Norris News – April 28, 2017
Budget moves front and center as legislature looks toward adjournment
As the 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly gets closer to adjournment, Senate committee action this week primarily centered on the state budget. The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee received Governor Bill Haslam’s amended budget proposal on Tuesday which makes several improvements and adjustments to the original plan submitted to lawmakers on January 30. The appropriations amendment is customarily introduced in the final weeks of the legislative session for consideration and approval by the General Assembly.
In addition to the tax cuts, for the second year in a row, the amended budget proposal does not take on any new debt and makes significant investments in teachers, K-12 schools, higher education, state employees, and the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Notable investments in the fiscal year 2017-2018 budget amendment to Senate Bill 483, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), include:
- $8 million in recurring funds to increase salaries paid to the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities service providers who care for the state’s most vulnerable;
- $2 million in recurring funds for prevention, education, treatment and recovery services with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services;
- $55 million in one-time funds for transportation projects as the IMPROVE Act is phased in;
$40 million in one-time funds for a new State Library and Archives building to collect and preserve Tennessee records of historical, documentary and reference value; and
- $10.65 million in one-time funds for disaster relief in Gatlinburg and Sevier County after the devastating wildfires in November 2016.
The budget is the only bill the General Assembly has a constitutional obligation to pass. Lawmakers will continue work on the legislation next week as House and Senate leaders and members of the Finance Committees hammer out details. The next step is consideration by full Senate and House of Representatives.
Senate approves legislation calling for one full semester of Tennessee history in state’s public schools
The Senate unanimously approved a bill Monday evening that would require Tennessee’s public schools to go back to teaching at least one full semester of Tennessee history. Senate Bill 631, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), is named for the late Senator Douglas Henry who was a great advocate of Tennessee history and devoted much of his public life to its cause.
As amended, the semester of Tennessee history would be carved out between grades 4 and 8 – a detail to be worked out by the Tennessee Board of Education and local school systems.
The bill complements a system under which the subject of Tennessee history is presently “embedded” into U.S. history classes in grades 4, 5, 8 and 11. The embedded system, however, is piecemeal and does not call for the “story” of Tennessee to be taught.
At their request, all members of the Tennessee Senate were added as sponsors of the bill.
Similarly, the full Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) designating the week of September 17th as “Celebrate Freedom Week” in Tennessee public schools. The timing coincides with Constitution Day, which is also known as Citizenship Day, commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787. Senate Bill 1152 is designed to emphasize the teaching of the country’s origins with an emphasis on the founding documents during that week.
School Bus Safety — Legislation aiming to increase safety on Tennessee school buses was approved by the full Senate on final consideration and sent to the governor for his signature. Senate Bill 1210, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), raises the minimum age for drivers to 25 and requires all drivers to complete a school bus driver training program based on standards developed by the Department of Education and the Department of Safety prior to transporting any students. The legislation clarifies that drivers must have five consecutive years of unrestricted driving experience prior to the date of application. The proposal also requires school districts and charter schools to appoint a transportation supervisor, who receives annual training and is responsible for monitoring and overseeing student transportation for their district or charter school. The transportation supervisor would be responsible for implementing the school safety policy set by the local board of education, including a policy for investigating complaints.
LEAP / Education — The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 1231 this week to include “work-based learning experiences” in the curriculum for work-based learning under the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP). The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), aims to meet necessary skill standards of industries in Tennessee as part of the LEAP program. The LEAP program not only makes sure the state education programs are providing a more relevant educational experience, but aligns them with the private sector as well, so that students can work, learn and earn simultaneously. The LEAP program has engaged almost 20,000 students since it was passed in 2013.
Consumer Protection / Automobiles — Legislation protecting consumers from purchasing a used automobile that has been recalled and is unsafe to drive has received final Senate approval. Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), provides transparency to buyers regarding the recall before the purchase is made from a licensed Tennessee dealer. Also called the “Motor Vehicle Recall and Disclosure Law,” the legislation prescribes that any vehicle deemed unsafe by the Highway Safety Administration to drive is too dangerous to be sold until properly repaired by the dealer. Other than “stop sale” recalls, vehicles for sale with unrepaired open recalls would have to be disclosed to the customer in writing before the sale. The bill also provides that after 30 days of waiting for a repair part, the manufacturer must pay a one percent monthly payment to the dealer based on the average trade in value of the vehicle being withheld from sale.
Norris News – April 21, 2017
Senate acts on some of the most important bills of the 2017 legislative session this week as legislative session winds down
NASHVILLE – The Senate continued to make progress this week in winding down the 2017 legislative session, acting on some of the most important bills proposed this year including legislation addressing road improvements, tax relief, elderly abuse, and school bus safety.
The Senate voted 25 to 6 on Wednesday to approve Governor Bill Haslam’s Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE) Act, which is also named the “2017 Tax Cut Act.” The purpose of the legislation is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayers’ return on that investment. While one category, highway user fees, increases by 6 cents on a gallon of gas and 10 cents on diesel phased in over three years, the legislation cuts $428 million in taxes which is the largest single tax cut in Tennessee history.
Up to half of the tax dollars collected on diesel fuel and 30 percent on gasoline come from out-of-state drivers, who share in the cost of keeping up Tennessee roads.
Proceeds from the fee increases, which have not been raised in 28 years, are dedicated to the highway fund under the bill with $70 million going to counties and $30 million going to cities annually for local road projects. The $350 million in funds will deliver 962 road and bridge projects across all 95 Tennessee counties to alleviate a $10.5 billion backlog in transportation projects.
The Senate also voted to restore fully the property value threshold for 100 percent disabled veterans from $100,000 to $175,000. Previously, the legislation proposed an increase to $135,000. Because of this improvement, the bill must now go back to the House of Representatives, who also passed the bill on Wednesday.
“We are taking some of the excess revenues we have for Tennesseans and reallocating those to return as much as we can to the taxpayers,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “It otherwise changes some of our priorities to allocate more to keep Tennessee safe by accelerating the pace we repair and expand our roads in this state.”
Norris pointed out the plan, as amended, is a lesser increase in the user fees, the gas tax and the diesel tax, than was originally proposed and will be phased in over three years in varying amounts. He noted that the tax cuts are greater than originally proposed as well.
The tax cuts included in Senate Bill 1221 are:
- A 20 percent reduction in the food tax from five to four percent;
- Hall Income Tax relief from five percent to four percent with language to reduce it by one percent until it is gone;
- An optional move to the single sales factor for Franchise and Excise (F & E) tax paying manufacturers; and,
- Tax relief for veterans, elderly, and disabled by raising the home value threshold from $100,000 to $175,000 for veterans and $23,500 to $27,000 for the elderly and disabled.
The legislation is the sixth in a series of laws passed by the General Assembly since 2011 which resulted in tax cuts, with the previous amounting to $438 million in reductions. This includes repealing the gift tax, killing the death tax, reducing the sales tax on food, exempting the sales tax on certain machinery and medical supplies, and a one percent reduction in the Hall Income Tax. Legislators also pledged to work on tax reductions for small businesses next year.
Proudly, Tennessee is one of only five states which do not use debt to fund its roads. This pay-as-you-go practice has been credited as one of the reasons for the state’s top financial rankings.
Wednesday’s Senate session also saw unanimous passage of legislation prioritizing the repair of structurally deficient bridges in Tennessee. Senate Bill 1220, also sponsored by Norris and is otherwise known as the “High Priority Bridge Bill,” authorizes the Department of Transportation (TDOT) to pay up to 100 percent of the cost to repair or replace bridges on local roadways through a new category in the state-aid highway program, a move to help avoid local property tax increases for repairs.
According to TDOT, 200 of the state’s 526 structurally deficient bridges are on local roads and have been weight-posted, a status which can prevent school buses, fire trucks and heavy agricultural vehicles from crossing due to safety risks. Unless there is a comprehensive fix, TDOT expects within 10 to 12 years all 526 bridges that are in need of repair or replacement will likely be added to that list, increasing the infrastructure backlog if funding isn’t approved in the IMPROVE Act.
Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation strengthening penalties for elderly abuse
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved major legislation this week strengthening penalties for elderly abuse. The “Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act,” sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Lt. Governor Randy McNally, is one of three proposals stemming from the Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Abuse Task Force to protect Tennessee seniors. The other two bills, dealing with financial exploitation of the elderly, were approved on final consideration on the Senate floor this week as well.
Senate Bill 1230 further codifies elder and vulnerable adult abuse and exploitation by creating class C and D felonies for those found guilty of committing these crimes and requires state agencies to submit offenders’ names to the Tennessee Department of Health’s Abuse Registry or local law enforcement.
The legislation builds on a new law, sponsored by Norris and passed by the General Assembly last year, that set up Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams (VAPIT) across the state to foster cooperation and information sharing between different government agencies whose purpose is to protect elderly and vulnerable adults.
“Elderly abuse is a silent crisis,” said Sen. Norris. “Crimes of elder abuse often go unreported, leaving its helpless victims to suffer silently. And, far too frequently, it happens at the hand of those whom they trust the most. This legislation would keep seniors and vulnerable adults safer by giving law enforcement the tools they need to prosecute individuals who prey on seniors.”
The Department of Health reports that an average of 116 individuals has been added to the Elder Abuse Registry each year over the last five years. This reflects an increase of 35 percent in 2015 and 28 percent in 2016.
The financial exploitation legislation approved on the Senate floor includes Senate Bill 1192, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), and Senate Bill 1267, sponsored by Norris. The measures give securities officials and financial institutions the tools they need to help detect and prevent financial exploitation of those age 65 and older and vulnerable adults with diminished capacity.
Studies show that over the past decade, reported cases of assault and financial exploitation of vulnerable adults has increased by 20 percent or more. It is estimated that only one in 14 cases of elder abuse are ever reported.
Similarly, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation establishing a Public Guardian Working Group led by the Commission on Aging and Disability to review Tennessee’s public guardianship for the elderly program and make recommendations on how the public guardianship program can be more effective.
Public guardians, also known as conservators, help people over 60 who can no longer help themselves. The person needing help may be unable to make decisions about money or medical care. They often need help with basic needs. Senate Bill 1287 calls for the working group to review who has access to the services of a public guardian and who does not and what best practices, if any, are available from other states with similar programs. The Commission shall report to the General Assembly by January 15, 2018.
The legislation also clarifies that background checks on employees or volunteers who come into direct contact with service recipients should be done and provides immunity for lawsuit for any licensed nursing home facility that declines employment to someone based on that background check. The legislation is sponsored by Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City).
School Zone Safety — Legislation which bans drivers from knowingly driving through an active school zone while talking on a hand-held cell phone, met the approval of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week. Senate Bill 954 applies to marked school zones, when warning flashers are in operation. The legislation, sponsored by SenatorJim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), aims to provide greater safety for children as they go to and from school.
Help Find the Missing Act — The State Senate approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), this week creating the Help Find the Missing Act. Senate Bill 113 streamlines the procedure for how local law enforcement, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), and the medical examiner’s office communicate with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The legislation would require every county medical examiner to submit to the TBI and NamUs copies of fingerprints, partial prints, dental records, and personal identifying data of deceased persons whose deaths are in a classification requiring inquiry by the medical examiner or coroner where the deceased is not identified or the medical personnel is not satisfied with the decedent’s information. In turn, the TBI must promptly make this information available to all Tennessee law enforcement agencies and those of other states if requested. In addition, the TBI will compare the submitted fingerprint data with information filed at the TBI in order to identify the deceased. The results are to be submitted to the appropriate medical examiner or coroner, and if a tentative or positive identification is made, they will also submit the results to the law enforcement agency that submitted the missing person report. The legislation now heads to Governor Haslam for his signature.
Human Trafficking — Among bills approved by the full Senate on final consideration this week is Senate Bill 553 which adds “trafficking for a commercial sex act” within the definition of “child sexual abuse” and “severe child abuse” under Tennessee law. Including child sex trafficking within this section of Tennessee law ensures that child welfare can intervene and provide services in cases that involve any form of commercial sexual exploitation of children. The legislation also changes the definition of “caregiver” in state law to allow victims to receive child welfare intervention. The changes proposed in the bill would help ensure that child sex trafficking victims are properly identified and that child welfare does not face barriers in responding to these young victims. Bringing child sex trafficking within the definition of abuse facilitates a protective, coordinated, and consistent response to this form of sexual abuse. It is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).
“…just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
Norris News – April 14, 2017
Senate Finance Committee approves legislation prioritizing repair of structurally deficient bridges
Legislation prioritizing the repair of structurally-deficient bridges in Tennessee was unanimously approved by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. Senate Bill 1220, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), authorizes the Department of Transportation (TDOT) to pay up to 100 percent of the cost to repair or replace bridges on local roadways through a new “High Priority” category in the state-aid highway program. The legislation would give TDOT the ability to carry out these projects without requiring a local match.
The vote came after testimony from Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Chief Engineer Paul Degges that 200 of the state’s 526 structurally deficient bridges on local roads have been weight-posted, a status which prevents certain school buses, pumper-style fire trucks and other heavy vehicles from crossing due to safety risks. Degges said that unless there is a comprehensive fix, within 10 to 12 years all 526 bridges that are in need of repair or replacement will likely be added to that list.
“In three locations in the state, buildings have burned because a pumper truck could not get to them in a timely fashion,” Degges said.
Norris reiterated reports from school officials in Tennessee that school buses have crossed deficient bridges one axle at a time to reduce safety risk. “Woe be to us if both axles are ever on,” said Norris. “We are going to make keeping Tennessee safe a higher priority. We are going to repair and replace these bridges. We are not some third world nation. We want to rebuild Tennessee and keep her safe.”
TDOT estimates 47 percent of bridges on local roads are over 50 years old. With an average lifespan of 50 to 75 years, TDOT officials estimate 30 bridges in Tennessee will become structurally deficient each year because of age and wear and tear, not to mention those classified as functionally obsolete due to high traffic volume. In addition, 162 bridges on the state highway network are in need of repair or replacement due to the same reasons.
The legislation also gives TDOT the authority to maintain local roadways within the borders of state parks. There has been a longstanding issue related to who is responsible for maintaining these roads since they are local roads within state-operated parks. There are approximately 65 miles of roads within the state parks that are currently the responsibility of local governments.
The proposal incorporates funding made available under Senate Bill 1221, or the Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE) Act, which was also approved by the committee this week. The purpose of the IMPROVE Act, which is also called the 2017 Tax Cut Act, is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayer’s return on that investment.
“It’s a tremendous return on the taxpayers’ investment,” said Norris. “Somebody said it’s not easy, and that’s right – it’s hard. We did the hard work of looking at where we could return money to the taxpayers and reallocate revenues to maximize Tennesseans return on their investment and to make sure that we reinvest in Tennessee and her future.”
Human Trafficking / Minor Victims — Legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee which makes the identifying information of the minor victim of a criminal offense confidential and not open to inspection by members of the public, unless a court waives the confidentiality at the request of the minor’s parent. Minors who have been victimized, such as child pornography or sex trafficking victims, should not have their identifiable information available to the public in a manner that could potentially be discovered and used to further victimize the minor in the media or social media. Social media victimization is an ever increasing problem and has been cited in a number of suicides in Tennessee and across the country. Senate Bill 550 provides a measure of protection for both children and families and is supported by the Chiefs of Police, the Sheriffs Association and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. The bill is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).
Juvenile Justice Reform — Two juvenile justice bills were approved by the Senate on final consideration this week, including Senate Bill 1244 which addresses the issue of courts notifying juveniles of the need to file a motion to begin the process of expungement. Through this bill, the administrative office of the courts will create a form that can be used by the children themselves. The second proposal, Senate Bill 1253, outlines scenarios that are taken into consideration when an adolescent files for expungement. In addition, this measure would create a process to expunge cases that are disposed by pretrial or judicial diversion after successfully completing one year of the court’s expungement conditions. However, a motion could be made prior to the one year period but would still require the court to find a successful completion so long as conditions are still met, and the court believes expungement serves the best interest of the child and the community. Both bills are sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
Teacher Supply Funds — The full Senate approved Senate Bill 401, sponsored by Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), which requires all Basic Education Plan (BEP) funds set aside for classroom supplies be allocated directly to teachers. Presently, $200 is allocated for teacher supplies, with half going directly to the teacher and the other half to a committee which pools resources. This proposal calls for the entire amount to go to the teacher.