Capitol Hill Week: Legislature passes State Budget, Hall Tax Relief for Seniors and Major Charter Schools Bill before Adjourning 2011 Legislative Session

(NASHVILLE, TN), May 21, 2011 –  The Tennessee General Assembly has concluded the 2011 legislative session with passage of a major charter schools bill, several bills cracking down on crime, and legislation to allow HOPE scholars to take summer classes to complete their degree sooner.  It was passage of the state budget, however, that dominated much of the last week of legislative debate

The May 21 adjournment date is one of the earliest completion dates for a legislative session in the last decade. 
Budget — The budget represents an overall 3.7 percent decrease from the $32 billion budget adopted last year.  It maintains essential government services by focusing reductions in administrative areas to minimize any impact felt by Tennessee taxpayers. It continues the commitment to education by fully funding the Basic Education Program, provides Hall Tax relief for seniors, and does not increase taxes on Tennesseans. 

“I am proud to have carried this budget for the Governor,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).  “It was a complex process, but we never allowed complexity to outweigh common sense. The budget is balanced. Overall spending is reduced. Some taxes have been lowered.”

“We do more with less. We increase investments in education, law enforcement, health and economic development while reducing the size of state government,” Norris added.
“In a year of historic reforms in education, civil justice, and workers’ compensation, this budget sets the stage for unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in Tennessee. The future is bright.”

The budget, which is based on a realistically conservative 3.7 percent revenue growth, includes $82.2 million in specific recurring reductions which are necessary as part of the multi-year budget plan to bring the budget back into balance. 

The budget legislation contains the following highlights:
• Supports economic development and the opportunity for nearly $5 billion in new investment and more than 5,000 jobs
• Fully funds the Basic Education Program
• Provides a salary increase for state employees, teachers and higher education for the first time in four years
• For the first time in three years, the state will add to the Rainy Day Fund (which is essentially the state’s savings account) and not reduce the reserves
• For the first time in three years, the budget is balanced on a recurring to non-recurring basis
• Fully funds the inflationary costs for TennCare and CoverKids
• Fully restores the Agriculture Enhancement Program
• Allocates $71.3 million in state funding to assist with Disaster Relief Grants, as well as $9 million for sales tax relief from disaster-related recovery expenses
• Provides $1 million for Hall Income Tax relief for eligible seniors 65 years of age and older
• Allocates money to give HOPE scholars the ability to utilize their scholarships during summer school
• Provides $100 million in capital outlay funds for higher education capital projects and maintenance
• Anticipates that additional funding may become available based on money owed to Tennessee for Medicaid overcharge from the federal government, which if received will be used to delay certain reductions in TennCare

“The budget represents a multi-year strategy to lower the size of government by making thoughtful reductions in all areas of state government,” Norris added.  “Tennessee is in better economic condition than most states, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat amid huge budget deficits.” 

“Overall, our General Assembly has worked cooperatively in a very efficient and effective manner, finished our business on time, and passed a number of major initiatives to help create a business climate to attract new and better paying jobs.”

Hall Tax Relief — The budget contains funding to protect seniors’ retirement savings by raising the standard exemption on the Hall Tax for Tennesseans age 65 and older.  The budget action funds Senate Bill 261 sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) to raise the exemption levels to allow more senior citizens to qualify for relief from the tax.

The Hall Tax is a six percent tax on income from dividends and interest on certain investments.  Of the individuals who pay the Hall Tax, 48 percent are age 65 and older.  The exemption has not been revised in over a decade.   

Currently, persons over 65 with total income less than $16,200 for a single filer or $27,000 for a joint filer are exempt.  This legislation increases, beginning with tax year 2012, the annual Hall Income Tax standard income exemption for taxpayers 65 years of age or older from $16,200 to $26,200 for single filers and from $27,000 to $37,000 for joint filers. 

“We tell middle class folks to save and invest for their retirement and then we punish them for it by taxing their nest egg,” said Ramsey. “Working men and women of modest means who have saved wisely should not have to see their hard-earned dollars taxed.  This exemption will aid middle class people who live modestly get a break on their hard earned savings.”

Passage of Major Charter Schools Legislation Highlights Close of 2011 Legislative Session

The General Assembly approved major legislation, before adjourning the 2011 legislative session, to create an environment that promotes the growth of high quality public charter schools in Tennessee. The bill is sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) and was one of three education reform measures proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to improve student achievement by giving students the resources and opportunities they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“Public charter schools are a critical tool to improve public education and provide every child in Tennessee the opportunity to receive a great education,” said Speaker Woodson.  “This bill creates an environment that promotes the growth of high quality charter schools, allows districts access to innovative tools to address their unique challenges, and gives many more parents the option of sending their child to a school that better suits his or her needs.”

Key provisions of Senate Bill 1523 include:
• Removes the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state
• Allows for open enrollment in charter schools (removes eligibility restrictions while maintaining current system that gives preference to certain applicants and provides for a lottery system when applications exceed the number of seats available in the school)
• Gives preference in the application process to proposed charter schools that demonstrate a capability to support certain high-need populations
• Provides the Achievement School District with the ability to authorize charter schools within the district
• Allows for appeal of charter revocation or nonrenewal to State Board of Education except when those decisions are based on the current AYP accountability guidelines for charters (maintains high accountability standards)
• Removes “automatic repeal” provision so that there is no automatic sunset date on the charter law
• Allows a local education agency to deny charter school applications if a local education agency demonstrates that opening the school would create a substantial negative fiscal impact that would be contrary to the best interest of their students, district or community.

Recently, Tennessee was awarded $40 million in investments to support new charter schools in Tennessee.  The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam and will become effective upon his signature.

Senate Bans Use of Pre-Trial Diversion for Felonies

Legislation that eliminates pretrial diversion for the most dangerous criminals in Tennessee has passed the General Assembly.  Senate Bill 1234, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), centers on defendant accountability in the judicial system and also speaks to the constitutional rights of victims to have their voice heard.
Pre-trial diversion was created in 1975 giving the District Attorney General the sole discretion whether or not to grant an application to an otherwise qualified defendant. 
The bill alters the definition of “qualified defendant” for probation purposes to include a defendant charged with a misdemeanor who is not seeking deferral of further proceedings for driving under the influence or has not previously been convicted of a felony or Class A misdemeanor for which they have previously been granted judicial diversion.  No felony crimes would be eligible for pre-trial diversion under the bill.

“Although well intended, the privilege of pre-trial diversion has been perverted by the defendant to delay his or her day in court,” said Senator Yager.  “Over the years, we have witnessed unsuccessful applicants challenge the discretion of the attorney general delaying a trial on the merits.  Additionally, we have seen at least 16 court-mandated requirements for the district attorney to consider, resulting in more time.” 

Yager said pre-trial diversion is contrary to the Victims’ Rights Amendment to the Tennessee Constitution.  In 1998, Tennesseans voted overwhelmingly to approve the Victim’s Rights Amendment which allows victims of crime to express their injuries to ask the court to consider how they have been violated.  Under the current pre-trial diversion law, victims have no voice in a pre-trial diversion situation. 

“It is ironic that criminals will often have their records wiped clean by pre-trial diversion without serving any sort of probation period, and in some cases are free to torment their victims once more,” he added.

Judicial diversion, which requires a judge’s decision after a finding of fact and a plea from the defendant, is not affected under the bill.  The legislation, which now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature, will take effect July 1, 2011.

Senate passes and sends to the governor E-Verify bill to ensure new hires are in state legally

The full Senate has approved and sent to the governor legislation calling for Tennessee employers to use the “E-Verify” system to ensure that new hires are in the state legally.  Senate Bill 1669 calls for businesses with over five employees to obtain a copy of his or her driver’s license or utilize the E-Verify system.  The bill provides a safe harbor for employers who use E-Verify if the worker is later found to be in the country illegally due to its accuracy in detecting illegal aliens.

“This bill helps to ensure that those working in Tennessee are here legally,” said Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), sponsor of the bill.  “Illegal immigration has a large financial impact on taxpayers, not to speak of national security concerns.  We must begin to address this problem and this legislation is a big step in the right direction towards that goal.”
E-Verify, an Internet-based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the Social Security Administration, allow participating employers to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their newly hired employees by entering their name and a social security number.  It is free to employers in all 50 states, including Tennessee where more than 4,000 businesses have voluntarily participated in the system.  The E-Verify system is 97.4 percent accurate. 

The measure would penalize businesses for violation of the law with escalating consequences for repeated offenses.  It also provides a mechanism for small businesses without Internet access to call the Department of Labor for verification assistance.  Under the bill, businesses would keep verification records for three years after the hire or one year after termination of the person’s employment.  It does not apply to those employed before the January 1, 2012 enactment date and will be applicable in phases depending on the number of workers employed by a business.

Federal contractors or subcontractors have been required to use E-verify since 2008 to determine employment eligibility of employees performing direct work.  Fifteen states, including five which are adjacent to Tennessee, require the use of E-Verify for public and/or private employers.  Another 25 states are considering similar legislation.

“There are more than 140,000 illegal immigrants in Tennessee, with over 110,000 in the state’s workforce according to estimates,” added Tracy.  “I am very pleased this bill has been approved.”

Legislature passes bill strengthening Tennessee’s Anti-Terrorism Law

The legislature passed an anti-terrorism bill that updates the Tennessee Terrorism Prevention Act that was passed shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks and was approved unanimously in both the House and Senate.  The “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011” now makes the provision of “material support” a Class A felony and helps to close the prevention gap left by the 2002 statute. 

“After discussions with all interested parties the bill was rewritten to achieve a fiscally responsible way to cut off “material support” that assists those planning to commit terrorist acts in Tennessee since it is the support that typically makes the acts more likely to occur,” said Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), sponsor of the bill.  “This bill is very timely, in view of the fact that an August 2010 background report showed 21 U.S. citizens were charged in terrorist cases in 2009 and another 20 were charged in 2010 between January and August.”

The trajectory of cases of homegrown terrorism includes actors such as Memphis Carlos Bledsoe who attempted to firebomb the home of a Nashville rabbi and went on to murder 24-year old Private William Long in Arkansas.  Secretary Janet Napolitano has called out to states to become more active and engaged in counter-terrorism measures. 

The new amendment eliminates designation of terrorist entities by the state authorities and instead, defers to designations already made by the U.S. Secretary of State and the Department of the Treasury.  The bill supports the work of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in continuing the collaboration between federal and state law enforcement authorities.

Ketron said the bill is an even handed and non-discriminatory counter-terrorism measure.  The bill specifically declares that it does not target the peaceful practice of any religion.  It, however, prohibits using religious doctrine as a justification for terrorist acts in Tennessee.

“It should be a priority of ours to protect the citizens of our great state – there will be no prosperity without security,” he concluded.

Violent Juvenile Sex Offenders Added to Tennessee Sex Offender Registry

Tennessee will add juveniles convicted of the most violent sexual offenses to the state’s Sex Offender Registry under legislation approved by state lawmakers.  Senate Bill 869, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), applies to offenders between ages 14 and 18 who have been convicted of rape, rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child, aggravated sexual battery, or attempt of any of those four offenses. 

“We must protect our children from all sexual offenders, even juveniles if they have committed violent acts,” said Senator Kelsey.  “This legislation places the most violent offenders on the registry, so law enforcement officers can monitor those who would prey on our youth.”

Unlike the public sex offender registry for adults, the juvenile sex offender registry will be available only to law enforcement officers.  A court may order whether a juvenile offender must abide by the residency limitations of the adult sex offender registry.  First-time offenders who are not convicted of a subsequent offense may apply for removal from the registry once they reach the age of 25.  Juveniles who are convicted of a second violent offense, however, will be placed on the public sex offender registry once they turn 18 and will remain on the list for life.

Lawmakers pass comprehensive legislation to provide statewide guidelines for unmanned traffic enforcement cameras

In last day action this year, the Senate approved legislation to provide statewide guidelines to govern the use of unmanned traffic cameras.  The proposal comes after much legislative debate on the matter during the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions.  

The use of automated systems for surveillance of intersections and roadways is growing as more communities across the state are utilizing the devices.   Opponents of the cameras have argued that the motivation behind the cameras is money instead of safety, while those who favor the cameras claim that the devices have made streets safer by reducing the number of crashes. 

“The purpose of this bill is to give uniform standards across the state,” said Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), sponsor of the bill.  “We have worked on this proposal for several years and have put together a very comprehensive bill.” 

Senate Bill 1684, as amended, includes statewide provisions that:
 Invalidate traffic camera citations issued for failure to make a complete stop before making a right hand turn at a red signal unless clearly marked signs are posted saying “No Turn on Red.”
 Clarify that advance signage to inform drivers is required of at least 500 feet, but not more than 1000 feet, before the enforcement area of the unmanned traffic enforcement camera.
 Require an independent traffic engineering study before any new camera can be set up to assure that the proposed camera meets certain criteria to ensure that the purpose is to improve traffic safety.
 Prohibit speed trap cameras by banning the use of traffic enforcement cameras on any highway within one mile of a reduction of speed limits of 10 mph or greater, unless it is in a school zone.
 Provide that no more than one citation shall be issued for each offense committed.
 Vehicle registration information must be consistent with the evidence recorded by the enforcement camera or the citation is invalid.
 Mandate that notice of violations be mailed to the alleged offender within 20 days and that all responses and payments be made to a Tennessee address.
 Set the fine at $50 if the violator elects not to contest and provides that citation notices must list any additional late fees or court costs separately in the event they    should decide to go to court and are found guilty.
 Amend current law to allow only POST certified or state-commissioned law enforcement officers to view evidence from a traffic enforcement camera and issue the citation.  Present law only requires an “employee” of the law enforcement agency.

“My goal is to protect the public from abuse of these camera systems by providing clear guidelines to ensure that the focus is on public safety,” added Tracy. 
The bill will not affect current unmanned traffic enforcement contracts in place and becomes effective July 1, 2011.

In Brief….

Newborns / Health Screenings  –  Legislation to help detect serious heart defects in  newborns before they cause permanent harm to the child or death has passed the State Senate.  Senate Bill 60, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), requires the state’s Genetic Advisory Committee to develop a program to screen newborns for critical cyanotic congenital heart disease (CCCHD) using pulse oximetry. Congenital heart disease is responsible for more deaths in the first year of life than any other birth defects.  Research shows that children who are diagnosed with CCCHD later in life tend to require more hospital care, greater resources, and have worse long-term health outcomes.  The measure awaits passage in the House of Representatives.

Looters / Disaster Areas — The legislature has approved a timely measure in response to reports of looting taking place following the recent storms that tore through Tennessee.  Senate Bill 1095, sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), provides a judge may require a criminal to perform public service at a disaster site as a result of looting. The bill authorizes judges to sentence a convicted looter who takes advantage of a natural disaster, like the recent storms, to public service work in addition to any fine or other punishment assessed by the court.

Human Trafficking — The General Assembly approved legislation designed to attack the growing problem of child prostitution and human trafficking in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 64 , sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would enhance penalties against those who patronize or promote the illegal act, as well as gives law enforcement powers to impound a vehicle used in the commission of the offense.  Currently, patronizing prostitution is a Class B misdemeanor in Tennessee, unless the crimes are committed within 100 feet of a church or 1.5 miles of a school, which is punishable as a Class A misdemeanor.  The legislation would make patronizing prostitution from a person who is younger than 18 years of age or has an intellectual disability a Class E felony.  Penalties for promoting prostitution would be increased from a Class E to a Class D felony when a minor is involved, under the bill. Additionally, the proposal specifies that if it is determined that a person charged with prostitution is under age 18, they would be immune from prosecution for prostitution and would be released to a parent or guardian after receiving information regarding resources available to put them on the right track. 

Child Sexual Offenses — Legislation clarifying a Court may increase the sentence for rape of a child above the mandatory 25 years when appropriate has passed.  Currently, there has been confusion concerning additional punishment above the 25-year mandatory sentence for the crime.  Senate Bill 755, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), clears up any ambiguity.  It spells out that rape of a child is a Class A felony and that punishment is subject to a minimum sentence of 25 years; however, the Court may increase the time when appropriate and in cases where the defendant’s prior history warrants an enhanced sentence of up to 60 years for the most egregious circumstances. 

DUI / Blood Alcohol Testing — Legislation passed in the last week of floor action which requires the testing of a driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) level in cases where the driver has previously been convicted of a DUI or when there is a child present in the vehicle.  Tennessee’s DUI law already requires BAC testing when there is serious bodily injury to a victim or death.  Senate Bill 1270, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), simply puts these two additional conditions into the law when testing must be performed, whether or not the driver consents.   The test results may be offered into evidence, subject to the rules of evidence. 

Adventure Tourism / Rural Job Creation — Legislation received final approval before adjournment which establishes a mechanism to create jobs in rural Tennessee counties by exploiting the growing interest in outdoor recreational activities, which is often referred to as “adventure tourism.”  Adventure sports include such activities as white water rafting, mountain biking, zip-lining, kayaking, mountain climbing and a wide variety of other outdoor activities.  Many of the counties where this bill will have an impact are some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.  Senate Bill 1205, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), authorizes a joint state / local job creation effort in rural Tennessee counties.  It directs the Department of Economic and Community Development in cooperation with the Department of Environment and Conservation to develop a plan to promote and develop adventure tourism in the rural areas of the state.

Severe Child Abuse — State Senators voted this week to remove the limitations on evidence that a court can consider in determining whether or not to return a child to the custody of any person who engaged in or knowingly failed to protect a child from brutality or abuse. The bill revises Tennessee law to say that “severe child abuse” includes the knowing exposure of a child to, or knowing failure to protect a child from, abuse or neglect “likely to cause serious bodily injury.”  The terms now mirror the terms in criminal cases.  Senate Bill 1150, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), also adds aggravated child abuse and aggravated neglect or endangerment to the list of unlawful acts towards a child that would be considered to be severe child abuse.


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