Norris News – March 24, 2017
Bills Get Students Out of Their Seats
The Senate advanced two bills this week which help ensure that students get more physical activity in schools, including the Tom Cronan Physical Education Act which requires each student in elementary school to participate in a physical education class (PE) at least twice a week for a combined total of no less than 60 minutes. Senate Bill 558, which was approved by the Senate Education Committee, is sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).
Obesity is one of the most pressing health concerns in Tennessee. The state ranks 49th in the United States in physical inactivity and 47th in obesity. The percentage of overweight/obese students is highest for 6th graders.
“Evidence shows that children who are physically active and fit tend to perform better in the classroom,” said Sen. Ketron. “It improves their concentration, cognitive functioning, and self-esteem, not to mention the health benefits by establishing healthy habits at an early age. It’s time to change the culture of the school to blend academics and PE.”
Under the legislation, the PE class must be taught by a teacher with a physical education endorsement and must meet the needs of students, including those with disabilities. The legislation also requires local education agencies (LEAs) to verify compliance with the act annually.
The bill is named for the late Dr. Thomas Cronan, who was Professor Emeritus of Exercise Physiology at Carson-Newman College and a lifelong promoter of wellness. He was the husband of former University of Tennessee Women’s Athletics Director Joan Cronan, who with Coach Pat Summitt, led the Lady Vols to multiple national basketball championships.
“The Tom Cronan Physical Education bill will make a difference in young people’s lives,” Mrs. Cronan told committee members. “The facts show one in three of our school children is obese. Seventy-four percent are not ready to go to the military… One of the things that Coach Summitt taught us is that discipline makes a difference. I think when we look at our elementary students and what they can do to get better and represent us, not only in the military, but in life, I feel strongly that physical education provides that.”
U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Eden Murrie, a Nashville resident, testified about physical education and obesity as it affects national security. “We need today’s youth to be ready to successfully serve our nation tomorrow in the armed forces or in a variety of different ways. As simple as it sounds, PE is a necessary tool for our youth,” she said.
Obesity is the leading medical disqualification in the armed forces with nearly one out of three young people being too overweight to serve.
The PE bill works in conjunction with legislation approved by the full Senate earlier this week clarifying Tennessee’s law regarding school recess requirements. Senate Bill 662, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), requires a minimum of 130 minutes of physical activity each school week for elementary school students and 90 minutes for middle and high school students. The legislation provides that physical activity must be at least 15 minutes to qualify as recess to ensure a benefit to the student. It also ensures that recess does not replace current PE programs.
The bill, which has already passed the House of Representatives, now goes to the governor for his signature.
Tax Cut Bill continues to advance in Senate and House of Representatives
The IMPROVE Act continued to advance in the Senate State and Local Government Committee and in the House Transportation Committee this week. The bill’s momentum was boosted by a memo from the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) to legislators which recognized that legislation’s net tax decrease means a vote in favor would continue to honor the Taxpayer Protection Plan signed by many General Assembly members. The ATR is a national conservative group formed by Grover Norquist in 1985 at the request of President Ronald Reagan. The flagship project of ATR is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written promise by legislators and candidates for office that commits them to oppose any effort to increase income taxes on individuals and businesses.
Norquist said, “The recent amendments made by the Senate, and supported by Gov. Haslam, have improved the bill to the extent that the bill is now a net tax decrease, and thus not a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge…ATR scores the amended version of SB 1221 / HB 534 as a net tax cut and therefore Taxpayer Protection Pledge compliant.”
The conservative group’s approval follows an announcement in January by the American Conservative Union that that the Tennessee Senate is the “Most Conservative Senate” in the nation, earning a score of 79.87 percent. Since 2011, the General Assembly has cut $438 million in taxes. These cuts include legislation in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 repealing the gift tax, eliminating the death tax, reducing the sales tax on food, exempting the sales tax on certain machinery and medical supplies, and phasing out the Hall Income Tax. If the IMPROVE ACT is approved, those tax cuts would exceed $540 million.
“We have worked diligently to rebuild our state, not only with a focus on keeping our roads and bridges safe, but to reallocate revenues to maximize the return to Tennessee taxpayers,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “This legislation is the latest along the continuum of cuts providing widespread tax relief for Tennesseans, while paving the way to new and better jobs to Tennessee.”
Protesters / Blocking Emergency Vehicles – Legislation which seeks to deter protesters from blocking first responders who are responding to an emergency has passed 28 to 2 in the Tennessee Senate on final consideration. The bill comes after recent accounts of emergency vehicles being delayed due to protests. Senate Bill 902, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), increases the fine for those convicted of blocking emergency vehicles from a Class A to a Class B misdemeanor, elevating the fine from $50 to $200. “I’m all in favor of citizens’ right to protest, but when it puts other people’s lives in danger it goes too far,” said Senator Bell.
Palliative Care – Legislation creating a State Task Force on Palliative Care and Quality of Life in Tennessee was approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee this week. The purpose of the bill is to promote patient-centered and family-focused palliative care in the state. Palliative care is an approach intended to improve the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing serious or life-threatening illnesses. It aims to prevent and relieve their suffering by means of early identification, impeccable assessment, and the treatment of their pain, physical, psychosocial, spiritual, and various other ailments. Senate Bill 1170, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), creates a nine-member task force charged with consulting and advising the Department of Health on matters relative to the establishment, maintenance, operation, and outcome of palliative care initiatives.
Over the last decade, a multitude of studies have shown the benefits of palliative care, including improved quality of life, reduced patient and caregiver burden, and an overall reduction in total health care costs. Currently, 16 states have laws establishing these Advisory Councils, and an additional seven states introduced comparable bills during their most recent legislative sessions.
Domestic Violence Offenders / Firearm Prohibition Notice — The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill ensuring that domestic violence offenders have indisputable notice regarding the prohibition from owning or possessing a firearm. Defendants who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm under both U.S. and Tennessee laws. Although this fact is verbally communicated to the defendant upon entering a guilty plea, the notice provided is deficient when compared to the information provided to respondents in Order of Protection cases. Senate Bill 229, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), uses the procedure that already exists for Orders of Protection to ensure that every convicted offender receives and completes a form that further informs the defendant about firearm restrictions and when and how to dispossess firearms. Offenders with a history of domestic violence are five times more likely to murder an intimate partner when a firearm is present in the home.
Consumers / Spoofing — State Senators gave final approval this week to legislation that creates a consumer protection violation for someone who employs caller identification (ID) spoofing technology with the intent to defraud or cause harm to another person, or to wrongfully obtain anything of value. Spoofing technology allows a person, when making a call or sending a text message, to change the number so that it appears on the recipient’s caller ID that it is different from the one that is actually being used. It is often used as part of an attempt to trick someone into giving away valuable personal information so it can be used in fraudulent activity or sold illegally. Senate Bill 511, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), creates a Class A misdemeanor for spoofing, as well as allowing for spoofing victims and the state’s Attorney General to pursue civil actions against offenders.
Retail Theft – Two bills, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), are advancing in the State Senate which are designed to address Organized Retail Crime (ORC). It has been estimated that in 2015 alone, Tennessee lost over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lost over $200 million due to return fraud. “We have a crisis in Tennessee where goods are stolen and then returned to retailers for credit on a gift card,” Briggs said.
Senate Bill 119, approved by the Judiciary Committee this week, and Senate Bill 120 which passed the panel last week, enact the Organized Retail Crime Prevention Act, creating two new theft offenses for the purpose of prosecuting individuals that return stolen merchandise to receive money or store credit. The legislation defines organized retail crime and creates an enforcement mechanism. The offense of theft of property is also expanded to address modern shoplifting devices, helping law enforcement convict the more sophisticated criminal.
Per Capita, Knoxville is first in the nation for card abuse and theft. Tennessee is one of only 17 states that do not have ORC legislation.
Norris News – March 17, 2017
Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act overcomes first hurdle with passage in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee
Senate Committees wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government this week and moved a number of important bills to the Senate floor for final action. This includes Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act which proposes a responsible path to improve access to broadband through investment, deregulation, and education. Senate Bill 1215, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Senate State and Local Government Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), would spur deployment in rural unserved areas, opening them up to economic investment and job growth.
This week’s action was also highlighted by a visit from President Donald Trump who delivered remarks at The Hermitage in Nashville recognizing the 250th birthday of President Andrew Jackson, before holding a rally at the Municipal Auditorium where he talked about reducing taxes, bringing back jobs, and repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Broadband — The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s NextTennessee legislative plan to build and sustain the state’s competitiveness for the next generation of Tennesseans. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility. While only two percent of the state’s urban citizens lack access, 34 percent of rural residents are without coverage at recognized minimum standards due to low population density and challenging geography.
“We need better access, not bigger government,” said Sen. Norris. “Broadband is critical to commerce and the quality of life of every Tennessean and is essential for our current and future education and economic initiatives.”
The legislation calls for a three-year investment of $45 million in grants and tax credits that focus on the state’s unserved areas. This includes a $30 million “Broadband Accessibility Grant Program” and $15 million in tax credits to private service providers based on the purchase of broadband equipment used to provide access in the most economically challenged counties.
On deregulation, the proposal permits the state’s private, nonprofit electric co-operatives to provide broadband and cable video services. The co-ops are currently restricted from providing retail broadband services. To protect co-op ratepayers, the legislation prevents the use of electric system assets to subsidize broadband services.
Senator Bell said, “The co-ops have many years of experience in providing service to rural communities in the state. It’s what they were created to do, so they are uniquely qualified to expand broadband to unserved areas.” Bell said his support for the proposal stems “not from the people who want to watch Netflix, but for the people who have to drive 10 miles or more to truck stops to do homework.” Education is a key component of the broadband legislation as the digital divide is preventing thousands of Tennessee students in unserved areas from being able to do homework that requires Internet access.
The bill expands opportunities for education by providing grants to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve their digital literacy skills and maximize the benefits of broadband. This is in addition to education efforts by the state’s Rural Task Force and other groups to drive broadband adoption in unserved areas of Tennessee.
The legislation comes after an extensive report was issued by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), chaired by Leader Norris, regarding the subject of broadband accessibility which significantly contributed to the broadband proposal.
President Trump’s Tennessee Visit
State senators made news this week as President Donald Trump came to Nashville to visit the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s home and final resting place, on the 250th anniversary of the seventh president’s birth. President Trump and the Hermitage’s Andrew Jackson Foundation graciously extended invitations to state legislators to join the president at the Hermitage.
Traveling with Governor Bill Haslam, Senator Bob Corker and Senator Lamar Alexander, Trump arrived at the Hermitage in the late afternoon, took a brief tour of the Hermitage and then laid a wreath at the grave of President Jackson. Calling it an “inspirational visit,” President Trump gave a brief address to the intimate gathering. The speech focused on President Jackson’s life, sacrifices and rise to power. Calling Jackson a “military hero and genius” as well as a “flawed man,” Trump noted various parallels between himself and the seventh President. Trump especially identified with Jackson’s defiance of “an arrogant elite” that often questioned his legitimacy.
Trump left the Hermitage and made a longer campaign-style address to a large crowd at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville.
President Trump generated national news at the Nashville speech, making his first public comments on a federal judge’s restraining order against his revised executive order on immigration and travel. Trump, who vowed to fight the judge’s decision, threw out the possibility he might reissue his original executive order.
Tennessee files first lawsuit in the nation challenging constitutionality of the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program
A lawsuit was filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee challenging the constitutionality of the federal refugee resettlement program on behalf of the State of Tennessee, the Tennessee General Assembly, Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster). The state is challenging the program on the basis that it violates the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the principles of State sovereignty.
The Thomas More Law Center, a national nonprofit public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, MI, is representing the state in the case pro bono.
The lawsuit comes after the Tennessee General Assembly overwhelmingly passed Senate Joint Resolution 467 during the 2016 legislative session, authorizing legal action to stop the federal government from unconstitutionally commandeering State funds to finance the federal refugee resettlement program. It was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
Norris emphasized the point that the lawsuit should not be taken as a criticism of the Trump Administration, stating “We want to convey to the President that we support his efforts concerning immigration and refugee resettlement and believe this suit for declaratory relief is consistent with what would likely be his position regarding states like Tennessee which have withdrawn from the refugee resettlement program but are forced to continue paying costs associated with it.”
Senator Stevens stated, “Through federal economic dragooning of our State’s budget, past Presidents and Congresses have quieted my vote and thereby my constituents’ voices. President Trump, through executive action, has reversed the overreaches of the Obama Administration in numerous ways. I trust President Trump in this regard. However, he needs our help.”
“The Constitution does not allow the Federal Government to force me as the elected representative of the 24th Senate District to implement federal programs while they sit in Washington insulated from the consequences,” Stevens continued.
The state is seeking a court declaration that the federal government has violated the Tenth Amendment and an order permanently enjoining the federal government from forcing the State of Tennessee to pay money out of its treasury to finance the federal refugee resettlement program.
When Congress enacted the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980, the explicit intent was to assure full federal reimbursement of the costs for each refugee resettled and participating in benefit programs provided by the states. Eventually, however, federal reimbursements to the states for these benefit programs were reduced and, by 1991, eliminated entirely. The states thereby became responsible for the costs of the programs originally covered by the federal government. Tennessee officially withdrew from participation in the refugee resettlement program in 2007. However, instead of honoring Tennessee’s decision to withdraw from the program, the federal government merely bypassed the State and appointed a private, non-governmental organization to administer the program.
Senate Transportation amends IMPROVE Act with deeper tax cuts
An improved version of Governor Bill Haslam’s Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE Act) advanced in the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week with several significant tax cuts added by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). This includes a 20 percent reduction in the food tax. Norris said the move to reduce the food tax from five to four percent is designed to help Tennesseans “save more at the store than they pay at the pump.”
The committee action continues ongoing efforts to reduce taxes made by Norris in 2013 when the food tax was cut from 5.25 percent to 5 percent.
The purpose of the IMPROVE Act is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayer’s return on that investment. While one category, the gas tax, increases, it would be more than offset by the widespread cuts that most people pay for other necessities.
Senate Bill 1221, as amended, reduces the governor’s proposed increase from 7 to 6 cents on a gallon of gas and from 12 to 11 cents on a gallon of diesel, phasing them in over a three-year period. Other improvements made in the Senate bill include:
- Removal of the provision to index the tax to adjust for inflation;
- Removal of the proposed surcharge on rental cars; and,
- Addition of more property tax relief for veterans and the elderly/disabled by moving the property value threshold from $100,000 to $135,100 for veterans and from $23,500 to $27,000 for the elderly/disabled, adjusting for inflation in future years.
The legislation maintains the governor’s proposal to make Tennessee’s franchise and excise (F&E) tax on manufacturing business more competitive by allowing companies to go to a single weighted sales factor. This provision aims to attract new and better paying manufacturing jobs to Tennessee which currently has higher F&E taxes than some neighboring states. It also provides for a one percent reduction in the Hall Income Tax.
The legislation continues the state’s long-time reliance on user fees rather than sales taxes to fund highway improvements. Tennessee does not use debt financing, tolls, or general fund revenues to fund roads. This pay-as-you-go practice has been credited as one of the reasons for the state’s top financial rankings and is especially important due to the instability of federal transportation funds over the past decade.
Tennessee has approximately 11,000 local roads, 40 percent of which are over 50 years old. Likewise, there are 8,000 state bridges in which 40 percent are over 40 years old. The aged bridges are causing significant safety concerns, as some are unsafe for the travel of heavy equipment, including fire trucks, ambulances and vehicles used in farming.
The legislation lists 962 projects identified by the governor as priorities. It includes 45 projects to improve interstates, 89 projects to improve road access in rural communities, 51 projects geared toward creating economic opportunities and 724 total bridge replacements.
Governor Haslam has said, “Scores of mayors across Tennessee – cities and counties, rural and urban – have told me that, if we don’t do something to address the fuel tax, they will have no alternative but to raise the property tax in their municipalities.” The governor’s proposal would mean $70 million annually in increased revenue for county road projects in Tennessee and $35 million for cities.
The bill now moves to the Senate State and Local Government Committee for consideration.
Memphis Belle / Official State Airplane – Legislation naming the Memphis Belle as the Tennessee’s official state airplane was approved by the General Assembly this week. The Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress, which is arguably one of the five most famous aircraft in U.S. history, completed twenty-five missions in World War II with only minor damage and without the loss of any crew member. The heavy bomber was named for pilot Robert K. Morgan’s sweetheart, Memphis native Margaret Polk. The airplane and crew visited thirty-two U.S. cities, including Memphis, after World War II ended on a war bond tour before the airplane was retired. It was later brought to Memphis where it has been on public display for 59 years under the care of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association. The Memphis Belle is currently being restored to pristine condition as preparations are being made for a week-long “roll-out” ceremony of the airplane in May 2018 – the 75th anniversary of the Belle’s twenty-fifth mission over Nazi-occupied Europe. Senate Bill 1263 is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
James K. Polk Gravesite — Legislation which supports the relocation of President James K. Polk’s tomb from the State Capitol grounds to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site in Columbia, Tennessee, advanced through the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday. Senate Joint Resolution 141, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), aims to make the gravesite more accessible and bring better recognition to the 11th President of the U.S., who was one of only three Tennesseans ever to hold the nation’s highest office. The action to move the tomb to the state-owned site in Columbia is supported by the James K. Polk Memorial Association who requested the relocation. Both of Tennessee’s other presidents, President Andrew Johnson and President Andrew Jackson, are buried on land they owned. Polk had requested burial at his home, Polk Place, which no longer stands. The James K. Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site in Columbia was Polk’s only other residence, besides his residency at the White House. Senate passage of the resolution is part of a multi-step process before relocation can occur with the next step being approval by Tennessee’s Historical Commission.
Retired Teachers / Substitute Teachers — The Senate has approved Senate Bill 379 which guarantees a teacher without an active license that has retired within the last five years, is eligible for the same rate of pay as retired teachers that have maintained their licenses. The goal of legislation is to address the need for short-term substitute teachers who are highly qualified by giving an incentive for retired teachers to go back into the substitute teacher pool, even if they have not renewed their licenses. The bill is sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville).