NASHVILLE – The General Assembly is now working at “full steam” as state senators examined the budgets of 11 agencies and departments of state government this past week and approved a number of important bills.
Transportation Funding / Block Grants — Among legislation that has been approved is a resolution that I am sponsoring urging President Donald Trump and the United States Congress to enact a law to establish a transportation block grant funding program for distribution to the states. Senate Joint Resolution 59 also urges the enactment of legislation to repeal all federal mandates, either by statute, rule, or policy, that dictate the expenditure of federal transportation funding.
The resolution expresses Tennessee’s growing dissatisfaction with federal transportation policy and mismanagement of the federal highway trust fund that has encouraged many in state governments nationwide to seek ways to overhaul the system. It also suggests that a remedy would be the development of a block grant distribution plan whereby each state would receive a block grant from the federal highway trust fund equal to the federal fuel tax revenues raised within its borders. States would be entitled to spend such grants on transportation priorities of their own choosing. The legislation now moves to the House of Representatives for approval.
DUI — In the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, on which I serve, approval was given to legislation this week requiring all new drivers’ licenses issued to persons under the age of 21 in Tennessee be printed in a vertical format to help businesses easily identify those who cannot drink alcohol. Senate Bill 384 would give drivers the option to change their license to horizontal upon turning age 21 for the reduced cost of a duplicate license.
Getting drunk drivers off our roads is an issue of great importance to me. Presently, a tiny red bar along the side of the photo on the license indicates a person is under the age of 21. This legislation aims to make underage customers more visible to servers or clerks.
In 2016, there were 28 traffic fatalities in Tennessee with youth aged 15 to 20 years old measuring a blood alcohol level greater than .01 percent. Reports also indicate that the percentage of young Tennesseans ages 12 to 20 who consumed alcohol in the past month was almost 17 percent.
We also approved a bill which enhances the Driving Under the Influence (DUI) memorial signing program passed by the General Assembly last year. The Tyler Head Law, upon request, erects and maintains memorial signs on the state highway system commemorating victims who died as a result of a DUI-related accident after an offender’s conviction. The new law, however, inadvertently omitted the opportunity to erect a sign for victims when the offender also dies as a result of the crash. Senate Bill 17 closes the loophole to allow for these DUI victim’s families to have the opportunity to have a memorial sign erected in their family member’s honor.
Campaign Finance — Legislation advanced in the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week requiring that campaign funds be deposited into a traditional bank or credit union insured by the FDIC. Current law allows campaign funds to be invested in a private or publicly traded company, causing ethics concerns and a gap in transparency in the state’s campaign finance laws. Under Senate Bill 377 any investment not authorized would be prohibited and the candidate, or in the case of a multicandidate political campaign committee, the treasurer, would be subject to a civil penalty by the Registry of Election Finance of not more than $10,000 or 115 percent of the amount invested.
Domestic Violence — The Senate Judiciary Committee heard heart-wrenching testimony this week from Danny Hensley, father of Leigh Ann Hensley, who was murdered 15 years ago in an act of domestic violence by her former boyfriend. Hensley was joined by Judge Mike Hinson and Police Chief Sam Livingston in support of Senate Bill 1149 which would strengthen the state’s laws regarding orders of protection. Hensley and Hinson told committee members that many cases of domestic violence could be avoided if stronger penalties for a knowing violation of an order of protection are put into place. Hinson called for an automatic injunction until the violator appears in court. He also advocated no contact orders should be given for victims, as well as their perpetrator, to reduce the opportunity for violence. Tennessee is ranked among the 10 worst states for domestic violence. Action of the bill was deferred for two weeks while amendatory language to the proposal is drafted.
Medical Licensure Compact — Legislation which would enact an “Interstate Medical Licensure Compact” to facilitate the expedited licensure of physicians in multiple participating states advanced through the Senate Government Operations Committee this week. Senate Bill 595 follows the passage of similar compacts, including those involving nurses and physical therapists, which increase easier access to care. One of the reasons for the development of the compact includes telehealth and its expanding technologies which cross state boundary lines. Telehealth is particularly important to rural areas where there is a shortage of physicians. The legislation could also address physician recruitment to reduce shortages by enabling physicians to work across state lines.
January Revenues – The General Assembly received good news this week about Tennessee’s tax revenues for the month of January. Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin announced that overall January revenues, driven by a very large one-time franchise and excise tax payment, were $1.4 billion. Total revenues were $169.1 million more than the state budgeted and 10.54 percent more than revenues received in January of last year. On an accrual basis, January is the sixth month in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Year-to-date revenues were $524.6 million more than the budgeted estimate.