Legislative pace quickens

On February 25, 2010, in News from Nashville 2010, by Mark Norris

Legislative pace quickens
Senate Judiciary Committee debates bill to require drunk drivers
with a high blood alcohol level to install ignition interlock devices

The pace quickened on Capitol Hill this week as committees considered a wide variety of bills and continued to review budget requests from departments and agencies of state governments. Among bills considered was one debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would require extreme drunk drivers to install an ignition interlock device. The proposal would apply to persons arrested with blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .15 or more, a level which is 385 times more likely to cause a crash.

Interlock devices are small pieces of equipment attached to the steering wheel of a car with a tube that the driver must breathe into in order to allow ignition to start. The current alcohol ignition interlock technology makes it easier for courts to require drunk drivers to utilize the device.

“This bill aims squarely at those who drink, drive and kill,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), who is sponsor of the bill. “The record is clear that ignition interlock devices save lives.”

According to the Department of Safety, 3877 restricted driver’s licenses were issued to people with DUI convictions in 2008, of which 1,163 were to offenders having a BAC level of .15 or higher. The bill aims to strengthen Tennessee’s law against DUI offenders who register high levels of alcohol upon arrest. State law already requires persons who are convicted and have a prior conviction within the past five years to install an interlock device for a six month period at their own expense.

As of January, 2,743 Tennessee driver’s license holders had an interlock restriction, while 580 license holders had an interlock device installed. Eight other states already have laws that require DUI offenders to install interlock devices if they register .15 or higher.

The National Transportation Safety Board has urged Tennessee to pass a more uniform and mandatory system for installation of interlock devices for those convicted of drunk driving. Action on the bill, Senate Bill 2965, was deferred until next week.

Government Operations Committee reviews objectives to loosen grip of special interest groups and lobbyists on state’s boards and commissions

The Senate Government Operations Committee is currently considering action to loosen the grip of special interest groups and lobbyists over the various boards and commissions in Tennessee as they are reviewed by the panel in their normal sunset review process. Committee Chairman Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga) is among several members on the committee that have serious concerns about repeated language in Tennessee law that requires appointing authorities to select a candidate from special interest organizations.

The governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house are most commonly responsible for naming those who serve on the approximately 250 boards and commissions currently in operation in the state. The boards cover a wide variety of matters and involve oversight for various professions in the state from real estate and health care to athletic training and funeral homes. Special interest groups over the years have lobbied to make sure that their organizations are included in the language of the law by requiring that appointments are made from members of their group.

“Many of us have been amazed at the fact that qualifications take a back seat under present law to being a dues paying member of a special interest organization in order to be appointed to a board or commission in Tennessee,” said Chairman Watson. “It leaves many qualified citizens out of consideration. Being active in an organization could be helpful as part of qualification factors, but without a compelling reason why an appointment should be required to be from members of a particular special interest organization, the appointing authority should be able to choose any citizen who is qualified.”

“Qualifications are very important and no one wants to eliminate that,” added Senator Dewayne Bunch (R-Cleveland). “There are a lot of qualified citizens that can serve on these boards and do the same things that are currently being done who do not belong to special interest groups. Our citizens should have equal opportunity and equal footing as special interest groups and lobbyists.”

“There is a tremendous amount of inconsistency on our boards and commissions,” added Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) in speaking about the various state laws regarding appointments. “Some require specific organizations, while others just ask for recommendations from a particular group.”

Watson said the Government Operations Committee is considering two other objectives in deliberations regarding board and commission members’ appointments, besides removing the special interest designation. One would require board members to be Tennessee citizens, while the other would better define a conflict of interest exclusion, including a one-year buffer period before lobbyists can be on a board if they have represented clients within that profession or subject matter.

“The person left out of the room when the law requires selection from a special interest group, is the average citizen,” said Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Memphis). “We must do everything we can to protect all Tennesseans.”

“These objectives will result in a fundamental change that will loosen the grip of special interests and lobbyists on our boards,” Watson added. “This will also strengthen the public’s faith in state government.”

Tennessee working hard to create jobs in challenging economic climate

Officials from the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development told Senate Commerce Committee members this week that Tennessee is working hard in a challenging economic climate to create new jobs. The Department came before the committee for consideration of its budget request, which includes expansion of an innovative new program sponsored by Republicans last session called TNInvestco.

Two key components of fostering higher-paying jobs to recruit new industries is developing a highly skilled work force and investing in new infrastructure. In the midst of the worst recession and highest unemployment rate in recent history, the state has brought in $6 billion in new capital investment in fiscal year 2008-09. This includes the location of two major plants, Volkswagen in Chattanooga and Hemlock in Clarksville.

Recruitment of major new industries is a primary objective of the Department. However, approximately 84 percent of Tennessee companies are small businesses, generating $23 billion in annual personal income. According to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), this fact shows the importance of creating a good business climate for small companies and means lawmakers must be vigilant to resist efforts to erode that status by increasing taxes or implementing new “job killer” mandates.

“We are pro-growth and pro-business and we must work to keep it that way,” said Johnson. “Our overall statewide business climate is hospitable for businesses of almost any size or type. However, the threat of erosion of our business friendly climate is real. We must strive to keep our taxes as low as possible and our business climate friendly, so we can compete in a 21st Century economy where there is much competition and many challenges, especially during an economic downturn.”

The editors of Site Selection magazine, one of the nation’s premier economic development publications, have ranked Tennessee among the five best states in the U.S. for best business climate. This is in addition to being named one of the best states for jobs and business growth. This is mainly due to the fact Tennessee is a right to work state, lacks a personal income tax, has comparatively low business tax rates, and the natural advantages of a good location.

Tennessee is also one of the top three states in the U.S. for clean energy jobs according to the Pew Center for the States. Recent legislation passed by the General Assembly has raised the state’s profile in sustainable energy.

On TNInvestco, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber said the program is now looked at as model legislation for other states. TNInvestco helps to make investment capital available to small, medium and start up businesses in Tennessee. The goal is to develop Tennessee’s entrepreneurial infrastructure, to bring additional capital into the state, to diversify the state’s economy and to create “anchors” or “clusters” of business innovation which can result in new companies being created in Tennessee. Expansion of the program would allow the state to include two more firms, currently listed as alternates, to provide investment potential to more Tennessee businesses which qualify.

“The state’s economic downturn and the rise in unemployment provide legislators with serious financial challenges, but job creation is a top priority as we look toward economic recovery,” said Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), sponsor of the TNInvestco legislation. Small businesses provide 67 percent of first jobs and produce 55 percent of innovations. This legislation helps us to tap into this vast potential to encourage job growth in the state.”

Two Environmental Resolutions are Approved

Two environmental resolutions were approved this week, including one calling for a report on the progress of TVA to comply with the federal Information Management System (NIMS), which directs emergency preparedness and response in accordance to guidelines established by the Department of Homeland Security. The resolution comes after a report released by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation noted the TVA Inspector General said the agency had not complied with NIMS and that emergency planning and preparedness are critical aspects for the safe management and operation of coal-fired plants operating in the state.

Tennessee has six other coal-fired plants with wet coal ash storage, besides the Kingston plant where the December 2008 spill resulted in one of the worst man-caused ecological disasters in state history. The resolution, Senate Resolution 784, calls for a report on TVA’s progress to implement emergency preparedness, including a risk assessment of all TVA-owned and operated facilities in Tennessee. It also called for the annual reporting of TVA’s progress to transition to dry coal ash storage at each of its coal plants in the state.

“It is outrageous to think that the appropriate action was not taken to respond to this disaster adequately,” said Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville), sponsor of the resolution. “Hopefully, we can avert any similar lack of preparedness in other facilities.”

The second resolution, Senate Resolution 176 sponsored by Conservation and Environment Chairman Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), urges Congress to provide states with the greatest authority possible to manage solid waste. Authorization would include allowing states to restrict the importing and exporting of waste, including imposing differential fees.

Issues in Brief

Online Driver Safety Class – The Senate and House have approved and sent to the governor legislation that would allow senior drivers in the state to take an online driving course in order to receive a discount on their automobile insurance premiums. The bill, Senate Bill 2570 sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), would allow the discount to citizens over 55 years of age if they complete an online driver safety course approved by the State Department of Safety. Currently, only seniors who take courses in a classroom are eligible to receive the discounts.

Snow Days – School superintendents would have more flexibility in making up missed days due to snow or other weather-related problems under legislation that was approved by the full Senate this week. The bill, Senate Bill 3031 sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), authorizes the Commissioner of Education to approve directly proportional variations from half-hour extension of the school days and the corresponding accumulation of 13 days of adjustments to the instructional time requirements. Currently, schools that exceed the mandatory six and one-half hours of daily instructional time by one-half hour daily are credited with additional instruction time, not to exceed 13 instructional days each year.

Motorcycle Lemon Law – The full Senate has approved legislation this week to add motorcycles to Tennessee’s “lemon law” regarding warranty protections. The lemon law requires that motor vehicle manufacturers, or their authorized agent or dealers, must repair new vehicles that are under warranty and replace or accept the return of them if they cannot be repaired after a reasonable number of attempts. The bill, Senate Bill 2649, is sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville).

Trust laws The State Senate has approved legislation to update and improve Tennessee’s trust laws to keep the state competitive as a prime location for investments. The bill, Senate Bill 3522 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Knoxville), improves Tennessee’s Uniform Principal and Income Act, the Uniform Trust Code, and the Investment Services Act by adding a number of statues to upgrade to improve the state’s trust laws. It also creates a new type of trust in Tennessee called the unitrust. The legislation employs the top features of trust laws in other states and best practices in trust administration to put Tennessee ahead of other states in desirability for trust administration.

Troops / Voting — Legislation making it easier for troops who are deployed overseas to vote received final approval in the State Senate this week. The bill, Senate Bill 2681 sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), 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 so they will be counted. 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.

Honoring fallen heroes – The State Senate took time this week to honor two fallen Tennessee heroes who lost their life this week in a helicopter accident in Iraq. The soldiers, Capt. Marcus Ray Alford of Knoxville and Chief Warrant Officer Billie Jean Grinder of Gallatin, were with Louisville’s 1/230th Air Cavalry. Public Chapter 169, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and approved last year, requires that if members of the Tennessee National Guard die in the line of duty, the Governor shall proclaim a day of mourning in their honor and the names of the deceased members of the armed forces shall be recorded in the journal of the Senate and House of Representatives. The new law also requires that flags be flown at half-mast to honor these soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice for their state and country.

Tennessee State Parks – Tennessee State Parks have a very significant impact on Tennessee’s economy and create thousands of jobs in many rural areas of the state where jobs are needed most according to officials of the Department of Environment and Conservation. The officials, who testified before the Conservation and Environment Committee, do not anticipate the closing of any state parks this year despite budget cuts. In 2008-2009, an estimated 16.9 million people visited Tennessee State Parks, resulting in $725.2 million in direct expenditures by State Park visitors. For every dollar spent on trips to Tennessee State Parks, an additional $1.11 of economic activity is generated throughout the state for a total impact to the state’s economy of $1.5 billion.

Theft of Information / BCBS – Legislators on the Senate State and Local Government Committee heard from Clay Phillips with Blue Cross – Blue Shield (BCBS) this week about the recent theft of information from that company’s hard drive. BCBS is the insurance provider for many state and local government employees, as well as other Tennessee customers. Phillips assured lawmakers that they are doing everything they can to mitigate the theft of 52 hard drives from their Customer Call Center, some of which contained personal identifying information. BCBS is notifying those consumers affected with details of the hard drive theft and remediation services to mitigate the potential for misuse of information.

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