider the price given by the cooperative purchasing program as a bid or quotation.  The legislation is sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill).

Teachers First Amendment Right Protected – The Senate Education Committee took a strong step to protect the First Amendment rights of school personnel, including teachers and administrators, with approval of Senate Bill 3060, sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson).  The bill seeks to ensure educators can participate in programs that take place either before or after school hours and do not interfere with their school duties.  The action comes after reported incidents where teachers and coaches were admonished for participating in such activities as the “Meet me at the Pole” prayer event and prayer before sporting events, both of which are outside of school hours.

Parental Involvement / Parent Contracts — Legislation that would encourage school districts to develop and implement voluntary parental involvement contracts with parents of students passed the Senate Education Committee this week.  It has been found that when parents collaborate with the teacher, educators hold higher expectations of students and higher opinions of the parents.  Findings also show that children from diverse cultural backgrounds tend to do better because parents and professionals are bridging the gap between the culture at home and the learning institution. Senate Bill 3588, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), is designed to encourage and facilitate a parent’s involvement in his or her child’s education. 

Children / Abused and Neglected Youth / Transition — A bill to help ensure that abused and neglected youth in state custody get the chance they deserve to become healthy and productive adults was approved by the Senate Finance Committee.  Senate Bill 2199, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would bridge the gap for those in foster care from the teenage years to adulthood by assuring the Transitioning Youth Act continues to remain in effect for years to come.  This critical program, which was set to expire, provides assistance to youth in foster care between the ages of 18-21 — after they age out of the foster care system.  The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative Organization reports that 40 percent of young people who were in foster care became homeless or without a stable living situation at least once since exiting foster care, and many were homeless multiple times.

Human Trafficking — State Senators gave final approval to Senate Bill 2369, which would give victims of human trafficking a civil cause of action to sue the person who has victimized them.   Human traffickers target vulnerable victims which most often include immigrants, children and runaways.  The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that one in four children who run away are approached for commercial sexual exploitation within 48 hours of leaving home.  State Senators also approved Senate Bill 2370, which calls for a plan to be developed in the Department of Human Services for the delivery of state services to victims of human trafficking to help them recover from this crime. 

Healthcare providers / FGM – The full Senate voted to strengthen current state law banning female genital mutilation (FGM) by approving Senate Bill 2559 which requires healthcare providers to report FGM to law enforcement authorities in the same way gunshot wounds or meth fires are reported.  Female genital mutilation is practiced on young girls and women in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as locations in the United States where FGM-practicing immigrants reside, including Tennessee.  The practice, which has serious health risks, is widely acknowledged as a human rights violation against women.  Last year, 21 cases were reported in Tennessee hospitals.  The bill is sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).

Motorcycle Safety / Children  — Final approval was given by State Senators to Senate Bill 74 which prohibits the operator of a motorcycle from transporting a child whose feet cannot reach the foot pegs as a passenger.  The safety legislation prescribes a $50 fine for violation.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).

Impersonation of U.S. Armed Forces — Legislation was passed and sent to the Governor that would make it a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person to falsely represent they are a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.  Senate Bill 2287, sponsored by Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), creates a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person falsely representing to be or to have been a member of the United States Armed Forces when their intentions are fraudulent.

Economic Development / TN —  The publishers of Trade & Industry Development magazine, a national economic development publication, have named Amazon.com, Inc., General Motors, Quaprotek USA, MANN+HUMMEL USA and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development among the recipients of its 2012 Corporate Investment & Community Impact (CiCi) Awards. With more than 700 project submissions throughout North America, these projects were chosen as four of only 15 finalists in the Community Impact division of the CiCi Awards, totaling the most for any state. 

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