NASHVILLE – As the 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly gets closer to adjournment, Senate committee action this week primarily centered on the state budget. The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee received Governor Bill Haslam’s amended budget proposal on Tuesday which makes several improvements and adjustments to the original plan submitted to lawmakers on January 30. The appropriations amendment is customarily introduced in the final weeks of the legislative session for consideration and approval by the General Assembly.
Governor Haslam’s new amendment recognizes the reduced increase in the highway user fees, or gas tax, contained in the IMPROVE Act passed by the Senate last week. It also recognizes deeper tax cuts added by state senators for taxpayers. The cuts include a 20 percent reduction in the food tax and added property tax relief for qualified veterans, elderly and disabled Tennesseans. These tax cuts were in addition to a reduction in business taxes on manufacturers and a cut in the Hall income tax, which were already accounted for in the original budget proposal. The legislation cuts nearly $300 million in taxes next year and more than $500 million in taxes annually at its full implementation.
In addition to the tax cuts, for the second year in a row, the amended budget proposal does not take on any new debt and makes significant investments in teachers, K-12 schools, higher education, state employees, and the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Notable investments in the fiscal year 2017-2018 budget amendment to Senate Bill 483, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), include:
• $8 million in recurring funds to increase salaries paid to the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities service providers who care for the state’s most vulnerable;
• $2 million in recurring funds for prevention, education, treatment and recovery services with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services;
• $55 million in one-time funds for transportation projects as the IMPROVE Act is phased in;
• $40 million in one-time funds for a new State Library and Archives building to collect and preserve Tennessee records of historical, documentary and reference value; and
• $10.65 million in one-time funds for disaster relief in Gatlinburg and Sevier County after the devastating wildfires in November 2016.
The budget is the only bill the General Assembly has a constitutional obligation to pass. Lawmakers will continue work on the legislation next week as House and Senate leaders and members of the Finance Committees hammer out details. The next step is consideration by full Senate and House of Representatives.
Senate approves legislation calling for one full semester of Tennessee history in state’s public schools
The Senate unanimously approved a bill Monday evening that would require Tennessee’s public schools to go back to teaching at least one full semester of Tennessee history. Senate Bill 631, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), is named for the late Senator Douglas Henry who was a great advocate of Tennessee history and devoted much of his public life to its cause.
As amended, the semester of Tennessee history would be carved out between grades 4 and 8 – a detail to be worked out by the Tennessee Board of Education and local school systems.
The bill complements a system under which the subject of Tennessee history is presently “embedded” into U.S. history classes in grades 4, 5, 8 and 11. The embedded system, however, is piecemeal and does not call for the “story” of Tennessee to be taught.
“This legislation ensures Tennessee students learn the story of Tennessee history, and the best way to do this is for it to be taught as a course,” said Sen. Haile “Then, the embedding of facts in U.S. history and world history will have more meaning.”
“We intend to work with the Department of Education and the Standards Review Committee where it is currently worked into the curriculum to implement this proposal without causing disruption to the process or adding burdens on our teachers.”
The bill wasn’t so much debated on the Senate floor as it was praised. Among those who spoke in favor of its passage were Senators Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) and Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).
“This is long, long overdue,” said Senator Overbey. “Those of us of a certain age took a semester of Tennessee history in the eighth grade, and the other day several of us were talking about this. To a person, everyone in the group said that the half-year of Tennessee history got them excited about their state and got them excited about being engaged in public service. We need to get our students interested both in civics and in Tennessee history.”
“Tennessee has one of the richest histories of any state in the union,” added Senator Kelsey. “It is absolutely necessary that we ensure that all our students understand all the important chapters in our history. These are things that absolutely should be taught. And frankly, I don’t care if some national test company doesn’t have Tennessee history questions on it. This is the right thing to do.”
At their request, all members of the Tennessee Senate were added as sponsors of the bill.
The House version of the bill is currently pending action in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
Similarly, the full Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) designating the week of September 17th as “Celebrate Freedom Week” in Tennessee public schools. The timing coincides with Constitution Day, which is also known as Citizenship Day, commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787. Senate Bill 1152 is designed to emphasize the teaching of the country’s origins with an emphasis on the founding documents during that week.
The State Department of Education will provide local education agencies (LEAs) with online resources and materials for instructional use during Celebrate Freedom Week. The local schools would then have latitude in how they want to teach it.
State Senate passes legislation aiding law enforcement officers and members of the military
The full Senate unanimously approved legislation this week to enhance penalties against those convicted of intentionally selecting their victim because of his or her status as a uniformed law enforcement officer or member of the armed forces. Senate Bill 1342 was inspired by the many brave men and women in uniform who have lost their lives, were injured or targeted simply because of their jobs as protectors of the community.
“Thousands of men and women voluntarily put their uniforms on every day to protect and serve our communities and this nation,” said Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), sponsor of the bill. “It is deeply disturbing when they are intentionally targeted because of their chosen profession. This legislation sends a clear message that these dangerous criminals reprehensible behavior will not be tolerated and that they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Under the bill, the enhancement factor would be considered by the court at the time of sentencing. The law also applies to members of the Tennessee National Guard.
In addition, the State Senate passed legislation adding penalties to current law which forbids the release of private information regarding law enforcement officers to protect them and their families from being targeted. Presently, it is unlawful to release nonpublic information regarding police officers, such as a street address, city, state, and zip code, but there is no punishment attached to the crime. Senate Bill 467, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), makes the offense a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine for the negligent unauthorized release of an officer’s residential address. If the release is intentional, the crime would be punishable as a Class A misdemeanor.
“Our men and women in blue are laying their lives on the line every day for us,” said Senator Bell. “It’s time we as a state recognize that fact by adding greater protections in the law for those who sacrifice their safety to protect us.”
Both bills now go to the governor for his signature. When signed, they will become effective on July 1.
Congratulatory Resolution / Senator Mark Green – The Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to adopt Senate Joint Resolution 358 congratulating Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) for being nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. Secretary of the Army. The Resolution is sponsored by Lt. Governor Randy McNally. Senator Green has represented the people of Stewart, Houston and Montgomery Counties in District 22 in the Tennessee Senate for the past five years. Green, a West Point graduate and physician, received the Bronze Star, the Combat Medical Badge and was honored as Flight Surgeon of the Year by the Army Aviation Association. The resolutions states, “A true American patriot, Mark Green will most assuredly serve the brave men and women of the U.S. Army with expertise and empathy, and he will be a valuable Tennessee addition to President Trump’s administration…We honor and congratulate Senator Mark Green upon being nominated by President Trump to serve as Secretary of the Army, knowing that our loss is the Army’s gain.” All members of the Senate voting in the affirmative joined McNally in co-sponsoring the measure.
Safety / Amusement Park Rides – Legislation to provide greater safety for amusement park rides advanced through the Senate Finance Committee this week. Senate Bill 430, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), addresses safety issues on the front end with increased inspections and oversight of the devices, while modifying the standards of device operators and requiring a prominent display on proof of inspection. To accomplish the inspections, the proposal allows the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to continue either their current practice of using qualified, third party device inspectors, or they can employ their own inspectors. In addition, it authorizes persons injured in accidents to bring a cause of action against the owners and operators of these amusement devices. The legislation comes after two accidents occurred in Tennessee last year, including one in Green County where three girls fell 35 to 40 feet when a basket overturned on a Ferris wheel. The other was in Memphis when eight people were taken to the hospital after a ride malfunctioned and was prematurely shut down.
Child Abuse — The full Senate passed a bill Monday night that would broaden the definition of child endangerment to protect children at great risk of harm. Senate bill 310, sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), includes actions by a parent who knowingly exposes or fails to protect a child from abuse or neglect, placing the child in imminent danger. Tennessee law defines imminent danger as “the existence of any condition or practice that could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious bodily injury.” Broadening this definition would mean that a child under the age of eight years old does not have to exhibit signs of physical injury to be considered endangered. “An example would be a young child who is in a ‘drug house’ and it is obvious that the child could pick up a pill, a syringe, or walk across glass,” said Sen. Lundberg. “That is reckless endangerment that any reasonable person would believe constitutes child abuse. This legislation gives law enforcement the tools to rescue them before greater harm occurs, even though the child does not display current physical injuries.”
SAVE Act / School Safety — Legislation amending the School Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act to require each school to conduct at least one armed intruder drill per school year has passed the Senate on final consideration. Currently, the SAVE Act requires that each Local Education Area (LEA) adopt a district-wide and building-level school safety plan for crisis intervention, emergency response, and emergency management. Each safety plan is to be reviewed annually by the appropriate school safety team and updated as needed. In addition, Senate bill 733, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), calls on the appropriate law enforcement agency to provide assistance for any LEA whose safety plan falls below the standards required by the SAVE Act. “Proper practice and implementation of school safety plans are critical for the safety of students in any emergency situation,” said Senator Gresham.
Private Property / No Trespassing — State Senators voted this week to authorize property owners to replace no trespassing signs on their land with purple paint markings on trees. Under Senate Bill 1182, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), a sign must be posted in a visible region on the property explaining the use of purple paint. The use of purple paint to signify no trespassing regions is used in many other states. It is also a favorable method considering the inexpensive cost and minimal damage to trees and other posts where signs would be placed. The bill passed unanimously on the Senate Floor and is now headed to the Governor’s desk for his signature.
Retired Teachers / Substitutes — The full Senate approved Senate Bill 156, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), which creates a solution for districts struggling to find competent substitute teachers. The legislation would allow retired teachers to work as a substitute for 120 days, rather than the current 90 days. The measure would require that the school district exhaust other resources available before opting to hire the retired teacher.
Rape Victims / Parental Rights — The Senate approved legislation this week to assist rape victims in terminating the parental rights of their rapist. Currently, Tennessee law allows for termination of parental rights if a child is conceived as a result of rape only when there is a conviction. Senate Bill 554, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), changes the standard to clear and convincing evidence that the rape occurred. The legislation will also help bring additional federal funds to Tennessee for much-needed services to rape victims. In May 2015, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act was enacted by Congress, increasing the amount of STOP formula grant funding under the Violence Against Women Act for those states that have a law permitting mothers of children conceived through rape to seek termination of parental rights of their rapists. Various studies over the last two decades estimate that there are between 17,000 and 32,000 rape-related pregnancies in the United States each year.
Tennessee Statutes / Interpretation of Words — The Senate approved legislation regarding the interpretation of words in Tennessee statutes which are not defined in the code. The legislation states “undefined words shall be given their natural and ordinary meaning, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language, except when a contrary intention is clearly manifest.” Senate Bill 1085, which is sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), now goes to the governor for his signature.
Repeats with Updates…
School Bus Safety — Legislation aiming to increase safety on Tennessee school buses was approved by the full Senate on final consideration and sent to the governor for his signature. Senate Bill 1210, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), raises the minimum age for drivers to 25 and requires all drivers to complete a school bus driver training program based on standards developed by the Department of Education and the Department of Safety prior to transporting any students. The legislation clarifies that drivers must have five consecutive years of unrestricted driving experience prior to the date of application. The proposal also requires school districts and charter schools to appoint a transportation supervisor, who receives annual training and is responsible for monitoring and overseeing student transportation for their district or charter school. The transportation supervisor would be responsible for implementing the school safety policy set by the local board of education, including a policy for investigating complaints.
School Zone Safety — Legislation which bans drivers from knowingly driving through an active school zone while talking on a hand-held cell phone, met the approval of the Senate this week. Senate Bill 954 applies to marked school zones when warning flashers are in operation. The legislation, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), aims to provide greater safety for children as they go to and from school.
LEAP / Education — The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 1231 this week to include “work-based learning experiences” in the curriculum for work-based learning under the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP). The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), aims to meet necessary skill standards of industries in Tennessee as part of the LEAP program. The LEAP program not only makes sure the state education programs are providing a more relevant educational experience, but aligns them with the private sector as well, so that students can work, learn and earn simultaneously. The LEAP program has engaged almost 20,000 students since it was passed in 2013.
Legislative Ethics / Travel – A bill was approved by the full Senate on Monday requiring members of the General Assembly to disclose certain travel expenses paid for by individuals seeking to inform or advise the lawmaker on state public policy issues. Senate Bill 327 ensures transparency if a legislator travels at the expense of an individual or organization seeking to influence public policy. It is sponsored by Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).
Sevier County Wildfires — Legislation which helps the City of Gatlinburg and Sevier County rebound from the devastating November wildfires received final Senate approval this week as members adopted a minor House amendment and repassed the bill. Senate Bill 964, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would allow local governments to go on private property at the request of the property owner to clean up debris after a national disaster upon the local governing body adopting a plan for providing assistance. The action will help Gatlinburg to get reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to clean up debris on private residential property that is not low income or elderly or disabled. Passage of this bill will allow the city of Gatlinburg to clean up all private residences in a declared FEMA disaster area. This will assist in the clean-up effort and help the city to get reimbursement from FEMA.”
Farm Property / Inequitable Taxation — The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted this week to ensure that agricultural property is not reclassified as commercial for the purpose of property tax assessment. Article 2, Section 28 of the Tennessee Constitution requires farm property to be assessed at 25 percent of its value. The legislation comes after reports of agricultural properties being reclassified as commercial real property, which is assessed at 40 percent of its value. Senate Bill 904, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), ensures that both the letter and spirit of Tennessee law and the State Constitution are followed to protect farmers from inequitable taxation.
Consumer Protection / Automobiles — Legislation protecting consumers from purchasing a used automobile that has been recalled and is unsafe to drive has received final Senate approval. Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), provides transparency to buyers regarding the recall before the purchase is made from a licensed Tennessee dealer. Also called the “Motor Vehicle Recall and Disclosure Law,” the legislation prescribes that any vehicle deemed unsafe by the Highway Safety Administration to drive is too dangerous to be sold until properly repaired by the dealer. Other than “stop sale” recalls, vehicles for sale with unrepaired open recalls would have to be disclosed to the customer in writing before the sale. The bill also provides that after 30 days of waiting for a repair part, the manufacturer must pay a one percent monthly payment to the dealer based on the average trade in value of the vehicle being withheld from sale.
Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act — Legislation to enact the Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act has received final Senate approval. Senate Bill 1197, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), aims to improve the quality of charter schools that are authorized in the state by enhancing the relationship between charter authorizers and charter schools, increasing accountability and aligning charter practices in Tennessee with national best practices. Strong authorizing practices, oversight, and accountability will ensure districts are only authorizing schools with a strong potential for success and will ensure underperforming schools are promptly closed.