February 18, 2010

Legislation advances to make it easier for troops deployed overseas to vote

Legislation making it easier for troops who are deployed overseas to vote is advancing in the State Senate after approval by the State and Local Government Committee this week. The bill, Senate Bill 2681, could be on the Senate floor for final consideration as early as Monday.

The bill authorizes a county Election Commission to e-mail a ballot to each member of the armed forces, as well as citizens temporarily outside the United States, who are entitled to vote and who have submitted a valid application for a ballot. The move would expedite the process so the voter would have more time to make a decision and return their ballot on time. It will also require Tennessee to develop a database that voters overseas can use to see if their ballot has been received by their county election commission to help ensure that their votes are counted.

The legislation helps the state comply with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which took effect in October. That law requires the Department of the Army and Postal Service to expedite the return of ballots by using express mail, since they cannot be returned electronically due to election security concerns. To assist soldiers and citizens who are living outside the U.S. for work, school or other reasons, the Federal Voting Assistance Program has set up a website where service members can access valuable information and documents to expedite the voting process.

According to the Pew Center on the States, about half of overseas voters fail to vote or to have their votes counted because of current voting rules. Tennessee had approximately 18,686 overseas voters who participated in the November 2008 election.

“It is outrageous to even think that only half the men and women who serve us ‘in harm’s way’ have their votes counted,” said Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) who is prime sponsor of the bill. “The biggest problem attributed to this is that service members’ ballots did not get back to the U.S. in time to be tallied. We need to do everything in our power to make it easier for our soldiers, who are defending our freedoms overseas, to have the opportunity to vote and to have that vote counted. That is what this legislation would accomplish.”

According to Tennessee Adjutant General Max Haston, 5,615 airmen and soldiers are deployed, including Tennessee’s 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment which deployed from Camp Shelby, Mississippi last week to Kuwait. The Regiment will be stationed in Iraq.

Tennessee’s New Adjutant General testifies before
Senate State and Local Government Committee

Tennessee’s new Adjutant General Max Haston testified before the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week about his department’s budget request. The State Senate will be reviewing the appropriations requests of every department and agency of state government through March 17 in preparation for passage of the 2010-2011 budget, which begins on July 1. Haston was chosen to succeed former Adjutant General Gus Hargett, who retired in December.

The Military Department has jurisdiction over the state’s Army National Guard and Tennessee Air National Guard. The Governor asked the Military Department to cut nine percent from their budget, which Haston said causes concerns in three areas: the college tuition assistance program for members of the Air Guard, adequate response to a catastrophic event should one occur, and keeping up with utility costs for the state’s armories.

Haston said the college tuition assistance is an important tool to continue to recruit soldiers into the Air Guard. The federal government provides $3.7 million in tuition assistance to Army Guard members, but the Air Guard is subsidized by $751,789 in state funds to help about 220 recipients. The Department recruited 233 airmen and soldier last year.

On the need to keep up with rising utility costs for the state’s armories, State and Local Government Chairman Bill Ketron appointed a subcommittee to look for ways to find funds to fill that need. Federal funds used to assist the state’s Military Department for this purpose have dried up, leaving Tennessee without help to ‘keep the lights on’ in the 83 armories across the state.

The Military Department also oversees operations for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for managing the state’s response to emergencies and disasters that affect the citizens of Tennessee. Tennessee had four weather-related presidential declarations of disaster last year involving 20 counties, with $28.3 million in damages.

Tennessee Senate approves Health Freedom Act to protect rights of citizens to choose
whether or not to participate in any future federally mandated health care program

The Tennessee Senate approved legislation this week by a vote of 26-1-5 to protect the freedom of Tennessee patients to make their own health care choices, regardless of any future federal action. The bill, called the Tennessee Health Freedom Act is sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Diane Black (R-Gallatin), Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville).

“Never in our history has the U.S. government required its citizens, as a condition of residency, to purchase a particular product from a private company or government entity,” said Senator Beavers. “This act seeks to protect the rights of Tennesseans to choose what type and quantity of health insurance to purchase.”

Beavers said the legislation, Senate Bill 3498, would protect a citizen’s right to participate, or not participate, in any healthcare system, and would prohibit the federal government from imposing fines or penalties on that person’s decision. She said it does not seek to “nullify” any federal law, as it would still allow individuals the option to participate in a federal program. However, the bill acknowledges the right of Tennesseans to refuse to participate in a government-run health insurance program. It also calls on the state’s Attorney General to take action in the defense or prosecution of rights protected under the legislation.

“The mandate to buy health insurance does not regulate the health care insurance markets — it regulates the doing of nothing,” added Beavers. “If Congress really had the power to regulate such an activity, there would be no limits to its power. They could mandate the purchase of anything, yet the Supreme Court recently made it clear it will strike down federal statutes based on such an unlimited assertion of power. It is not inconceivable if they can do this, they could mandate that each of us buy a Chevrolet every year so we can help pay off the loans that were made to that industry.”

Action on the bill will now move to the House of Representatives, where it is sponsored by Representative Beth Harwell (R-Nashville).

Judiciary Committee approves legislation to ensure law enforcement can prosecute sex offenders who use electronic communications to solicit minors/

Separate bill approved by full Senate aims to stop child pornography

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation closing a loophole in state law that has allowed sexual predators to escape prosecution on a technicality. The bill, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) adds wording to Tennessee law to ensure that law enforcement posing as minors can be used to prosecute cases where sexual predators use electronic means to solicit those under the age of 18.

“Law enforcement should have the ability to conduct an operation to catch sexual predators who prey on Tennessee children,” said Senator Overbey. “This bill, Senate Bill 2721, closes the loophole in state law to ensure these predators are prosecuted regardless of the mode of communication they use to solicit a child.”

Currently it is a Class E felony for a person, 18 years of age or older, to intentionally persuade a minor to engage in sexual activity by electronic communication, mail or Internet service, or to display pornographic material through these means. If the minor is less than 13 years of age, a violation is a Class C felony.

“Our laws must keep up with the new technology used by sexual predators every day in America to victimize children,” added Overbey. “This legislation closes the loophole so our law enforcement officers can successfully prosecute offenders of this terrible crime.”

In separate action, the full Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) aimed at preventing child pornography by adding that any unauthorized “covered file-sharing program” as an unfair or deceptive act under Tennessee’s Consumer Protection Act. The practice, also known as Peer to Peer File Sharing (P2P) can be used for legitimate purposes, but is predominately used to illegally copy millions of copyrighted works and has served as a massive distribution system for pornography, including child pornography.

Last year, Congress passed legislation to require P2P programs to provide consumers with notice as to which of their files will be shared publicly and requiring the user to activate the function that would share their files. However, it is the state’s responsibility to protect its consumers. This legislation, Senate Bill 3407, amends Tennessee’s deceptive trade practices law so that the state will have the authority to take action to inform and protect citizens. It would also alert the developers and distributors of file sharing programs that if they want to do business in Tennessee, consumers must be informed first.

Constitutional amendment prohibiting income tax and payroll tax advances

A resolution advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week calling for a constitutional amendment to clarify prohibition of an income tax and a payroll tax in Tennessee. The amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 763, specifies that the legislature as well as Tennessee counties and cities shall be prohibited from passing either an income tax or a payroll tax, which is a tax on employers that is measured by the wages they pay their workers. A payroll tax has been proposed in recent years by elected officials in Shelby County and elsewhere as a way around an income tax.

“I hope to clarify once and for all that Tennessee is an anti-income tax state,” said Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), prime sponsor of the bill. “If this amendment passes, the people will be able to vote on the issue, and we will never have to face another income tax battle again.”

There have been several cases before the Tennessee Supreme Court throughout the state’s history that have upheld that the income tax is unconstitutional. The most recent case was decided in 1964, and this case has never been overturned. However, elected officials in Tennessee have proposed both an income tax and a payroll tax in recent years.

“In these difficult economic times, the last thing Tennesseans need to be worrying about is having to pay a state income tax or a payroll tax,” Kelsey continued. “We have enough taxes already, and state government must learn to live within its means.”

In order for a constitutional amendment to pass, it must first be approved by a simple majority in both the House and the Senate this year. Then, it must be approved by a two-thirds vote in each chamber during the next General Assembly in 2011-2012. After that the amendment would be placed on the next gubernatorial ballot for ratification by the people in November 2014.

Co-sponsors of the bill are Senator Doug Jackson (D-Dickson), Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin), Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Senator Dewayne Bunch (R-Cleveland), Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville), Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) and Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).

TVA updates lawmakers on their efforts to clean up Coal Ash Spill in Kingston

Officials from the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation appeared before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Conservation and Environment Committees this week to update state lawmakers on their efforts to clean up the coal ash spill. The December 22, 2008 coal ash spill released more than 5.4 million cubic yards of ash into the Emery River from an on-site lagoon, also referred to as a holding pond, at the Kingston Fossil Plant. Fly ash is a fine, glass-like powder recovered from gases created by coal-fired electric power generation. The ash contains arsenic, which means it must be treated as a “hazardous substance” as it is removed.

TVA General Manager Steve McCracken reported that their main goals are to restore services, stabilize and contain the spill, and to clean up the ash. Approximately 15,000 yards are being cleaned up every day, with a priority on removal of the ash from the river. Ash recovered is going to a landfill in Alabama, which has already received 2.5 million cubic yards from the Tennessee spill. Approximately 1.4 million tons of ash have been removed by 149 trains, which must meet all the state and federal requirements for transferring hazardous materials.

McCracken said that another priority is monitoring the effects of the ash on humans and the environment. Water and air samples are being monitored to make sure the public is safe. Officials claim there are no air or water emissions that are affecting the health of anyone on or off the site and that the agency will continue to monitor the area after the cleanup.

“Progress on the short-term goals is being made. TVA has done considerable work to clean up the actual spill,” said Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), who represents the area affected. “However, there is still much work to be done to meet the long-term goals: economic reparations and assurance to our citizens that the air and water are clean.”

Five other TVA plants in Tennessee also store coal ash. These sites have been inspected since the Kingston spill, with more extensive work forthcoming. TVA has paid $43 million to local communities in reparations for the damages incurred in the spill. The total cleanup is estimated to cost up to $1.2 billion.

Issues in Brief

Small group cooperatives The full Senate gave final approval this week to legislation, Senate Bill 2836 sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), reducing the time in which participants must commit to purchasing coverage through small group health cooperatives from five to three years. The bill amends a law passed by the General Assembly in 2008 to provide more flexibility for small business owners who may choose to form these pools. The time reduction still ensures pool stability, while working to attract more interest from small businesses and the insurance industry to participate in the cooperatives.

State’s financial institutions are sound – Tennessee’s state banking industry is “challenged but remains sound” according to state Commissioner of Financial Institutions Greg Gonzales. The Commissioner appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee this week to present his department’s budget recommendations. The Department regulates 12,000 institutions with 153 staff members. Gonzales said non-bank mortgage institutions have declined by 50 percent since the recession began. He said the state has still not experienced the issues that seen in other states due to good management practices by banks in Tennessee.

Second Amendment Rights — The full Senate has approved a bill that allows individuals without a handgun carry permit to transport an unloaded rifle or shotgun in a privately-owned motor vehicle. The bill, Senate Bill 2390, would apply as long as the rifle or shotgun does not have ammunition in the chamber or cylinder, and no clip or magazine containing ammunition is inserted in the rifle or shotgun or is in close proximity to the weapon. A separate bill, Senate Bill 842, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that authorizes persons with a handgun carry permit to carry their gun while bow hunting during the archery-only deer season.

Recognizing victims of crime – Victims of crime were recognized under a resolution receiving approval in the State and Local Government Committee this week. The resolution

acknowledges all of those who work to lessen the trauma of crime victims and assist in their personal recoveries including volunteers, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, victim service providers, corrections officers, parole and probation officers, counselors, physicians, and health care professionals. Senate Joint Resolution 778 also expresses admiration and appreciation “for those victims and survivors of crime who have turned personal tragedy into a motivating force, not only to improve the rights and treatment of other victims of crime, but also to build a better, more just community.”

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