Capitol Hill Week: "Founding Father Plan Plus" approved by Senate Judiciary Committee

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 7, 2013 –  The Senate Judiciary approved major legislation this week that alters the way Tennessee’s appellate judges are chosen, mirroring the Founding Fathers plan in the U.S. Constitution.  Senate Joint Resolution 2, named the “Founding Fathers Plan Plus,” would allow the governor to appoint judges for eight-year terms subject to confirmation by the legislature. 

Approval by the 108th General Assembly requires a two-thirds plurality and is step two of a three-step process of amending the state constitution.  Step one occurred when the resolution passed the Senate and the House with bipartisan support last year.  Step three is a ratification vote by the people on the November 2014 ballot.

 “This amendment follows the tried and true system of our founding fathers,” said Sen. Kelsey.  “It will put to rest the constitutional questions surrounding how we pick judges.” 

Article VI, Section 3 of Tennessee’s Constitution requires that Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state,” which concerns many lawmakers who believe the current system does not fully satisfy that mandate.  Last year, Governor Bill Haslam, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell agreed that legislative action is needed in order to be constitutionally correct.  

Under the state’s current Tennessee Plan for selecting Supreme Court and other appellate judges, a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission reviews applicants and sends the governor a panel of three nominees for consideration.  The governor must then appoint one of the nominees or reject the panel and request a second panel.  After being appointed through this process, the appellate judges must stand for approval by the voters after completion of their term, with the people deciding whether to “retain” or “replace” them.

The Founding Fathers Plan Plus improves upon the federal system by prohibiting legislative inaction, which Kelsey says is arguably the one flaw in the federal system.  Tennessee lawmakers would be forced to vote on judicial nominees within sixty days, or the nominees would be confirmed by default.  The sixty-day clock runs from either the date of the appointment, if made during the annual legislative session, or the date of the convening of the annual legislative session, if made out of session.  Unlike the federal plan, the Tennessee bill would also add confirmation by the House of Representatives, in addition to the Senate.

There are 29 appellate court positions in Tennessee that would be affected by the bill. The state’s 155 trial court positions chosen by direct elections will not be affected by the legislation.

“This plan adds transparency and accountability to the current system.  Legislative hearings regarding nominees will be available to the public by video stream or public television for full transparency,” added Kelsey.  “This is a big difference from the current system.  Also, the plan replaces unaccountable, unelected nominators with officials who must stand for election.”

Senate Judiciary overwhelmingly approves legislation to protect second amendment rights of gun carry permit holders

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8 to 0 this week in favor of legislation that protects the Second Amendment rights of legal gun permit holders while traveling to and  from their workplace.  Action on Senate Bill 142 comes after Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey worked with property rights advocates and Second Amendment rights groups last fall to forge a compromise on the matter. 

Senator Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Lt. Governor Ramsey, told committee members the legislation “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 bill grants property owners broad premise liability against damage or injury caused by firearms properly stored.

“I was pleased to see the Judiciary Committee vote nearly unanimously on a bipartisan basis to allow gun permit holders to keep their firearms securely locked in their vehicles while at work,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey.  “This bill ensures that private property rights are respected while gun owners are protected. I look forward to its quick passage so that this General Assembly can focus on limiting government, creating jobs and making Tennessee an even better place to raise a family.”

Approximately 5% of Tennesseans have a handgun permit. 

 “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.”

“No State Income Tax” Amendment set for final consideration by full Senate after receiving approval of the Senate Finance Committee

The Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee gave their approval to the “No State Income Tax” constitutional amendment this week, clearing the way for final consideration by the full State Senate.  The resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 1, is sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and would clarify a prohibition in the Tennessee Constitution against an income tax and a payroll tax. 

The resolution must be approved by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives this year upon the third reading of the measure.  The resolution was approved in the Senate last year by a vote of 26-4 and in the House by a vote of 73-17-3.
Tennesseans will have the final say on the matter in November 2014 when the amendment is put on the statewide ballot.

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.  A payroll tax has been proposed in recent years by elected officials in Shelby County as a way around an income tax. 

 “Forever barring a state income tax in Tennessee sends a clear message to prospective businesses that we are serious about creating and retaining high quality jobs,” said Senator Kelsey.

Testimony reveals mixed news on state’s finances

Tennessee Commissioner of Revenue Richard Roberts and Comptroller Justin Wilson gave members of the Senate Finance Committee updates regarding the state of Tennessee’s finances this week.  The latest reports revealed mixed news regarding revenue collections and what is on the horizon for Tennessee.

“The good news is that in the fiscal year completed June 30, 2012, Tennessee collected record revenues of $11.38 billion,” said Roberts. “We did this in the face of significant headwind from the general economy as well as the world economy.  We are continuing to see a drag on the economy — a lot of which is based on uncertainty generated from Washington and the changes we see going on there.  Our outlook assumes Washington will continue to avoid the worst case scenario, but will unlikely reach a scenario that will encourage strong growth.”

Tennessee lost over $1 billion during the recession that began in late 2007 and early 2008, as well as $300 to $400 million the state had received each year in revenue growth.

Roberts reported that for the first five months of the current fiscal year sales tax revenues have been weak and are 6% below budgeted estimates.  Corporate tax collections, however, have over-performed projections by 15.5% during the first five months of the current fiscal year, keeping the state ahead of its budgeted estimates. 

Overall, Commissioner Roberts estimates the 2013 fiscal year revenues at $11.67 billion, a growth of 2.6% over the 2012 collections.  He expects continued growth in the 2014 fiscal year, projecting revenue collections will grow by 3.42% over the 2013 estimate to total $12.07 billion. 

Wilson, likewise, gave lawmakers a mixed report on the state’s finances.  Among good news, Wilson cited recent accomplishments by the legislature to pass a balanced budget, cut taxes, reduce the size of government, savings of $60 million by refunding debt and improved timeliness of financial reporting. 

“Tennessee’s current financial state is attributable to the willingness of the General Assembly to enact budgets that have foregone, reduced or eliminated expenses and services,” said Wilson.  He also attributed financial success to the ability of the Haslam administration to create efficiencies in operations.

Wilson cautioned lawmakers to be careful about future spending plans saying that even with the significant revenue growth experienced , the cost of program increases projected  exceed optimistic revenue estimates.

“Costs of funding projected increases in state programs and potential federal mandates, such as President Obama’s healthcare plan, exceed even optimistic revenue projections,” Wilson said.  “The General Assembly needs to continue to reduce expenses and the administration needs to continue to increase the efficiency of operations.”

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is expected to cost the state up to $1.4 billion in its first 5½ years without an expansion of the Medicaid eligible population, which would entail additional costs.

Tennessee’s health status improving according to most recent statistics

Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, spoke to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week regarding recent gains made in the state’s overall health ranking.  Tennessee, which was once 49th in the nation, has improved ten points and is now ranked 39th in its overall health status. 

Recent reductions in the state’s obesity rate and the number of smokers are among factors attributed to the recent improvements.  Almost one third of adults are overweight with a BMI (body mass index) of over 30.  Tobacco is the leading cause of death at 18.1%, while diet and inactivity accounts for 15.2% of all deaths. 

“I was very pleased to see improvements in the two largest risk factors for Tennesseans,” said Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe.  “We will continue to push for programs like our Coordinated School Health Program that promotes healthy habits.”

Wykoff congratulated lawmakers for putting the Coordinated School Health Program in place.  He said that beginning healthy habits early in life is a key factor in improving Tennessee’s health status overall. 

The average life expectancy in 2012 nationwide was 78.49 years old.  Tennessee life expectancy is 75.3 years old.  

Wynkoff also linked economic development and educational attainment to poor health among Tennesseans.  He urged lawmakers to continue pushing for education and economic development improvements as there is a “huge life expectancy (gap) based on income.” 

Wykoff was joined by YMCA representatives, Lee Montgomery of Athens and Chris Ayers of Bristol, who talked about their organization’s efforts to help improve Tennessee’s health status, including planting community gardens to promote healthy eating habits. 

In Brief…

9-1-1 / Texting — The full Senate has approved legislation which makes hoax texting and other means of prank communications to 9-1-1 dispatchers illegal.  Senate Bill 33, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager, R-Harriman, anticipates changes coming to Tennessee through Next Generation 9-1-1 technology, an initiative updating emergency infrastructure to include transmission of text, images, video and other data to 9-1-1 centers.   This technology neutral legislation would make it a Class C misdemeanor to text a phony 9-1-1 communication to an emergency center, the same offense currently charged to prank telephone calls to dispatchers.  Penalties are increased to a Class A misdemeanor if they are repeated.  The bill aims to keep pranksters from falsely tying up limited resources that are needed to address real life-threatening emergencies no matter how the 9-1-1 call for help is transmitted.  

New Commissioner of Children’s Services — Tennessee’s new Interim Commissioner of Children’s Services, Jim Henry, appeared before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week to brief members on his plans to improve services to children in state custody.  Henry told the Committee that one-fourth of all females in Tennessee and 50% of those with intellectual or developmental disabilities have been sexually abused.  The Commissioner also cited parental drug addition as a primary factor for children coming into state custody.  Henry told the committee that he will vigorously attack problems facing the Department.  “We will strive for excellence and accept nothing less,” he said.  Commissioner Henry will also continue to lead the state’s Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Neuroscience / Promoting Student Achievement — The Senate Education Committee 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. 

Project T3 Aims at Government Efficiency — Commissioner Steven Cates of the Department of General Services gave a special presentation to the State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday outlining Project T3, a large-scale effort to move state agencies back into state-owned facilities by upgrading and modernizing currently underused workspaces.  Aimed at increasing efficiency and decreasing current costs to conform to industry standards, Project T3 will involve an estimated 14,000 state employees in a massive attempt to improve 1.7 million square feet of the state’s work environments.  In the process, the program will save Tennessee’s taxpayers roughly $100 million dollars over the course of several decades.  Reporting that the project is within budget and on time, Commissioner Cates announced an expected completion date for the first phase of late November to early December of this year.

Cutting the Size of Government — A new measure aimed at cutting the size of Tennessee government has been filed in the Tennessee General Assembly by Senator Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. Senate Bill 595 establishes the Office of the Repealer with the sole responsibility of making recommendations to the legislature in areas of government waste, duplication, and out-of-date regulations that should be removed from the law books. The office would be a one-time, four-year position funded by existing resources
and will be housed under the Secretary of State.

Religious Freedom Caucus  — State Senators Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville; John Stevens, R-Huntingdon; Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet; Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey and Reginald Tate, D-Memphis have joined colleagues in the House of Representatives to form the Religious Freedom Caucus in the Tennessee General Assembly.  The Tennessee Religious Freedom Caucus is the 9th state caucus in the nation organized to protect religious freedom and is affiliated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s American Religious Freedom Program (ARFP).  The ARFP and Tennessee Religious Freedom Caucus seek to combat those advocates and politicians that promote the idea religion has a negative impact on Americans’ lives.

Privacy Rights / Online Commenters — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill this week that would protect 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.

TRA Directors Confirmed — The State Senate confirmed three directors of the newly reconstituted Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) this week.  Herbert H. Hillard of Memphis, James M. Allison of Shelbyville and David F. Jones of Franklin were confirmed through Senate approval of three separate Senate Joint Resolutions.  The TRA has five part-time members and a full-time executive director to manage the agency’s day to day operations.  The panel has regulatory authority over municipal utilities, cooperatives and utility districts providing water, gas or electricity.



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