Capitol Hill Week: Week’s legislative news overshadowed by destruction from devastating storms

Contact:  Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email:  [email protected]

 (NASHVILLE, TN), May 6, 2010  —  This week’s action on Capitol Hill was overshadowed by Tennessee’s “state of emergency” due to severe storms, tornadoes and flooding that resulted in one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history.  There have been 21 confirmed fatalities in the weekend storms. 

“Words cannot describe the devastation and loss that so many Tennesseans have suffered,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).  Our thoughts and prayers are with them”

Prayers for those devastated by the storms were also lifted in the chamber of the State Senate on Thursday led by Senator Jack Johnson (R- Franklin) whose district suffered widespread damage.  Senators commended state and local emergency personnel who performed above the call of duty during the disaster.  They also stopped to express appreciation for the heroic efforts of citizens who participated in the rescue and stopped to remember those who must rebuild in the aftermath of the storms.

The Coast Guard rescued 250 people, while the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) helped 351 persons to safety from the flood waters.  Twenty-eight shelters opened their doors to assist those who needed a place to stay due to evacuations or destruction of their homes.  The American Red Cross and other charitable organizations are working with federal and state partners in the relief effort.  In addition, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) has activated the Tennessee Emergency Donations Hotline to accept contributions to support state flood victims.  Volunteers will be answering calls at 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. CDT daily at the toll free number (866) 586-4483.

“We have certainly seen the citizens of this state live up to the ‘Tennessee Volunteer’ name,” added Johnson.  “There has been tremendous volunteer assistance in trying to help our neighbors through the rescue and recovery process.”    

Federal officials are working with state and local emergency responders throughout the region. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) staff and resources have been dispatched to assess the damage and assist with the recovery.  

On Monday, Governor Bredesen asked President Obama to declare 52 counties federal disaster areas.  The President had declared 21 counties as disaster areas by Thursday.  The state expects more counties to be added over the next several days.  That designation enables local governments and individuals to access the critical federal grants and/or loans needed to help them recover from the damages sustained due to the high winds and floods.  The aid also helps citizens and local and state governments with costs for damage to roads, bridges, emergency protective measures and debris removal.  In addition, an expedited declaration has been requested that provides federal reimbursement for 100 percent of all eligible costs for 72 hours from the declaration.   

Businesses located in a declared disaster area and that have incurred damage during the disaster may apply for funds to help repair or replace damaged property to its pre-disaster condition. The Small Business Administration makes physical disaster loans of up to $2 million to qualified businesses. Physical Disaster Loans are for permanent rebuilding and replacement of uninsured or underinsured disaster-damaged property. SBA’s physical disaster loans are available to businesses of all sizes and private, non-profit organizations.  Businesses can learn more about these funds and apply by visiting the website https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela/ or by calling (800) 659-2955.

Additionally, there are federal funds available through the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program for workers who have lost work as a direct result of the storms and flooding.  The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development facilitates this program for the Federal Government, and those individuals eligible should call the Tennessee Unemployment Insurance Claims Center at (877) 813-0950 extension 7599.

“Hopefully, our citizens will take immediate action to report their damages to local authorities in order for our  counties to make the appropriate assessments needed to be designated as a disaster area,” added Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Diane Black (R-Gallatin).  “This will allow us to start the clean up process so that we can rebuild and restore our communities.”

Individuals are encouraged to call their county Emergency Management Agencies (EMAs) to report their damages so the agency can make the appropriate assessments.  Citizens should contact FEMA by either Internet at www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800 621- FEMA (3362) to make application for grants or loan approval for loss of personal property if they do not have insurance. 

Legislation continues existence of boards and commissions but loosens special interest grip on appointments

The full Senate debated legislation this week that continues 18 boards and agencies that are subject to periodic review to determine whether they are effective and necessary.  Several of them, however, contain language to improve public participation and help to ensure that lobbyists, or special interest groups, are not solely in control of who serves on these boards and commissions.  The measure addresses serious concerns about repeated language in Tennessee law, that in effect, allows private entities to select members. 

The governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house are most commonly responsible for naming those who serve on the approximately 250 boards and commissions currently in operation in the state.  The boards cover a wide variety of matters and involve oversight for various professions in the state from real estate and health care to athletic training and funeral homes.  Special interest groups over the years have lobbied to make sure that their organizations are included in the language of the law by requiring that appointments are made from members of their group.

“There are inconsistencies on our boards and commissions,” said Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) in speaking about the various state laws regarding appointments.  “Some require selection from specific organizations, while others just ask for recommendations from a particular group.  Our goal has been to allow any citizen of the state who meets the qualifications to be considered for service.” 

The language included in the proposals, as amended, would ensure that appointing authorities consider an organization named in the law’s recommendations.  However, it also provides that they also have the ability to select other qualified citizens that previously have not been allowed due to restrictions that the candidate be selected from a specific special interest organization.  In addition, the amended bill requires Tennessee residency as a condition of appointment. 

Further debate on the bills will continue on the Senate floor on Monday.

Voter Identification legislation debated on Senate Floor

The full Senate debated legislation on final consideration this week aiming to strengthen the integrity of elections in Tennessee.  The bill requires that voter registration forms contain a disclaimer that clarifies giving false information to register to vote carries a criminal penalty.  The legislation, Senate Bill 194 sponsored by Senator Dewayne Bunch (R-Cleveland), also requires that the applicant affirm that they are lawfully in the United States.

The U.S. Constitution already requires citizenship to vote.  In addition, federal law makes it a crime to knowingly make a false statement or claim regarding citizenship upon registering to vote. 

Currently, election officials in the field may have questions about what they can ask for to substantiate that assertion when an applicant checks the box that they are a U.S. citizen.  These officials don’t want to bring it up if they are not authorized to ask for certain identification.  This legislation, as amended by the Senate, gives them guidance and clarifies what they can ask for if an election official chooses to put that person to the test.  This includes a drivers license, U.S. naturalization documents, birth certificate, passport, Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs card or other documents or methods of proof that are established pursuant to the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act.

In Brief…

Grandparent visitation – The State Senate has approved legislation to allow the courts to grant grandparent visitation in cases where one of the child’s parents has died and the surviving parent has terminated the relationship between the child and grandparent.  Absent proof to the contrary, the death alone of the parent is sufficient to establish substantial harm. Currently, Tennessee law provides court standing for grandparents to petition visitation rights in certain circumstances.  However, the court must first determine whether cessation of visitation between a grandparent and grandchild constitutes a substantial threat of harm to the child.  The measure, Senate Bill 3036, is sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill).

Ethics and Education / Utility Boards — The full Senate voted 31 to 0 to approve legislation strengthening the professional and ethical requirements for utility boards across Tennessee.  The bill requires 12 hours of continuing education for commissioners during a three-year period.  This provision would not apply to members of gas utility district boards who receive extensive annual training as reviewed by the Comptroller.  It also requires that if a utility board commissioner is indicted on a matter related to their duties, they would have to step until the indictment is cleared.  If they are subsequently convicted, they would be suspended from the board.  The measure, Senate Bill 3513, is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman).

Background checks / beer permit holders – The Senate Finance Committee approved a bill this week that would authorize local governments to conduct criminal background checks and fingerprint analysis with the cooperation of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for beer permit holder applicants.  Currently, local officials can only access local and state law enforcement records to see if an applicant has a criminal history.  However, some communities want the authority to do a broader search to ensure permit holders do not have a criminal background in other states.  This bill gives local governments the authority under Tennessee law for the TBI to access FBI databases to do the check.  The legislation, Senate Bill 3330, is sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). 

Unemployment Compensation Fund / Direct Deposit – The Senate Finance Committee has approved a bill that allows a person drawing unemployment compensation to request that their weekly benefit be paid by direct deposit into a financial institution that the claimant selects.  It requires that the full Social Security number be omitted from the unemployment check and check stubs.  The move would also result in a $3 million decrease in state expense over time for the state’s Unemployment Compensation Fund.  The measure, Senate Bill 3518, is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville)

Employer options for payment of wages – Similarly, the governor has signed a bill that allows  Tennessee employers to have the right to issue payment of wages through either an electronic automated fund transfer or a prepaid debit card under legislation approved this year.  The bill, which is permissive, aims to help employers lower expenses by giving them the right to use these payment methods as an alternative.  The move is expected to save employers, who choose to utilize fund transfer, an estimated 75 percent from the costs of issuing payment by check.  Under the bill, employees would not be charged for the debit card withdrawal if they choose to access an in-network ATM machine to receive the payment.  The new law, Senate Bill 2633, is sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).

Purple Heart Memorial Plate – The full Senate voted unanimously to authorize widows and widowers of persons entitled to receive holders of Purple Heart memorial plate to obtain a plate upon such person’s death.  The legislation, Senate Bill 2382, is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman).

Banks / Consumers – The governor signed legislation this past week that would provide assistance to homeowners who are about to lose their home due to non-payment and gives them the opportunity to contact their lender in an effort to avoid foreclosure.  The bill requires that a new simple and easy to understand notice be sent to homeowners when they fall behind or become delinquent in their mortgage payments to help them find a resolution or to see if there are any governmental programs available to avoid a foreclosure sale.  The notice also points the borrower to the various federal loan modification programs which might be available to them.  The measure, Senate Bill Senate Bill 3519, is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville). 

Child abductions — Legislation that aims to reduce the risk of child abduction in Tennessee was signed by the governor this past week.  The bill provides courts with guidelines to follow regarding potential child abductions and to provide courts with appropriate measures to prevent these crimes.  This includes information about abduction risk factors so that they can place appropriate restrictions to prevent abductions.  Using these guidelines the court must determine that there is a credible risk of child abduction, and then the court may consider preventative measures.  The legislation, Senate Bill 3065 sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), will take effect July 1.

Abortion / Federal health care bill – The governor, however, returned without his signature legislation to prohibit taxpayer-funded coverage for abortion services in Tennessee associated with the federal healthcare bill passed by Congress in March.  The bill, which becomes law without his signature, prohibits any health care plan established pursuant to federal health care reform legislation enacted by the 111th United States Congress from offering coverage for abortion services.   The measure, Senate Bill 2686, is sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin).

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