NASHVILLE, Tenn. (April 23, 2015) — The 2015 session of the 109th General Assembly has adjourned to become a part of Tennessee history with some of the most important bills of the year being approved during the final week of legislative action. This includes legislation repealing Common Core, a bill to implement an online verification program for uninsured motorists, a measure to give more senior citizens Hall Income Tax relief and an act dealing with Transportation Network Company (TNC) services.
Senate Approves Legislation Implementing an Online Verification Program for Uninsured Motorists
A major bill establishing an online verification program to help ensure compliance with Tennessee’s Financial Responsibility Law was approved by the Senate on Tuesday. Senate Bill 648, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), aims to reduce the state’s uninsured motorist rate, which is currently at 23-24 percent.
There are approximately 40,000 crashes a year that involve uninsured motorists.
“This is one of the most significant bills passed in the last 40 years to affect automobile insurance,” said Ketron. “It will allow for the enforcement of Tennessee’s Financial Responsibility Law with a real-time system of auto liability policy verification to protect the public on our state’s roads. Those who have been involved in a car crash with uninsured drivers know how devastating that can be financially, particularly when there are injuries.”
Tennessee law requires drivers to have a driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance; however, there is no verification system to track the insurance requirement. The bill requires that a notice procedure be provided to any driver found to be uninsured, allowing them 15 days to provide proof of insurance or exemption. If there is no response, the owner will be sent a second notice stating that they have 30 days to provide proof of insurance. Failure to comply will result in a $25 coverage failure fee on the first notification and a $100 fee on the second. The bill also increases the fine for failure to provide proof of insurance from $100 to $300, and if a driver fails to provide proof of insurance to an officer, the officer may tow the vehicle as long as the officer’s agency has adopted a policy for such procedure.
Forty-six other states have similar auto liability verification systems.
“I am very pleased this bill has passed in Tennessee. It will make our streets safer and will hopefully save lives as well,” Ketron said.
More Senior Citizens Can Qualify for Hall Income Tax Relief Under Legislation Approved by the General Assembly
The Senate has approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), which raises the Hall Income Tax exemption level for citizens over the age of 55 to allow more senior citizens to qualify tax relief. The Hall Income Tax levies six percent on earnings from stocks and bonds, with 3/8 of the revenue going to cities and counties.
“The use of investment savings has grown tremendously as a primary source of retirement income since the Hall Tax was enacted in 1929,” said Senator Overbey. “This bill raises the exemption level so more seniors can qualify for tax relief as the General Assembly continues to make progress in providing Hall Tax relief to Tennessee citizens.”
The legislature voted to raise the level which allows more senior citizens to be exempt in 2011 and 2013, with current income exemption levels at $33,000 per individual and $59,000 per couple. Under Senate Bill 32, the annual Hall Income Tax standard income exemption for taxpayers 65 years of age or older would be $37,000 for single filers and $68,000 for joint filer taxpayers beginning in January 2016.
Of the individuals who pay the tax, Overbey said almost half are age 65 and older.
“The increase in the income exemption will make the state more competitive in attracting retirees,” added Overbey. “I am pleased this legislation has been passed by the General Assembly and was funded in this year’s budget.”
The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.
Lawmakers Approve Transportation Network Company Services Act
Legislation which establishes requirements governing application-based Transportation Network Companies (TNC) was approved by the General Assembly on the closing day of the 2015 legislative session. Senate Bill 907, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson), provides statewide rules for TNC ride-hauling services, like those offered by Uber and Lyft.
“Once this bill is enacted, TNCs will be able to continue safely and responsibly to grow jobs and improve accessibility to affordable and reliable transportation to millions of Tennesseans who are using this tool to change the face of commerce and change the face of the marketplace,” said Watson.
The legislation establishes end-to-end insurance coverage for the transportation networks and their drivers with $1 million liability coverage while a pre-arranged ride is occurring. This is ten times what is required under the current taxi system. It also requires a zero tolerance policy for the use of drugs and alcohol and mandates comprehensive background checks on all drivers.
“At the end of the day, the number one requirement that we have is the health and safety of our citizens,” Watson continued. “This legislation ensures transparency and safety requirements that protect both the riders and the drivers and requires the TNCs to fully comply in any law enforcement investigation.”
The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.
Senate Approves and Sends to Governor Bill Haslam Legislation Repealing Common Core
The State Senate has passed legislation which sets up a process to replace the controversial Common Core education standards with a new set of standards crafted solely by Tennesseans. Senate Sponsor, Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), said the bill embraces the work and the effort of Governor Bill Haslam’s review process, adding a new Recommendation Committee to provide another opportunity for stakeholders, educators and the general public to weigh in on the new Tennessee-specific standards.
“This is not a standards bill, but a process bill,” said Sen. Bell. “It sets up a very robust process to develop Tennessee-specific standards that are high standards. This process is not to rebrand Common Core, nor is it set up to reaffirm Common Core. It is set up to replace Common Core with Tennessee standards and Tennessee values.”
Under Senate Bill 1163, the Recommendation Committee would be comprised of ten members, with four appointed by the Governor, three appointed by the Speaker of the Senate, and three appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Bell said the Standards Recommendation Committee would take the best practices obtained through a panel which has already been set up by Governor Haslam and pass it through a filter that is more representative of the people of the state. The Governor set up a process in October for education professionals to vet the standards and allow for public comments.
“This legislation calls for the final draft of the Standards Review and Standards Recommendation panels to be placed back on the internet for 60 days so stakeholders, parents, teachers, and administrators will have another opportunity to view and address the body of work being produced before it is set up for adoption,” added Bell. “It also helps to ensure that no standards will be imposed on the state by the federal government in the future.”
The legislation requires the State Board of Education to cancel the “Memorandum of Understanding” that had previously been agreed upon concerning Common Core State Standards.
“We need the highest standards and we need exemplary college and work-ready skills,” added Senator Bell. “We want to continue to be the fastest improving state in the nation, providing a model for education improvement. We also want to tailor it to Tennessee students, exerting state responsibility over education. We believe the final results will be that Tennessee will have the highest standards in the nation without compromising our values.”
The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.
General Assembly Passes the Individualized Education Act for Students with Special Needs
In last week action, the Senate and House of Representatives passed the Individualized Education Act giving new hope to special needs students across the Volunteer State, one in three of whom currently do not graduate from high school. Senate Bill 27, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), will provide pathways to customized education for students with special needs, giving parents the flexibility to direct their child’s funding to the schools, courses, programs and services that best fit the learning needs of their child through an Individualized Education Account (IEA).
Gresham said the bill is designed to help children with the most severe disabilities whose current school situation is not meeting their needs. In order to be eligible to participate in an IEA, a student must have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) which is a document which maps out how a school will meet the needs of students receiving special education services as required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The bill would only apply to students with autism, deafness or other hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, orthopedic impairments, traumatic brain injuries, and blindness or other visual impairments.
The Individualized Education Act provides for the Department of Education to deduct up to four percent from IEA funds to cover the costs of administering the program. Both the state and local school districts are projected to save money under the program. The Individualized Education Act also:
• Requires the Department to ensure funds are used only for educational purposes;
• Provides parents with a written explanation of the allowable uses of the money and their responsibilities;
• Provides for random, quarterly and annual audits;
• Sets up fraud reporting; and
• Has the ability to suspend or terminate any school or provider that fails to comply.
The State Board of Education will consult with the Department of Education to promulgate rules for the application and approval process for non-public school and providers to participate in the program. The bill requires participating student to partake in annual testing with results to be reported. The legislation now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.
Veterans Treatment Courts — State lawmakers voted this week to provide the state’s first sustainable support for both the establishment and maintenance of Tennessee’s Veterans Treatment Court programs through passage of Senate Bill 711, the Criminal Justice Veterans Compensation Act of 2015 (CJVA). The legislation sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) makes Tennessee’s Veterans Courts the first in the nation to have such support. Tennessee has three established Veterans Treatment Courts in Davidson, Shelby, and Montgomery Counties which meet established criteria of the state’s Department of Mental Health Services. Drug Courts around the state have also designated efforts and assistance to the military men and women seeking services to aid in their return to civilian society. Services provided include but are not limited to group therapy, job coaching, mentoring by fellow veterans, and specialized treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the substance abuse frequently used by sufferers to self-medicate. The Veterans Courts are operated through the Tennessee Judicial System as a trial court with special emphasis on access to therapy and support services in a necessary partnership with mental health.
STEM Hubs — Legislation designed to amplify and accelerate regional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in Tennessee was approved by lawmakers during the closing week of the legislative session. Senate Bill 453, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), requires the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network to establish a STEM innovation hub that is dedicated to serving rural areas of Tennessee, including the northwest portion of the state. It also calls for making a curriculum available to all middle schools that educate students on the variety and benefits of STEM careers.
Human Trafficking—Legislation that would give law enforcement and other officials more training to identify, investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking in Tennessee passed during the final week of legislative action. Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), calls on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to implement such training courses, which will also include information to help first responders and caseworkers find services to assist victims of the crime. The bill provides for four additional special agents to provide the training and for the agents to be dispersed to cover all regions in the state.
Transportation Hearings — Senate Transportation and Safety Committee Chairman Jim Tracy, (R-Shelbyville), said this week that he will hold transportation funding hearings around the state in late summer and early fall to discuss Tennessee’s transportation infrastructure funding dilemma with an eye toward promoting reform legislation next year. “It is my intention to spend a significant portion of my time while the General Assembly is out of session to gather solutions as to how we can solve this problem,” he said. Dates and venues for the hearings will be announced this summer once details are in place.
Electronic Driver’s Licenses — The full Senate approved and sent to the governor legislation which allows the Department of Safety and Homeland Security to develop an electronic driver’s license system. The system would allow citizens to use a mobile application, instead of a physical driver’s license, to present evidence of a valid Tennessee driver’s license. Under Senate Bill 651, sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), citizens would not be required to use the electronic driver’s license; rather, they would have to have the choice of an electronic, physical or both forms. The states of Iowa, Delaware and Arizona are also moving forward with similar legislation.
GED / HiSet / HOPE Scholarship — Students who score a minimum of 15 on the HiSET test would be eligible for the HOPE scholarship under legislation sponsored by Sen. Gresham and approved by State Senate. Senate Bill 624, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) also revises the required GED score under the HOPE scholarship eligibility requirements to conform to the scale used for the new version of the test, setting a score of 170 to qualify. The legislation authorizes a student who met the GED, HiSET, ACT and SAT test score requirements to be awarded a HOPE scholarship in the 2014-2015 academic year for the 2013-2014 academic year provided that the student is not otherwise ineligible for the scholarship and is enrolled in the 2014-2015 academic year in an eligible postsecondary institution.
HOPE Scholarships / Military Children – Legislation was approved this week that specifies that dependent children of members of the Armed Forces and the Tennessee National Guard whose home of record is Tennessee must qualify as in-state students for purposes of the HOPE Scholarship. Senate Bill 461 closes a loophole so that children who move due to their parent’s deployment or reassignment would not be penalized and charged out-of-state tuition in Tennessee’s colleges and universities. The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville).
Go Build Tennessee — The State Senate approved legislation to promote and encourage the recruitment of students in the construction industry. Senate Bill 127, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), sets up a program that would provide a one-stop resource for students, parents and educators alike to discover new careers and opportunities in the industry. It is modeled after a program in Georgia which works to dispel misconceptions about the skilled trade industry and inspires students to consider building a career as a skilled tradesman. The bill utilizes a small portion of the fees already being collected from the industry which will go to a non-profit 501(c) (3) organization set up to support the program.
Med Spas — The full Senate approved a measure this week which establishes a medical spa registry to be maintained by the Board of Medical Examiners in consultation with the Board of Osteopathic Examination. A medical spa is any business that offers or performs cosmetic medical services. Senate Bill 613 would provide customers or patients with transparency and important safety information about the spa. The online registry must include, at a minimum, the name and physical address of the medical spa, the name of the medical doctor and certification information regarding the medical director or supervising physician. The bill is sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohnewald).
Civics Education — Legislation which would promote civics education in Tennessee has passed the General Assembly. Senate Bill 10 would make components of the test administered by the United State Citizenship and Immigration Services to those seeking citizenship one of the tools used in assessing student progress under Tennessee’s civics education program. The legislation calls on local education agencies to utilize 25 to 50 of the 100 questions posed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the citizenship test. The test, which would be administered during high school, may be taken by the student multiple times until he or she scores the 70 percent minimum required for graduation. Students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) would be exempt from the requirement under certain circumstances as provided by the bill. Students will continue to receive the project-based civics assessments provided under a 2012 law. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
Andy’s Law / Terrorism – The full Senate approved a House amendment and sent to the governor a bill authorizing the seizure of assets, including money derived from, used or intended for use in acts of terrorism upon conviction. The bill applies upon conviction of the terrorist. The legislation would empower law enforcement to prevent terrorists or attempted terrorists from keeping their assets. The bill also allows victims of a terrorist attack and law enforcement that participated in the investigation or prosecution of the terrorist offense to make claim, upon conviction, for damages or costs. The bill further allows victims of terrorism to bring a lawsuit against those who committed the terrorist act and those who provided material support. Senate Bill 180 is known as “Andy’s Law” in honor of U.S. Army Private William “Andy” Long, who was shot and killed outside a west Little Rock, Arkansas recruiting center in 2009 by a Jihadist terrorist, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (formerly known as Carlos Bledsoe). The bill is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).
Abortion – The Senate approved a minor House amendment and sent to the governor legislation which restores commonsense protections for women seeking an abortion. The action follows voter approval of Amendment 1 to the State Constitution in November. Senate Bill 1222 calls for informed consent and a 48-hour waiting period for women and girls considering an abortion. The bill is sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Murfreesboro).
Hall Tax — State Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) guided passage of legislation that would begin the process of repealing the Hall Income Tax in Tennessee through the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. The bill is ready for final action during the 2016 legislative session, marking a major milestone in advancing the legislation. Senate Bill 47 makes a single cut of one percent to the state’s portion of the Hall Income Tax when a two-year average of three percent growth occurs beginning in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. When the last cut of the state portion reaches .75 percent, the legislation provides that a phase out of the local portion would begin unless communities decide in a referendum to continue collecting the local portion of the tax.
Approximately 160,000 Tennesseans who live more than six months in the state pay the tax.