April 17, 2009

Election Laws, economic development and the budget are among wide variety of issues debated on Capitol Hill this week

Election laws, economic development, the budget, telecommunications, and violent crime were among a wide variety of issues headlining debate on Capitol Hill this week. However, State Senators also took time on Monday to remember the victims of last week’s tornadoes in Rutherford, Sumner, and Benton Counties and commended emergency personnel for their handling of the disaster.

The worst damage was in Rutherford County where a deadly EF-4 tornado hit Murfreesboro packing winds of 166 mph to 200 mph, killing a mother and her baby. The tornado, which was a half-mile wide and ran a 28-mile path, set a record for the longest EF-4 tornado in history. Seven people were critically injured and about 818 homes were damaged, with 111 of those homes completely destroyed. The cost to businesses and residents has preliminarily been estimated at $40.2 million.

“Our prayers go out to those who lost loved ones in this devastating storm,” said Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), whose home came within 150 yards of the tornado’s path. “This is a situation that we never want to face, but I must commend the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), the Department of Transportation (TDOT), the Department of Safety and especially all of our police and highway patrol who have worked overtime to help our citizens. Many citizens have come out to help, and the response from churches in our area has been unbelievable. I will do everything in my power to make sure the residents and responders have enough resources and supplies to continue their recovery efforts.”

“We truly live in a great state,” added Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), whose district makes up most of the area damaged by the tornado. “I certainly understand why we are called the Volunteer state as we had hundreds of volunteers that helped us go yard to yard to clean up debris. TEMA, TDOT and our state troopers did an outstanding job in assisting our local authorities. This is the worst disaster in Rutherford County’s history and we need to keep all of the folks who suffered losses in our prayers.” Senator Tracy is Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee which oversees state operations of roads and the highway patrol.

Both Ketron and Tracy are working with state and federal officials to request aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for storm victims.

The Good Friday tornadoes have renewed debate on increasing the number of sirens in densely populated areas to warn citizens of a tornado. Legislation has been introduced to phase in additional sirens to ensure that citizens are warned of a developing emergency like a tornado. The bill, SB 88 sponsored by Senator Paul Stanley (R-Germantown), calls on the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) to coordinate with each county to plan to add a certain number of civil defense sirens per year beginning in 2012. The proposal is pending action in the Finance Committees in both the House and Senate.

There have been 120 deaths in Tennessee since 1999 as a result of tornadoes.

State Senators debate bills to protect the integrity of voting process

Several bills to protect Tennessee’s election process were acted on this week by State Senators, including legislation requiring voters to provide photo identification before voting. The bill, SB 150 by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), 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, state-issued identification card that contains a photograph of the voter. The legislation does not apply to citizens 65 years old or older and 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 identification of the voter within three days.

Seven states require a photograph be shown to prove identification, including neighboring states Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana.

Legislation that would give election officials the tools to prove citizenship before registering to vote was deferred upon final consideration in the State Senate on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), sponsor of the bill is working with House sponsors to revive the measure in the House of Representatives where it received a tie vote in the Elections Subcommittee of the State and Local Government Committee this week.

The proposal, SB 1999, sets forth the criteria that local election officials can use to establish citizenship upon registration to vote if they are in doubt. The U.S. Constitution already requires citizenship. In addition, federal law makes it a crime knowingly to make a false statement or claim regarding citizenship upon registering to vote. However, local election officials are reluctant to ask due to lack of guidance on what criteria can be used in determining citizenship.

“The dilemma is that election officials in the field have questions about what they can ask for to substantiate that assertion when one checks the box that they are a U.S. citizen,” said Leader Norris. “These officials don’t want to bring it up if they are not authorized to ask for certain identification. What this legislation does is gives them guidance and clarifies what they can ask for if an election official chooses to put that person to the test.”

Another bill regarding elections approved by the full Senate this week, SB 1420, honors the service of those in the military by making it easier for those overseas to access and return the necessary documents to vote absentee. In the last election, many Tennesseans in military serving overseas requested that they be allowed to send their scanned documents by email because they did not have access to a fax in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This legislation, sponsored by Ketron, would allow Tennesseans serving in the military overseas to scan an absentee request or change of address form and attach the document to an email to be sent to the their county election office to make it easier for them to vote. Currently, only a fax is allowed. The local election office would still compare the signature of the voter before mailing the ballot.

Finally, the State Senate gave final approval to legislation, SB 440 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), requiring that convicted felons must pay all 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 his or her rights of suffrage restored. This legislation would add the payment of court costs as well.

Crooks with Guns legislation targets repeat violent offenders

Legislation strengthening penalties against repeat violent offenders who use a gun in commission of a robbery was approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The bill, SB 673 by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), is one of three bills proposed this year by the Public Safety Coalition.

Tennessee ranks second in the nation in the number of violent crimes. These criminals are often repeat offenders. Sixty-seven percent of those convicted of violent crimes are re-arrested within three years of being released from prison. The recidivism rate increases to 80 percent when you move past that three-year marker.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for approval.

Senate approves Megasite bill to enhance prospects
of bringing new industry and jobs
to West Tennessee

Legislation that enhances the prospects of bringing new industry to West Tennessee met approval in the State Senate this week and is ready for final action in the House of Representatives. The bill, which could come up for a final vote in the House as early as next week, is the result of a team effort of West Tennessee legislators to bring new jobs to the area.

“The stage is set for success in West Tennessee after passage of this bill,” said Senator Dolores Gresham, a co-sponsor of the bill. Gresham represents Haywood County where the site is located. “This has truly been a team effort. All of our West Tennessee delegation has been pushing for passage of this measure and will continue our efforts until it is signed into law.”

The bill, SB 653, makes numerous changes to the Tennessee Regional Megasite Authority Act of 2007, including the ability for authorities to purchase nearby property to be included in the megasite zone. This provision means a Megasite authority could purchase land for critical infrastructure needs, like a highway ramp or rail spurs in non-contiguous acreage. Currently, additional property within the megasite zone must be contiguous. The legislation also deals with the make-up of the megasite authority, making it much like a local industrial development board to enhance success of the project.

The legislation is in addition to the proposed allocation of more than $27 million in bonds slated for the project in the 2009-10 budget to allow authorities to buy land for the Haywood County megasite. Legislators are hopeful that the measure will have the same impact on the area as the megasites in Clarksville and Chattanooga, where similar projects have landed more than $3 billion dollars in new investments from Volkswagen Group of America, Hemlock Semiconductor and Wacker Chemical, creating more than 3,000 new jobs.

“The West Tennessee megasite is the No. 1 major industrial development site in the state,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “It will have a great deal of impact on the future of our region.”

Senate Committees continue to study budgets
of various departments and agencies of state government

Committees in the State Senate continued to review budgets of the various departments and agencies of state government. One such agency is the Department of Tourism, where members of the Senate Environment Committee members took an in depth look at financial challenges facing that industry. A major challenge to the Department of Tourism’s ability to expand the economic benefits for travel and tourism is ever-increasing competition from other states.

In order to compete and create new opportunities, Tennessee must take advantage of advancements in technology, especially in the area of web-based travel planning, and find ways to partner with other state agencies and the tourism industry to capitalize on special markets and creative promotions to maximize available financial and human resources.

In the Education Committee, members heard testimony on the budget of the Tennessee Lottery Corporation. CEO Rebecca Paul Hargrove told members that the lottery program currently has a $6 million shortfall in estimated revenues for the current fiscal year. Revenue forecasters had predicted a growth in revenues, but Paul said the revenue growth has been flat.

Thirty out of forty-two states that use lotteries have seen a decline in sales. Tennessee has seen growth in Instant ticket sales, but Powerball sales have lagged by $8 million. The budget for the next fiscal year assumes an increase of $6 million in revenue growth. Hargrove said the last quarter has been promising and that the lottery will continue to develop products to boost funds.

The Tennessee Education Lottery operates entirely from revenue generated through the sale of its products. Net proceeds from sales of Lottery tickets fund specific education programs, including college scholarships, pre-kindergarten and after-school programs. Since the Tennessee Lottery began selling tickets on Jan. 20, 2004, it has raised more than $1.3 billion for these programs.

Legislation helps children in state custody with post-adoption services

Legislation that aims to improve Tennessee’s success rate in adopting children who were previously in state custody has received the unanimous vote of the State Senate. The bill clarifies state law to provide post-adoption services for child welfare adoptions.

The bill, SB 1702, applies to adoptions when children have been taken into state custody for being unruly or delinquent and parental rights from the biological parents have been terminated. These are some of the most difficult adoption placements for the Department of Children’s Services. However, the rate of success improves if post-adoption services are offered. A few of the services include crisis intervention, family and individual counseling, support groups for parents and children, case management services, and networking of families and community providers.

“Tennessee beats the national average on child adoption placements and we want to see that our success rate improves,” said Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), sponsor of the bill. “These services are proven to help in providing a healthier atmosphere for both the child and adoptive parents.”

Market Regulation Act of 2009 would modernize state’s telecommunications law

Legislation to modernize state telecommunications policy and promote more competition and choice for Tennessee consumers has been approved on final consideration in the Senate. The legislation, SB 1965 sponsored by Senator Paul Stanley (R-Germantown), allows existing traditional telephone providers to opt into “Market Regulation” so they will be treated on the same terms as their competitors in the cable, wireless and Internet telephone companies.

When Tennessee lawmakers rewrote the state’s telecommunications law in 1995, they retained regulations on existing telephone providers. Since then, new telecommunications companies have emerged using technologies that did not exist when the law was written and that are not under the same regulations as traditional phone companies.

Under this legislation, called the “Market Regulation Act of 2009,” the TRA will continue to regulate wholesale telecommunications in Tennessee for market regulated companies. It also keeps in place government support programs such as the Lifeline to assist seniors and low income consumers. Consumers would continue to have a variety of alternatives for resolving complaints regarding phone rates. However, sponsors feel that the increased competition will keep companies from raising rates as they vie to attract and retain customers. In addition, the legislation includes language to assure there will be no rate hikes in rural areas for at least one year.

Similar market regulation legislation has passed in other states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, Nevada and Missouri; and is currently pending in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Legislation to ban “texting while driving” headed towards
Senate floor after approval of Finance Committee

Legislation that would ban “texting while driving” is headed towards the Senate floor for final consideration after being approved by the Senate Finance Committee. The bill, SB 393 sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Murfreesboro), prohibits sending or reading text messages or emails on a hand-held mobile phone or personal digital assistant while a driver is operating a motor vehicle in motion.

Over two-thirds of those under the age of 24 who were polled have admitted to sending text messages while driving. Studies show that drivers of any age who text behind the wheel swerve out of their lane, with many running into head-on traffic.

Under the bill, a violation would be a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of no more than $50.00. The legislation would take effect on July 1 if approved by the full Senate and House of Representatives.

Legislation allowing legal gun permit holders to “carry” in
restaurants that serve alcohol approved in Senate

The Senate voted 26 to 7 on Thursday to allow law-abiding handgun permit holders to “carry” into restaurants or other establishments serving alcohol as long as the owners of the premises have not posted notification that they are banned. The bill is one of several proposals in the General Assembly this year to allow citizens to exercise their second amendment rights.

Those who are in possession of a handgun are already prohibited from consuming alcohol or face a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a $2,000 fine and up to 11 months and 29 days in jail.

The Senate stripped a restrictive amendment placed on the bill in the House to ban permit holders from carrying in restaurants that serve alcohol between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Also removed from the House version of the bill was a provision to restrict the right of a permit holder to “carry” in age-restricted establishments.

The bill, SB 1127, now goes back to the House for a vote on the Senate’s action to remove these provisions. If the two bodies cannot agree, the measure will go to a Conference Committee to work out the details.

Bills in Brief

Tea Time – Thousands of citizens came to Legislative Plaza in Nashville this week to take part in one of the 24 Tax Day Tea Parties across Tennessee. Citizens participated by holding signs and reading speeches to protest the tax-and-spend policies in Washington. The events in Tennessee are part of a larger grassroots movement against government spending called Taxed Enough Already, or TEA, reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party revolt against taxes 235 years ago.

Tennessee’s bond rating — Tennessee Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz appeared before the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee this week where he told members that all three bond rating agencies have confirmed their confidence in Tennessee’s financial standing by maintaining the state’s bond rating and giving Tennessee a ‘stable’ credit outlook. Both Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s held firm their rating of AA+ with a credit outlook of stable. Moody’s Investor Service also maintained its rating at Aa1 with an outlook of stable. In February, Moody’s expressed a negative outlook for the broad sector of all U.S. states.

Farmers – The full Senate voted 29 to 3 to approve legislation this week that gives limited immunity to farmers who participate in “agritourism.” The legislation, SB 2164 sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), applies to events like a “pumpkin patch” or “corn mazing” that farmers may want to have on their property. The measure requires the farmer to post and maintain a sign that warns persons of this bill’s limitation on liability

Wine / Shipping – The full Senate has approved legislation, SB 166 sponsored by Senator Paul Stanley (R-Germantown), to allow consumers to ship wine from wineries to their homes. Currently, it is a felony under Tennessee law to transport wine across state lines. This legislation allows wineries to ship up to three cases of wine per year to Tennessee consumers provided they have license.

“2-1-1” – State Senators approved a bill putting into place a “2-1-1” advisory council to advise and assist the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) in establishing statewide standards that will ensure that the citizens of Tennessee are served by an efficient and effective 2-1-1 service. The “2-1-1 service” is a statewide phone number that connects Tennesseans with community services and volunteer opportunities. The legislation to create an Advisory Council, SB 1210 sponsored by Senator Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), will ensure that the quality of service is raised to an even higher level.

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