Budget, courts, drunk driving, veterans and safe commute bills highlight Capitol Hill Week

NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as State Senators examined the budgets of eight agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills.  Among key legislation highlighted this week was a major proposal affecting Tennessee courts, legislation to curb drunk driving, a proposal to help veterans seeking employment and the “safe commute” bill to protect the rights of legal gun permit holders.

The budget hearings are part of the process of reviewing how taxpayer dollars are spent to examine whether the money is being used efficiently and effectively to meet the state’s goals for each department or agency.  Particular scrutiny is given to any proposed cuts or recommendations for improvements in the Governor’s budget.  The hearings for 53 separate departmental budgets will continue through March 20 until the financial proposals for all state agencies have been thoroughly reviewed by State Senators.  Adoption of the budget is traditionally one of the last bills to be passed before adjournment. 

Public Input sought on judicial redistricting plan

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) this week announced the start of Tennessee’s first judicial redistricting process in nearly thirty years. Ramsey declared the process open to all and publicly solicited input from the general public as well as stakeholders in the legal community. 

“Just over a year ago, our Republican majority conducted the most open and transparent legislative redistricting process in state history,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey.  “We aim to do likewise with judicial redistricting. The last time our judicial districts were updated Waylon Jennings and Michael Jackson were at the top of the charts. Tennessee is a far different place that it was in 1984. Formerly rural counties have become thoroughly suburban, and our suburban counties now confront problems similar to urban areas.”

Tennessee currently has thirty-one judicial districts which determine the areas judges, district attorneys and public defenders serve. The last judicial redistricting occurred in 1984, nearly thirty years ago. 

“Tennessee had only five counties with 100,000 people or more after the 1980 census. It now has twelve,” added Leader Norris.  “We need to take a look at this map with modern eyes in order to ensure resources are allocated in the most efficient way possible.  I’d like to encourage all Tennesseans with an interest to join this process and make sure their voices are heard and their perspectives considered.”

To be considered, submitted plans must use 2010 federal census data and redistrict the entire state. Plans must contain a total of thirty-one districts or fewer and districts must be comprised of whole counties. Regional integrity, geographic boundaries and ease of inter-county travel must also be considered.  Full instructions on how to submit a district plan are available online at http://www.capitol.tn.gov/senate/judredist/judredist.html.  After receiving public input, the next legislative step for Senate Bill 780, sponsored by Norris, will be a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

MADD Partners with Lawmakers to Advocate for Lifesaving Legislation

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is joining with Senators Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) and Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) to call for advancement of key legislation to stop drunk driving. Senate Bill 670 requires the use of ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers.

Interlock devices are small pieces of equipment attached to the steering wheel of a car with a tube that the driver must breathe into in order to allow the ignition to start.  The newest ignition interlock technology makes it easier for courts to require DUI offendes to utilize the device, including cameras to ensure that the person tested is the correct driver. 

“Research shows that ignition interlock devices are one of the most effective ways to keep drunk drivers from continuing to drive intoxicated,” said Senator Beavers.    “Unfortunately, they’re significantly underused across the state.  Passage of legislation to require use of these devices will greatly help in our efforts to get drunk drivers off our roads.”

Currently, 17 states require interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers. Ignition interlocks are critical to eliminating drunk driving, as 50 to 75% of convicted drunk drivers will continue to drive on a suspended license.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), requiring interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers saves lives and is effective in reducing drunk driving recidivism by 67%. States that are enforcing all-offender ignition interlock laws, such as Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico and Louisiana have cut DUI deaths by over 30%, largely due to comprehensive interlock laws requiring all drunk drivers receive the device. 

In December, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and AAA came out in support of requiring ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers.  The NTSB’s recommendations follow the July 2012 enactment of Surface Transportation Reauthorization legislation, known as MAP–21, which includes a number of drunk driving reforms, including providing incentive grants to states that adopt all-offender ignition interlock laws.

Safe Commute legislation receives final approval

The Senate has given final approval to the safe commute legislation to allow legal gun permit holders to carry a firearm while traveling to and from their workplace.  Senate Bill 142, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), also clarifies an employer may require employees who have a  permit to keep their weapon out of sight and securely locked in their automobile while their vehicle is in their employer’s parking lot. 

The bill allows business owners to continue to post prohibitions against firearms on their property, but gun permit holders who keep their firearms in their locked car would be exempt. Additionally, the legislation grants property owners broad premise liability against damage or injury caused by firearms properly stored.

 “This bill is fairly simple,” said Senator Johnson.  “We have 370,000 plus law abiding citizens who have gone through the necessary process to obtain this handgun carry permit. If they are denied the right to have that weapon in their vehicle, then they are denied the right to self protection on the way to and from work.”

Senate Transportation Committee approves legislation reducing hurdles for veterans to receive their commercial driver’s license

The Senate Transportation Committee unanimously approved legislation on Wednesday to make it easier for experienced military truck drivers to receive a commercial driver’s license (CDL) in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 10, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), waives the state’s CDL skills test requirement if a veteran provides proof of a military license for the class of vehicle in which they are seeking licensure, as long as their driving record shows no accidents or citations over the past two years.

“This is an opportunity for us to address the shortage of truck drivers in our state, while providing new job opportunities for veterans,” said Senator Green.  “Every year, thousands of truck driver-trained soldiers get out of the military.  The goal is to eliminate unnecessary barriers and recruit these veteran truck drivers to drive for Tennessee companies.”

Currently, an active duty soldier who drives a commercial weight truck in Tennessee is exempt from any additional license due to their specialized military training.  However, after the soldier leaves the military, they must immediately take the CDL knowledge test and skills test in order to continue to drive a commercial vehicle of the same weight on state roads.  Tennessee has three classes of gross weight for licensing commercial drivers.  

“What we want to do is to try to decrease those hurdles.  Taking the skills test out will hopefully recruit more of these veterans to come to Tennessee,” Green added. 

The employment rate among veterans age 18 to 24 is approximately 33% for men and 39% for women.  Tennessee is one of only eleven states that still require soldiers with experience, training and no accident history to take the skills test.

 “This is a great bill and I appreciate you bringing it to the legislature,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).  “There is a need for drivers and these veterans coming out of military service need a job.  I am hopeful that this will help bring jobs to Tennessee, while helping our veterans eliminate barriers to employment.”

State Senate starts legislative session with Tennessee pledge

For the first time in its history, the Tennessee State Senate this week recognized and pledged allegiance to the state flag, following the traditional prayer by the minister of the day and the pledge to the American flag.  The action comes as a result of rules adopted by State Senate on Monday which requires the Tennessee pledge for every floor session.

“The addition of the Tennessee pledge serves as a constant reminder of our commitment to states’ rights and, in particular, the rights of Tennesseans,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee which adopted the daily pledge as a regular part of the Senate’s proceedings. “I am very pleased it is now part of our daily routine on the Senate floor.”

The pledge was drafted by Lucy Steele Harrison to address LeRoy Reeves’ Tennessee flag, which was adopted in 1905 by the legislature.   It reads, “Three white stars on a field of blue — God keep them strong and ever true.  It is with pride and love that we Salute the Flag of Tennessee.” 

The three white stars referenced by the pledge stand for Tennessee’s three Grand Divisions—colloquially East, Middle, and West Tennessee—and the red, white, and blue theme pays homage to the national flag’s colors. 

Federal budget cuts take large bit out of Tennessee’s military budget
Adjutant General Max Haston updates Senate Committee on Tennessee’s troops

Federal budget cuts are taking a large bite out of Tennessee’s military budget according to Tennessee’s Adjutant General Max Haston who testified before the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week.  Haston warned committee members that the drastic cuts proposed by sequestration could greatly impact the readiness of all National Guard units, including Tennessee’s. 

Sequestration is a mechanism built into the Budget Control Act which would trigger across-the-board cuts in federal spending, including an additional $500 billion cut in defense spending if congress and the president cannot agree on a plan to reduce the federal deficit.  The state’s proposed 2013-2014 budget for the Department of Military is just over $99.2 million, down $22 million from fiscal year 2011-2012 primarily due to federal homeland security funding reductions.

“We are already experiencing reductions in travel budgets and training events,” said Haston. He alerted the committee that if cuts to federal defense spending continue, the department might be unable to operate within their budget.  “These cuts will greatly impact the readiness of all national guard units, not just here in Tennessee, but across the nation.” Haston said.

Troops strength — Adjutant General Haston also updated the committee on the Tennessee National Guard troop strength. Currently the state has 10,214 army guard members and 3,303 air guard members, putting the total at 13,517 servicemen and women. These numbers are a reduction from the previous year by about 500 guard members. Haston said the reason for these reductions is that both the army and air force are reducing their footprint, creating less organization to fill.

Another reason for the troop reductions is that recruitment and retention rates have declined since the war in Iraq has been drawing to a conclusion. “This speaks to the true spirit of the volunteer state,” said General Haston, “if we’re not as aggressively going to war, our recruitment numbers fall.”

Tennessee has 664 soldiers deployed, 510 of which are army guard members and the remaining are air guard members. Tennessee guard members are serving across the globe in Jordan, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and in the near future, Kuwait. Since July 1, 2012, Tennessee has had 475 soldiers and airmen return from deployment, with 406 scheduled to deploy before the conclusion of this fiscal year.

UAVs — During the Military Department’s budget hearing, Adjutant General Max Haston updated the Senate State and Local Government Committee on the state’s use of “unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).   These unmanned planes are controlled from land by pilots utilizing computer technology.  Haston said the Tennessee National Guard made a strategic move several years ago to recruit UAV cyber squadrons to the state in conjunction with programs at Middle Tennessee State University.  “My long range goal is to make Tennessee a center for excellence for unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Haston.

The newest generation of UAVs are capable of much more than their drone predecessors according to Haston. He also explained that none of the UAVs in Tennessee would be armed. Instead, they would serve as tools for practice for overseas use and information collection during natural disasters. Emergency agencies can utilize unmanned aerial vehicles to collect research and information regarding damages from natural disasters that would be difficult or impossible to collect through other means, such as information regarding flood damage.

In Brief…

Constitutional Resolution Clarifying Ban on Income Tax — State Senators gave final approval to the “No State Income Tax” constitutional amendment this week to clarify a prohibition in the Tennessee Constitution against an income tax and a payroll tax.  Senate Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), received the necessary two-thirds plus plurality to move the matter to voters in November 2014 upon passage by the House of Representatives.  The resolution specifies that the state legislature as well as Tennessee cities and counties shall be prohibited from passing either an income tax or a payroll tax, which is a tax on employers that is measured by the wages they pay their workers. 

Higher Education / Preferences — Ward Connerly, founder and President of the American Civil Rights Institute, appeared before the Senate Education Committee this week in support of legislation to prevent institutions of higher learning from granting preferences based on race, gender, or ethnicity.  Mr. Connerly gained national attention as an outspoken advocate of equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race, sex, or ethnic background.  Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), bans granting racial or gender preferences to students, employees or contractors except where required by federal law.  A vote on the bill was deferred until February 20.  

Balanced Federal Budget Resolution — The Senate Finance Committee has approved Senate Joint Resolution 38, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), urging Congress to immediately adopt a balanced budget.  Forty nine states, including Tennessee, maintain balanced budgets through a constitutional requirement or by state statute.  

Disaster Assistance — Adjutant General Max Haston gave the Senate State and Local Government Committee an overview of the state’s status on federal disaster assistance. For fiscal year 2011-2012, $12.2 million have been distributed in state-matching funds to federal dollars for disaster relief. The state of Tennessee plans to receive $6 million annually in federal dollars to match state dollars for the next three years. Currently, Tennessee has 12 open disasters, which include over 10,000 individual projects. These projects range in start-date from February 2008 through June 2012 and cover damages from natural disasters such as ice storms, tornadoes, flooding and straight -line winds.

Education / Common Core Standards — Following the success of Tennessee’s first Common Core Leadership Council, the Tennessee Department of Education announced this week that a new group of principals, supervisors and superintendents will give districts a voice in the statewide transition to the Common Core State Standards. The 22 members of the Leadership Council come from all regions of the state, and will advise department officials on formal and informal assessments and professional development resources; shape the framework for all Common Core pilot programs; and become regional experts and leaders in the importance and concrete expectations of the standards. They also will inform training of more than 600 Core Coaches to provide statewide professional development for more than 30,000 teachers in grades K-12 math and literacy this summer.

Lymphedema Awareness – The third week in June will be declared “Lymphedema Awareness Week” under Senate Bill 256 which was approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), encourages continued research on treatment options that are desperately needed to address the disease. Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid that causes swelling in the arms, legs or other areas of the body.  The first type of lymphedema is genetic and can occur anytime, causing a severe financial, physical, and psychological impact on patients.  However, the more common cause of the disease is the result of a surgery or injury.  The single largest group of people with lymphedema are cancer patients, including breast, prostate, gynecological, head, neck, lung, sarcoma and melanoma patients. 

Air Guard Tuition Assistance – Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) successfully passed an amendment to the state’s Military Department’s budget to partially restore $100,000 to fund the Air National Guard Tuition Assistance program. The program, which cost $248,000 when fully funded, was cut in order to reduce expenditures. This amendment allows for the tuition assistance programs for Air National Guard Members to continue under a smaller, more fiscally conservative budget. The program is vital for recruitment purposes and provides benefits that Army National Guard members already receive to Air National Guard members.

Public School Property / Referendums — The Senate Education Committee voted this week to prohibit the use of messages supporting or opposing referenda and initiatives on public school signs and buildings.  Senate Bill 547, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), also bans the use of school video or audio messages through telephone or electronic messaging which support or oppose referendum initiatives.  The move comes after controversy erupted regarding the use of public school telephones and marquee signs advocating the adoption of a wheel tax in Bradley County.  Tennessee law states that it is unlawful to use public buildings or facilities for meetings or preparation of campaign activity in support of any particular candidate, party or measure unless reasonably equal opportunity is provided for presentation of all sides or views, or reasonably equal access to the buildings or facilities is provided to all sides.    Current law, however, does not apply to referendums.

Hospital Coverage Assessment Fee – Lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted to continue the hospital assessment adopted for the past two years to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts to Tennessee hospitals through passage of Senate Bill 441, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).   The assessment is used to draw down federal funds available through a Medicaid match program approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  It will continue to provide the critical dollars necessary to help with the hospitals unreimbursed TennCare costs.  A few examples of programs that would be affected without the assessment, in addition to the reduction in payments to hospitals and health professionals, are: critical access hospitals; the Graduate Medical Education program; 8-visit limit imposed on outpatient services, x-rays, and physician office procedures; various therapies; and the enrollment cap for the medically needy.  The bill’s language ensures that the coverage assessment cannot be passed along to patients.

License plates — The full Senate has given final approval to legislation that requires license plates to be illuminated when a vehicle’s headlights are on.  Senate Bill 131, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), was brought to the legislature by law enforcement officials who claim some vehicle operators try to hide their plates from view.  The legislation exempts antique vehicles which are 25 years old or over, before it was standard manufacturing practices to light the area where license plates are attached.

Neuroscience / Promoting Student Achievement — The full Senate approved two measures this week to authorize and encourage coursework in neurological or brain science as part of teacher training programs at the state’s public colleges and universities.  Research shows remarkable new information regarding the brain’s function during various phases of adolescence. Education experts agree that knowledge about the brain is essential for educators at all grade levels as an important part of understanding how students learn.  Senate Bill 59 and Senate Joint Resolution 17, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), also promote coordination between educators and neuroscientists in Tennessee. 

Privacy Rights / Online Commenters — State Senators voted this week to give final approval to a bill that protects the privacy rights of readers who choose to comment on online news articles.  Senate Bill 106, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R- Germantown), shields news organizations or other individuals who post news online from having to reveal any identifying information about readers who post comments. The legislation comes after the Shelby County Commission filed a subpoena in federal court asking for the identities of all online commenters in the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s stories about suburban plans to create their own school districts.



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