News from Nashville – May 23, 2016
Norris statement on President Obama’s transgender “guidance letter”
On May 13, the US Department of Education released a guidance letter describing that it would begin enforcing Title IX discrimination policies to require Tennessee schools to allow transgendered students to use the restroom or locker room of their “gender identity” rather than the one that corresponds with their anatomy.
In response Senator Norris gave the following statement:
“I consider the ‘guidance letter’ to be of neither legal force nor effect. A letter is not the law. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has issued the letter as though it were law.
Governor Haslam issued a statement which is a good first step. He states that the guidance letter “does not make any additional requirements under the law” and, although it is “not an enforcement action,” the Governor finds it “heavy-handed.”
The problem is this: if nothing has changed, why did Obama do it? The air needs to be cleared now that this unprecedented guidance has been issued.
It is important for us, as a state, to make it clear that we will not acquiesce in the guidance per se but will, instead, continue to administer our schools in the same non-discriminatory manner as we always have.
We want to make sure that nothing will be done to give this ‘guidance’ any effect. I met with the Attorney General in Nashville this week, and I am confident that it will not.
Norris Refugee Resettlement Resolution Authorized by Haslam
On Friday Governor Haslam reluctantly allowed SJR 467 for the commencement of legal action to force the federal government to comply with the Refugee Act of 1980.
In his statement Governor Haslam said, “I trust the Attorney General to determine whether the state has a claim in this case or in any other, and I have constitutional concerns about one branch of government telling another what to do. I am returning SJR 467 without my signature and am requesting that the Attorney General clarify whether the legislative branch actually has the authority to hire outside counsel to represent the state.”
In response, Senator Norris said, “I am relieved he did not attempt to block us, but we are concerned at the apparent lack of urgency. Recent outbreaks of disease, like measles in Memphis, may be traceable to refugees relocated in our community and elsewhere without adequate vetting. This needs to stop now. The Attorney General needs to do his job or we will find someone else who will.”
National Police Week
Senator Norris was honored to keynote the annual Tipton County Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Service on Wednesday May 18.
“We have work to do. It begins anew. Recognizing, as we do here today, those who’ve given their lives that we may live in peace, safety and happiness. And those who give life every day to the cause and commitment to keep Tennessee safe.”
Haslam will allow Tennessee to become first state to sue feds over refugee resettlement
By Joel Ebert, USA TODAY NETWORK, The Tennessean, KnoxNews.com
May 20, 2016
Despite having concerns, Gov. Bill Haslam will allow Tennessee to become the first state in the nation to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement on the grounds of the 10th Amendment.
On Friday, Haslam announced his decision to allow the measure, which directs Attorney General Herbert Slatery to sue the federal government for noncompliance of the Refugee Act of 1980, to take effect without his signature.
The federal act was designed to create a permanent procedure for the admission of refugees into the United States.
In his explanation, Haslam said the resolution “directs the Attorney General to initiate legal action regarding refugee placements and authorizes the General Assembly to hire outside counsel in the event the Attorney General does not pursue action in this case.”
“I trust the Attorney General to determine whether the state has a claim in this case or in any other, and I have constitutional concerns about one branch of government telling another what to do. I am returning SJR 467 without my signature and am requesting that the Attorney General clarify whether the legislative branch actually has the authority to hire outside counsel to represent the state.
“I also question whether seeking to dismantle the Refugee Act of 1980 is the proper course for our state. Rather, I believe the best way to protect Tennesseans from terrorism is to take the steps outlined in my administration’s Public Safety Action Plan, which enhances our ability to analyze information for links to terrorist activity, creates a Cyber Security Advisory Council, restructures our office of Homeland Security, establishes school safety teams, and provides training for active shooter incidents and explosive device attacks.”
Refugee resettlement has become a hot-button issue throughout Tennessee and the rest of the country as the nation continues to take in people from around the world, including Syrians who have fled their country amid a bloody civil war.
Proponents of the measure have argued the lawsuit is necessary because the federal government has failed to consult with Tennessee on the continued placement of refugees.
Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, argue the resolution will negatively affect the state’s refugee community and perpetuate a culture of fear.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who was among the more outspoken advocates of the resolution, said it is necessary to initiate legal proceedings for declaratory relief given the fact that the federal government has not consulted with the state on the resettlement of refugees.
The legislation received wide support in both chambers, with as many as 23 Republicans sponsoring the measure in the Senate. The chamber approved it with a 27-5 vote on Feb. 22. The House voted 69-25 in favor of the resolution on April 19.
While considering the resolution, several Democrats and even Haslam, a Republican, questioned a provision in the legislation that allows the Legislature to hire outside counsel in the event that the state’s attorney general declines to sue the federal government.
Attorney General Slatery has not indicated whether he would follow the legislature’s directive.
“We are aware of the resolution and will consider it seriously and respectfully,” Harlow Sumerford, a spokesman for Slatery’s office, told The Tennessean in February.
Last week Sumerford elaborated, saying, “Our office continues to review ways to protect the State’s interests in this matter. This was certainly the case in December 2014, when we joined the Texas litigation challenging the President’s executive action on immigration. Due, in part, to inaction by Congress, there is understandable fear and frustration among many on this issue. Should the resolution become effective, it provides a number of options and we will carefully consider the best option to continue to protect the interests of Tennessee.”
Sponsors of the measure have indicated the Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit public interest Michigan-based law firm, will provide free legal services to the state.
The law center has been engaged in “fighting the culture war being waged against families by abortionists, pornographers, those against school prayer, those against the Ten Commandments, those against God,” according to a testimonial found on the firm’s website from Michael Savage of Savage Nation. Former U.S. Rep. Allen West said the law center has initiated and funded more cases “challenging the Stealth Jihad being waged against our Nation.”
Prior to Haslam announcing his decision, the ACLU and TIRRC encouraged the governor to veto the measure.
“Attempting to block refugee resettlement blames refugees for the very terror they are fleeing and erodes our own civil liberties,” Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director, previously said. “Especially in these times, using fear and misplaced blame to pursue litigation challenges the values of fairness and equal treatment that are at the heart of our constitutional guarantees.”
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the Legislature tried to “twist the arm of the attorney general.”
But Haslam was also lobbied by Norris, who started an online petition, with the headline, “Don’t let potential terrorists come to Tennessee,” which asks Tennesseans to join in the effort to ask the attorney general to act.
While some believed the legislation could not be vetoed by Haslam, the governor’s office noted that the state’s constitution indicates otherwise because it is actually a joint resolution.
At an end-of-session news conference, Haslam said he believed he could veto the measure because it pertained to a substantive matter but declined to say which way he was leaning.
Two other states — Texas and Alabama — have sued the federal government over refugee resettlement, Tennessee’s lawsuit will be the first of its kind in that it will be based on the 10th Amendment, which states that the federal government possesses only powers delegated to it by the U.S. Constitution and that all other powers are reserved for the states.
While arguing in favor of the resolution, Norris pointed out that although the state opted out of the federal resettlement program in 2008 under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, the fees have required Tennessee to participate in the program.
Although 14 states, including Tennessee and most recently Kansas and New Jersey, have opted out of the federal program, that does not mean refugees are not sent to their states. Instead, voluntary agencies, also known as VOLAGs, have entered into cooperative agreements with the U.S. State Department to coordinate resettlement efforts. In Tennessee, Catholic Charities handles refugee resettlement.
Norris has argued that the state is being forced to appropriate funds for as many as 11 programs, including Medicaid, to support refugee resettlement.
Catholic Charities has said funding for resettlement comes entirely from the federal government.
Beyond the cost issue, another reason advocates have argued for the measure is due to safety concerns about continually allowing refugees to come to Tennessee — although Haslam previously said he does not share such concerns.
In December, Haslam said the state should not “abandon our values by completely shutting our doors to those who seek the freedom we enjoy.”
As the measure made its way through the Legislature, some lawmakers pointed to the March 22 terrorist attack in Brussels to further that point.
“I just don’t understand how at this time with all that’s going on in the world … how we could not do everything we can to stop the influx of refugees from countries that we know have ties to terrorism, such as Syria,” said Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, during a March 22 committee meeting.
Between last October and March, only 17 of the 702 refugees, or 2 percent, who were resettled in Tennessee came from Syria, according to statics maintained by Catholic Charities. The vast majority — 514 — were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Somalia and Iraq.
Overall, Tennessee was 18th in the nation in terms of the total number of refugees received during that time period, according to federal statistics.
Those defending the resettlement program have noted the financial benefit refugees provide to the state. A 2013 report presented to the Joint Government Operations Legislative Advisory Committee determined that refugees and their descendants provided $1.4 billion in revenue for Tennessee between 1990 and 2012, compared with requiring $753 million in state support.
Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman, Spencer Bowers, criticized Haslam’s decision.
“Governor Haslam caved to right-wing extremist, once again, today by allowing Tennessee to be the first state in the nation to sue the Federal Government over the refugee resettlement. Refusing refugees who are in desperate need of place to seek shelter from war and hardship creates a culture of fear for the immigrant communities in Tennessee. It’s not who we are as a state and Governor Haslam should be ashamed of his inaction today.”
April 26, 2016
109th General Assembly adjourns with tax reduction and public safety highlighting final week of legislative action
The 109th General Assembly adjourned on April 22nd to become a part of Tennessee history with the last week of legislative action seeing passage of some of the most important bills of the 2016 session. This includes legislation to phase out the Hall Income Tax, a bill to aid 100 percent service-related disabled veterans and the elderly disabled with property tax relief, the Public Safety Act to reduce crime and improve public safety, and the Rural Economic Opportunity Act to spur economic development in some of Tennessee’s most economically distressed counties. The Senate also approved major legislation cracking down on drunk drivers and a key bill to address opioid abuse in Tennessee.
On the final legislative day, the General Assembly approved historic legislation reducing the Hall tax rate from six percent to five percent, a seventeen percent cut from the total dollars collected by the state for fiscal year 2016. Senate Bill 47 calls for an annual reduction of at least one percent until the tax is eliminated. Furthermore, the bill provides that by January 1, 2022, the Hall Income Tax will no longer be collected and eliminated as a legal means of taxation in Tennessee.
The General Assembly also approved Senate Bill 1796 before adjourning, which increases property tax relief for disabled veterans, and/ or their widows or widowers, by repealing the income cap that was put in place last year. The legislation also raises the property value limit for the low-income elderly and the low-income disabled from $23,000 to $23,500.
2016 legislative session see passage of major legislation strengthening Tennessee’s DUI laws
The State Senate passed legislation in the closing week of the 2016 legislative session creating stricter penalties for DUI offenders in a year that has seen major legislation strengthening Tennessee’s drunk driving laws. Senate Bill 2065, sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), requires a judge to order an ignition interlock device for all convicted DUI offenders unless the judge provides a finding of fact for not ordering the device.
Although Tennessee currently mandates the use of ignition interlock devices, there is only about 15 to 20 percent compliance rate with the law because judges must provide a reason why the device should be placed on a DUI offender’s vehicle. This legislation flips that requirement by providing that a judge must state findings of fact on why an interlock device should not be installed on the offender’s vehicle.
Under the bill, offenders must have the ignition interlock devices in their car and operating for 365 consecutive days or for the entire time their license is revoked, whichever is longer. To ensure compliance, the legislation establishes penalties for the unauthorized tampering or removal of the interlock device. If the device is removed during the 365-day period, the offender must start over until it is served consecutively.
Similarly, if there has been any tampering with the device in the last 120 days of the sentence, the legislation provides that the period for which the interlock system is required will be extended by another 120 days.
The bill prescribes an additional $12.50 fee to the offender for administrative costs.
The Tennessee Senate also passed Senate Bill 35, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), this week prohibiting those convicted of vehicular homicide by intoxication from being eligible for probation.
Other key bills addressing drunk driving offenses approved by the legislature this year include:
- Senate Bill 1572, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), which elevates a DUI offense for those convicted six or more times from a class E felony to a class C felony and requires prior convictions for alcohol-related vehicle offenses, including those committed out-of-state, to be counted as prior convictions;
- Senate Bill 2576, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which requires immediate sharing of an impaired driver’s DUI arrest and conviction history with law enforcement, the courts and the National Crime Information Centers, making the information accessible by law enforcement officers in their squad cars to check the criminal background of arrestees;
- Senate Bill 2577, sponsored by Senator Norris, which calls for timely transmission of fingerprints taken for vehicular impairment offenses;
- Senate Bill 1582, sponsored by Senator Overbey, which allows judges to order any device necessary to ensure that the offender complies with probation conditions and a clinical assessment to better cover driving under the influence of drugs;
- Senate Bill 2399, sponsored by Senator Overbey, which authorizes the use of the state’s Interlock Assistance Fund for transdermal monitoring devices or other alternative alcohol or drug monitoring devices when a court determines that an offender is unable to pay for it; and,
- Senate Bill 1730, sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), which creates a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) memorial signing program to erect and maintain memorial signs on the non-interstate highways commemorating residents who died as a result of DUI related incident.
In 2015, 267 people died on Tennessee roadways from alcohol related deaths, accumulating 27.8 percent of all traffic fatalities that year.
Major legislation to reduce crime passes legislature
The Tennessee Senate approved major legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and co-sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Senate Judiciary Committee Vice-Chairman Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) and Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) this week which aims to reduce crime and improve public safety. The Public Safety Act of 2016 addresses the most serious offenses driving Tennessee’s violent crime rate by establishing mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of three or more charges of aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary, or drug trafficking. A burglary is considered especially aggravated if the victim suffers serious bodily injury during the offense.
Under current law, those convicted three times or more of aggravated burglary and especially aggravated burglary must serve only 30 percent of their sentence before being considered for release or parole. The act sets the mandatory minimum period of incarceration to 85 percent for third and subsequent convictions for aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary and Class A, B, and C felonies for the sale, manufacture, and distribution of controlled substances.
On domestic violence, the legislation will allow a law enforcement officer to seek an order of protection on behalf of a domestic abuse victim. Additionally, if a law enforcement officer makes an arrest for a crime involving domestic abuse, then an automatic order of protection will be issued when there is probable cause to believe that the alleged assailant used or attempted to use deadly force against a domestic violence victim. A hearing should be held within 15 days of the automatic order of protection being issued.
A third and subsequent domestic violence conviction would change from a misdemeanor to a Class E felony under the legislation. This change maintains the current minimum 90-day sentence for a domestic violence conviction.
In addition, the measure retools community supervision to reduce the number of people returning to prison for probation and parole violations when their noncompliance does not rise to the level of a new criminal offense. The move is expected to save the state $80 million.
Of the 12,588 people entering state prison last year, 40 percent were probationers or parolees sent to prison because they violated supervision conditions. This legislation authorizes the department to utilize a robust, structured matrix of both sanctions and incentives to facilitate compliance with the conditions of supervision by the more than 71,000 state probationers and parolees.
The bill is funded by an $18 million appropriation in the state budget which passed the General Assembly last week.
Rural Economic Opportunity Act — The General Assembly passed significant job creation bill in the last week of legislative action to spur economic development in some of the state’s most economically distressed counties. Twenty-one of Tennessee’s 95 counties are considered economically distressed, meaning that they are in the bottom 10 percent nationally in terms of unemployment, per capita income, and poverty.
The “Rural Economic Opportunity Act of 2016,” sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) has two components that aim to alleviate unemployment in these areas by supporting jobs and economic development. This includes implementation of the “Propelling Rural Economic Progress” (PREP) program that would create a grant fund to aid rural counties in building sites and infrastructure to incentivize businesses to develop in their region.
The second component of Senate Bill 2538 restructures the county tier system used for determining whether a company looking to locate or expand operations is eligible for job tax credits. This legislation would lower the job creation threshold to 20 in tier three counties and 10 in the additional fourth tier, used for the economically distressed counties. Tax credits help fuel company expansion by rewarding job creation based on the number of positions created, amount invested, type of business and location.
Small Business / SBIR / STTR Grants — The Senate passed legislation this week to aid small technology businesses across the state. Senate Bill 2606, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), seeks to take advantage of small business innovations and federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants. It would allow the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, now known as LaunchTN, to have the authority to establish an applied research and developmental finance program to provide matching grants to small technology businesses. Fifteen other states, including Virginia and Kentucky, have taken advantage of the US Small Business Administration match-granting program and this legislation will make Tennessee more competitive with the neighboring states.
Federal Refugee Program – The Senate adopted a House amendment and sent to the governor legislation which urges Tennessee’s Attorney General to commence legal action in response to the federal government forcing Tennessee to spend state dollars for the Refugee Resettlement Program. If the Attorney General does not commence civil action, Senate Joint Resolution 467 , sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), gives the General Assembly the authority to retain outside counsel for this purpose. Recently, high ranking officials in Washington have cast doubt on the screening process. Instead of the vetting process taking 18 to 24 months which the Obama administration said was proof of how through the process was, it has now been announced that Syrian refugees will be on American soil within 90 days.
Retail Accountability Act – Legislation passed the State Senate this week making changes to the state’s Retail Accountability Program (RAP). The law was first passed in 2012 to ensure that the taxes paid by consumers for beer and tobacco products are properly submitted to the state by requiring wholesalers to report to the Department of Revenue what is sold to retailers. In the first two and a half years of the program, the state has collected an additional $60 million in previously unreported sales tax revenue, which prompted an expansion of the program last year. However, the Department of Revenue’s implementation of the expanded program was more far-reaching than legislators intended. Senate Bill 2570 more clearly defines the scope of the program, including exempting perishable groceries and frozen foods from the reporting process and creating a sunset deadline for the legislature to evaluate the program’s effectiveness at a later date. It also calls for a change from monthly to quarterly reporting. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
UTK Office of Diversity / Minority Scholarships — This week, the Senate Education Committee passed legislation taking $436,000 from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) and using it for scholarships in a minority engineering scholarship program. Senate Bill 1912, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), reallocates the salaries of the four employees in UTK’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the fiscal year of 2016-2017 for the purpose of awarding scholarships to minority engineering students. The money may help up to 100 minority students in the engineering program receive a scholarship.
The bill also provides that state funds shall not be expended by the University of Tennessee to promote the use of gender neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays or fund or support “Sex Week.”
In August, UTK came under fire by lawmakers, alumni and the general public for an Office of Diversity and Inclusion post on the university’s website asking students and faculty to toss out “he” and “she” when addressing students for gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “zir.” In December, the office posted guidance to students and faculty to ensure holiday parties at the campus are not a Christmas party in disguise. These actions follow several years of widespread disapproval over the university’s “Sex Week” which included such events as drag shows, lectures given by a porn actress, and condom scavenger hunts. Sex week has continued despite objections with an acceleration of objectionable content in this year’s list of courses.
Worker’s Compensation — This week the Senate passed a measure improving the worker’s compensation reforms adopted in 2013. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), was brought by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and approved by the Worker’s Compensation Council. Senate Bill 2582 changes the injury notification requirement for workplace injuries from 30 days to 15 days to encourage workers to more timely notify their employer if they have been injured on the job. It also provides additional protections for workers by authorizing a worker’s compensation judge to award medical and/or disability benefits that have been wrongly denied during an expedited compensation hearing. The legislation encourages more employers to participate in the Tennessee Drug Free Workplace Act by authorizing employers to offer annual acknowledgment or notification to all employees of the provisions in that program rather than require the one hour annual training. Approximately 4,000 employers use the drug free workplace act out of 120,000 estimated employers and this law aims to create more participation. In addition, the legislation allows the Division of Worker’s Compensation to hire attorneys as ombudsman to help navigate the system.
Gang Violence — The General Assembly approved legislation this week providing clarity to a 2012 law calling for enhanced penalties for crimes committed in association with gang activity. Senate Bill 1558 requires an offense be punished one classification higher than the classification established by the offense if the defendant was a criminal gang member at the time of the offense and the criminal gang offense was committed at the direction of, in association with, or for the benefit of the defendant’s criminal gang or a member of the criminal gang. If the defendant was a leader or organizer of the criminal gang, then the offense shall be punished two classifications higher. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals recently ruled the 2012 law was too broad and that in order to meet constitutional standards that the offense committed needed to be related to gang membership in order to eligible for an increased charge.
The General Assembly worked with the District Attorney General’s Conference in crafting the legislation. “Gang warfare, gang crime, is a cancer on society,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), sponsor of the bill. “We need to equip law enforcement and the courts with all the tools they need, and that is exactly what this law does.”
And then there were what Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, diplomatically called “distractions and diversions from time to time.”
Tennessee General Assembly wraps 2016 session
By Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal
NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican legislative leaders said the top accomplishments of the 2016 legislative session that ended Friday included a big increase in education funding, reduction of the Hall income tax, a restructuring of public higher education, a public safety act and the $34.9 billion balanced budget with no new debt.
In its 3½-month run, the General Assembly approved a long list of bills that will affect Tennesseans in ways large and small at work, at school, on their commutes, in their businesses and at play. Lawmakers expanded the places where permit holders can go armed, created new governing boards for the University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State and the three other Board of Regents universities, and ordered drivers convicted of texting while driving to driving school.
The Legislature legalized and taxed fantasy sports gambling, ended probation for vehicular homicide when the driver is intoxicated, and repealed a law that allows parents to reject needed medical treatment for their children due to their religious beliefs.
If Haslam allows the Hall tax bill to become law — he expressed concerns about its impact on the state’s future fiscal stability — it would cut the tax on stock and dividend income from 6 to 5 percent this year and eliminate the tax in 2022.
The progressive Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy says the reduction and repeal would make Tennessee’s tax system more regressive, with most Tennesseans getting little or no benefit. Meanwhile, Tennessee remains one of a dozen states still taxing food.
Legislatures also are known by what they refused to do. This session saw the defeat or failure of a dozen or more bills that captured headlines, including school vouchers, forcing women to watch an ultrasound of her fetus before an abortion, allowing communities to deannex themselves from their cities and towns through referendums, a tuition freeze at state universities, mandatory TBI investigations of shootings by police and public release of the results, the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan for up to 300,000 low-income uninsured residents, and allowing the Tennessee children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges.
The perennial effort to repeal the motorcycle helmet law failed again. Advocates blamed heavy lobbying by AT&T, Comcast and other for-profits for the defeat of efforts to let municipal and rural electric co-ops provide broadband internet service into areas not served by commercial providers. Bills to abolish the state-run Achievement School District and to restrict its authority also failed.
And then there were what Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, diplomatically called “distractions and diversions from time to time.”
Lawmakers spent countless hours debating, passing and trying unsuccessfully to override Haslam’s veto of a bill naming the Holy Bible as “the official state book,” despite a 2015 attorney general’s opinion that it was unconstitutional.
They spent exponentially more time on a bill banning transgender students in public schools and college from using the school restrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with than on Democrats’ bills to enact a state minimum wage, a non-starter. The restroom bill was killed, then resurrected by lawmakers frightened by calls and emails encouraged by the conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee. The council warned of grown men in little girls restrooms. Its House sponsor finally withdrew it last week in the wake of national ridicule and an attorney general’s opinion that it could halt the flow of federal education funding.
It was one of several bills targeting the LGBT community. A bill allowing counselors to deny services to people because of their “strongly held religious beliefs” — later changed to “sincerely held principles” — won approval. And lawmakers approved a resolution disagreeing with the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
Several legislators’ efforts to defund diversity programs at the University of Tennessee, delivered with angry denunciations of students and administrators, culminated in a one-year diversion of $436,000 in salary money from UT’s office of diversity and inclusion and into scholarships for minority engineering students.
Lawmakers allowed employees of state colleges and universities with handgun-carry permits to go armed on their campuses, banned any “adverse action” by the colleges against students and employees with permits for keeping guns in their vehicles on campus, and required private schools and universities to write their own guns-on-campus policies.
The Legislature turned down a “constitutional carry” bill sought by some gun advocates, which would have allowed anyone who can legally own a gun to go armed without a permit.
After the National Rifle Association’s lobbyist expressed opposition, a committee killed a bill to penalize adults who leave guns accessible to children when children get them and injure or kill themselves or others. It was called MaKayla’s Law” after 8-year-old MaKayla Dyer, killed in Jefferson County last year by an 11-year-old neighbor boy with his father’s shotgun.
The Legislature approved the governor’s Public Safety Act, reducing prison time for less violent offenders and stiffening penalties for more serious offenses, including domestic violence. It also broadened existing law against sexual offenses and by authority figures.
At the last minute, lawmakers corrected flaws in a 2012 law that enhanced penalties for crimes by gang members but was struck down this month by the state Court of Criminal Appeals. The bill reinstates the tougher penalties if the crime is directly related to gang activity.
The Legislature passed a resolution ordering a lawsuit against the federal government over refugee resettlement in Tennessee, to be handled by a conservation out-of-state group that’s offered its help if the state attorney general refuses.
At the governor’s request, lawmakers altered the state’s school funding formula, called the Basic Education Program, although school districts had hoped for full funding of a separate plan called BEP 2.0, adopted in 2007 but never fully funded when the Great Recession struck. They did approve increases for teacher pay and insurance, technology, special education, and English Language learners.
Haslam is still considering vetoes but praised lawmakers’ overall work.
“We take it for granted here, but there are a lot of states that would love to have wrapped up a budget like we did that contains the largest investment in public education in history with a tax decrease. And not only is the state’s debt down but we didn’t take on any new debt. The comptroller’s office can’t find another year in which that happened,” he said.
In other action, the Legislature:
Restored property tax relief for disabled veterans and low-income elderly homeowners that had been reduced last year.
Required workers’ compensation claims to be filed within 15 days of job-related injury rather than 30, and stepped-up job search requirements for unemployment benefits.
Approved a measure making it more difficult to remove or rename monuments to historical figures, including Confederate symbols, by requiring a two-thirds approval of the Tennessee Historical Commission.
Nullified local governments’ authority to require contractors on local projects to hire specific percentages of workers from within the city.
Allowed shipments of wine to grocery stores in advance of the July 1 date in which food stores can start selling wine, and imposed a two-store limit on the number of liquor stores a single person or company can own.
Reserved for passing only the far-left lane on highways with at least three lanes in each direction — the “Slow Poke” law.
Authorized public-private partnerships for mass transit, and allowed transit buses to drive on the shoulders of highways.
Added Tennessee to a list of states calling for a national constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit powers of the federal government.
Imposed tougher penalties for school bus drivers for texting while operating the buses, in response to the December 2014 crash of two Knoxville school buses that killed two children and a teacher’s aide.
Created a task forces to study the potential for horse racing and gambling, juvenile justice reform and alternative ways to expand health coverage.
Made major changes in the “certificate of need” system that make it easier for hospitals to expand without state approval.
Required licensing and inspection of pain management clinics.