March 5, 2009

Senate State and Local Government Committee approves election integrity bill
and legislation honoring Republican Majority on State Election Commission

Legislation protecting the integrity of elections in Tennessee overcame its first hurdle towards passage this week with approval by the Senate State and Local Government Committee. The bill requires voters to provide photo identification to guard against fraud and assure only U.S. citizens vote.

“Unfortunately, we know that voter fraud exists and that there are people who try to be dishonest in an election,” said Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), Chairman of the Committee and sponsor of the bill. “This bill aims to curtail such abuse by making sure those persons voting are who they say they are.”

The bill, SB 150, provides for various forms of photo identification to be used including a driver’s license, military identification, a valid passport, government employee identification cards, and any federal and state-issued identification cards that contain photographs of the voter. The legislation does not apply to those in nursing homes. It also allows for those who are indigent to sign an affidavit swearing their status as an eligible voter. In addition, the bill provides for a “provisional ballot” which would only be counted if the election counting board is able to verify current and valid identification of the voter within three days.

Last April a U.S. Supreme Court decision validated the right of states to require voters to produce photo identification. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, of the 24 states that have a voter-ID requirement, seven states specify a photograph be shown to prove identification, including neighboring states Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. In no state is a voter who cannot produce identification turned away from the polls. All states have some recourse for voters without identification to cast a vote or provide for a provisional ballot.

The voter integrity legislation has been approved for the past several years in Tennessee’s State Senate but has failed in the House of Representatives along party lines with Democrats opposing the bill.

“This legislation makes it clear to everyone that Tennessee has the right to make sure that those voting are legitimately casting their votes, and are U.S. citizens,” added Senator Ketron. “I am hopeful that this measure, which has been upheld by the courts, will be approved by the full General Assembly this year.”

In other action in the State and Local Government Committee this week, legislation was approved to update the political composition of the State Election Commission which has been dominated by Democrats for generations. State law currently requires that the political composition of the five-member State Election Commission be three members of the majority party and two members of the minority party. In 2008, the majority party changed prompting the need to replace one Democrat on the state board with a Republican. The terms of office for State Election Commission board members, however, are on a four-year cycle, which is in conflict with state law given the shift in power.

“The Republican Party now holds the largest number of seats in the General Assembly,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), sponsor of the bill. “In order to reflect the new majority and comply with state law, we propose to temporarily add two new Republicans to the mix. The Democrats are in mid-term and won’t go gracefully.”

Under the bill, SB 547, the new members would rotate off in two years when their terms of office expire. The make-up of the board would consequently return to a five-member status after that time.

Tennessee law also requires county election commissions to reflect the change in majority status by giving Republicans three members of the five-member boards statewide. Those terms of office will be up next month.

Finally, the Senate State and Local Government Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) requiring that a convicted felon must pay all fines and court costs imposed before being eligible to have their voting rights restored. Currently, a person convicted of a felony must be pardoned, discharged from custody or supervision, and have paid all restitution to the victim of the offense to have their rights of suffrage restored. This legislation, SB 440, would add the payment of fines incurred as a result of the felony as a condition for restoring the right to vote.

Legislation approved by Judiciary Committee strengthens rights of property owners

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) to strengthen the rights of property owners in cases of eminent domain. The potential for abuse of government power in cases of eminent domain has been a growing concern for citizens nationwide in recent years, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Kelo v. New London, which opened the floodgates. The 5-4 high court decision condoned the rights of local governments to take private property for public use in the name of economic development.

After the Kelo case, many state legislatures moved into action in 2006 to improve their eminent domain laws, including Tennessee. The legislation, SB 521 and SB 522, approved by the Judiciary Committee would further strengthen that law to provide additional checks and balances to protect citizens from abuse.

Tennessee’s 2006 post-Kelo law reiterated that a “taking” must be for “legitimate public use.” It prohibited land used predominantly for agriculture production from being considered a blighted area. It increased notification requirements for eminent domain action from 5 to 30 days, allowing land owners to receive a fair hearing in court with time to prepare their case and provided for attorney’s fees if the property owner is successful. It also required government entities seeking eminent domain action to deposit moving and other expenses into an account for the owner of land seized through eminent domain.
The bill approved by the Committee this week would further strengthen that law by providing that approval must be given for eminent domain “takings” by the locally-elected governing body. It also gives property owners the right of first refusal to buy back property from an eminent domain taking if it is not used for the purpose for which it was taken within ten years.

“The protection of homes and small businesses and other private property against unreasonable government seizure is a fundamental principle of our form of government,” said Senator McNally. “These two additional protections will provide the checks and balances needed to make help safeguard against abuse.”

Senate Education Committee hears update on efforts to improve students’ health

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony this week regarding the state’s Coordinated School Health Program’s efforts to improve the health of students in Tennessee. Coordinated School Health Director Connie Givens told the committee that the program is a national model that is making a significant difference to help Tennessee children make healthy choices and improve student performance.

Tennessee ranks among the highest states in the nation for the incidence of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Forty-one percent of students in the state’s schools are overweight or obese. These adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight adults who are subject to these life-threatening health conditions.

Beginning as a pilot project, the program was implemented statewide in 2006. That legislation was sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), General Welfare, Health and Human Services Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnnson City), Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) and Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), among others. It provided for a Physical Education Specialist and a Coordinator of School Health position within the Tennessee Department of Education and called for 90 minutes of physical activity for K-12 students.

There are eight components to the Coordinated School Health Initiative including health education, physical activity, nutrition services, school health services, counseling, a healthy and safe school environment, community involvement and health promotion for school staff. The program also partners with other health care agencies to provide a vast array of health screening services to accomplish those goals. Givens said the results of the program have included reduced absenteeism, improved academic performance and higher graduation rates.

Research shows that poor health habits in children are associated with poorer academic achievement. It also shows schools that offer intense physical activity programs have shown positive effects on student academic achievement.

The Committee, in partnership with the American Heart Association, also honored three Tennessee schools for excellence in implementing the Coordinated School Health Law. Lincoln County High School received “highest honors” for outstanding achievement by a Tennessee high school, E.O. Coffman Middle School in Lawrence County received the award for excellence in a junior high school, while North Stewart Elementary School in Stewart County topped the list for elementary schools.

Turning the tide on Tennessee’s disturbing health status to help future generations make healthy choices is important not only to improve the health of individuals but also for the economic health of the state due to rising health care costs.

Finance Official Updates Senate Finance Committee on Federal Stimulus Money

State Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week where he continued to urge caution regarding the stimulus money coming to the state through the federal U.S. Economic Recovery Act. The state has revised its statistics on how much will be coming into Tennessee to $4.5 billion over a two-year period. Earlier predictions were in the $3.8 billion range.

Goetz said he is cautioning leaders at all levels of government in Tennessee to remind them it is a temporary assistance plan and that if recurring expenses are involved to expect the money to disappear at the end of the two-year period. He also said the federal government is issuing guidance on how the money must be spent daily and that there is nothing to prohibit the federal government them from changing its mind at any time regarding those rules.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris questioned Goetz and Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely about the need to implement an orderly process for the lawful expenditure of stimulus funds.

“The State Constitution mandates that all expenditures are subject to appropriation by the Legislature,” said Leader Norris. “The governor has given us his word that he will comply.”

Issues in Brief

Hunting and fishing rights / SJR 30 — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a resolution this week to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to protect the rights of citizens to hunt and fish. The measure will be voted on in the same manner as the “Victim’s Rights Amendment” in 1998, the “State Lottery Scholarship Amendment” of 2002, or the recent amendment to give property tax relief to the elderly. The measure was approved in the 105th General Assembly but must pass by a two-thirds majority in the current legislature before citizens can expect to see the resolution on the ballot in November 2010.

Abortion / SJR 127 Legislation was filed on Monday by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin) to give Tennesseans the opportunity to restore their voice in determining what state law should be regarding common sense protections for abortions. SJR 127 passed the State Senate overwhelmingly last year but failed along party lines with Democrats voting against the measure in a House Subcommittee. The resolution addresses a State Supreme Court decision in 2000 that struck down provisions in Tennessee law allowing women to receive “informed consent” information about the surgery and to wait 48 hours before they receive an abortion, making Tennessee more liberal than the courts required in Roe v. Wade. The earliest this amendment, if approved, could go to voters is 2014.

Coal Fly Ash – Legislation was presented by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) to the Senate Environment Committee this week to ban the future storage of coal fly ash in lagoons. The bill, SB 1559, would prohibit the State Conservation and Environment Department from issuing a permit for disposal of fly ash in holding ponds. It also prohibits issuance of a permit in landfills unless they contain a liner for protection of groundwater and are capped properly. Debate on the bill will continue in the committee next week.

Vacancies / County Commissioners — The full Senate passed legislation this week to correct a problem arising from an interpretation of a 2008 law that revised procedures for filling vacancies by a county commission. That law required a county commissioner to resign from the county commission if they accept an appointment made by that governing body. Some attorneys have interpreted this to include any appointments made by the county commission, including internal appointment to boards and committees, such as budget and finance committees, beer boards, ethics committees etc. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) clarifies that it was not the intent of the 2008 law to prevent a county commissioner from serving on any board or commission if he or she could lawfully serve on that board prior to the act.

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