April 21, 2012

Patriot’s Day 2012

“Today is Patriot’s Day. In the haste and hustle and bustle of all we have to work on I want us to take a moment to pause and reflect on the fact that 237 years ago today in Lexington, Massachusetts the first shot of the American Revolution was fired, “the shot heard around the world.” Each year for the last three years we have been privileged to have as our special guests on Patriot’s Day, which is officially recognized in Tennessee, the color guard from the Tennessee Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. “

Senator Mark Norris from the floor of the Senate Chamber
April 19, 2012

State Senators approve key bills in preparation to adjourn 2012 legislative session

As the Tennessee Legislature prepared to enter the final week of the 107th General Assembly, state senators acted on a wide variety of important bills, including a measure calling for drug testing for welfare applicants, a bill to curb domestic violence and two resolutions giving citizens the opportunity to vote on how the state’s appellate judges are selected. State Senators also voted to ensure the transferability of dual credit courses for high school students when they enroll in college and to prevent K-12 schools from discriminating against a student based on a religious viewpoint.

Meanwhile members of the Senate Finance Committee worked tirelessly to find common ground on the budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year that will begin on July 1. The remainder of the 2012 legislative session will be predominantly focused on bills which have a fiscal impact on the state’s budget. Tennessee is constitutionally bound to balance the budget. The Finance Committees in the House and the Senate reviewed legislation this week calling for additional appropriations to the financial package under consideration as lawmakers set priorities for inclusion in the budget.

Among key financial bills still awaiting final action in conjunction with passage of the budget is Senate Bill 3763, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), to reduce the state portion of the sales tax on grocery food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent, with the goal of lowering it to 5.0 percent in three years. Similarly, Senate Bill 3762, sponsored by Leader Norris, will be considered which would take the first step in a four-year process to phase out the state’s inheritance tax, also called the “death tax.” The tax cut bills, which have been a priority of Republican lawmakers for many years, are included in Governor Bill Haslam’s budget proposal.

Curbing Domestic Violence — Legislation which strengthens penalties for domestic violence overcame a major hurdle this week with passage by the Senate Finance Committee. The “Repeat Domestic Violence Offender” bill, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), prescribes mandatory jail time and enhanced fines for repeat offenders.

“This bill prescribes mandatory jail time for those who commit the despicable act of domestic assault,” said Senator Overbey. “It aims to curb the growing problem of domestic violence in Tennessee.”

Tennessee is ranked fifth in the nation for women murdered by men as a result of domestic violence.

Senate Bill 2251 provides at least 30 days in jail and a fine ranging from $350 to $3,500 for those convicted of a second offense for domestic violence when bodily injury occurs. Upon third or a subsequent conviction, the mandatory jail time would increase to 90 days and a fine ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. In counting prior convictions, the bill provides for a ten-year look back provision similar to the one used in the state’s drunk driving law.

The bill is part of a public safety package presented to the legislature by Governor Bill Haslam. It was recommended by a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group composed of more than 10 government agencies which held meetings with over 300 leaders in law enforcement.

Resolutions / Appellate Judges — The State Senate voted to approve on third and final reading a resolution that would allow Tennesseans to vote on whether or not they want to use a merit-based appointment system for selecting the state’s Supreme Court and intermediate appellate judges, followed by a retention vote of the people. Senate Joint Resolution 183, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), provides that as an alternative to contested elections, the legislature is authorized to establish in the law a system of merit-based appointments with retention elections for judges of the Supreme Court and the intermediate appellate courts. Senate Joint Resolution 710, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), was also read on second reading. It calls for appointment of state appellate judges in a manner similar to the federal model by allowing Tennessee’s Governor to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and state appellate courts, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, for eight year terms.

Lottery Scholarships — The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 2514 which ties changes proposed by the Lottery Scholarship Stabilization Task Force to continued lottery revenue growth to ensure stability of the fund for future generations of Tennessee students. The legislation, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), was filed after a recommendation from the bi-partisan Task Force comprised State Senators; the state’s top higher education officials from the Board of Regents, the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association; as well as Tennessee’s two top financial experts, the State Comptroller and State Treasurer; and the Secretary of State.

The total costs of the scholarship program have outstripped lottery revenues (which are the net proceeds from the lottery games played plus interest from the lottery reserves) for the past several years. As a result, Tennessee has dipped into reserves to keep the promises made to students receiving funds through the state’s HOPE Scholarship program.

The proposed changes in scholarship eligibility requirements for students attending four year institutions will not be implemented if the Lottery Corporation sustains the $10 million growth projected by Lottery Corp. CEO Rebecca Paul through the spring of 2015. If revenues fall below that level at that time, the legislation would require students who attend a four-year institution to meet both the ACT and grade point average (GPA) requirements to receive the full lottery scholarship award beginning in the fall semester in 2015. The students meeting only one requirement would receive a two-year college grant and would be eligible for the full award by year three if they meet grade requirements. If provisions in the bill are enacted, the legislation would also provide 5,600 more recipients an opportunity to receive scholarship funding provided through the Tennessee Student Assistant Award (TSAA). Those grants would be available to non-traditional students of any age, including laid-off workers and other students.

No current scholarship recipient or any high school student working towards a lottery scholarship would be affected by the bill, regardless of whether or not lottery revenues decline. The legislation would begin with students currently enrolled in the 8th grade who would only be affected if a downturn in lottery revenue occurs, triggering the stabilization provisions.

Issues in Brief

Unemployment Insurance Reform – Legislation that would give job creators some much-needed certainly for unemployment rules advanced this week through the Senate Finance Committee. The bill revises certain provisions such as misconduct rules by individuals seeking unemployment benefits. Moreover, Senate bill 3658, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), specifies that “making a reasonable effort to secure work” means a claimant must provide detailed information regarding contact with at least three employers per week or must access services at a career center created by the Department.

Unemployment Insurance / Seasonal Workers – Similarly, Senate Finance Committee members approved Senate Bill 3657, sponsored by Senator Johnson, which establishes qualifications and criteria for determining benefit amounts paid to seasonal employees. The bill allows an employer to qualify as a “seasonal employer” for purposes of unemployment insurance benefits, and establishes the benefits an employee of a seasonal worker will receive beginning in 2016.

Synthetic DrugsSenate Bill 3018 which defines synthetic drugs in a manner in which unscrupulous manufacturers cannot skirt the law to avoid prosecution is one step closer to passage after Finance Committee members voted to approve it. The bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), defines synthetic drugs to capture any analogues, which are chemical compounds having a similar structure to the banned drug. This legislation creates a new Class D felony offense for a person to knowingly manufacture, deliver, dispense or sell a controlled substance analogue. The proposal elevates penalties upon a second or subsequent violation to a Class C felony. If the violation involves the delivery, dispensing or sale of a controlled substance analogue to a minor, the offender will be punished one classification higher than the punishment for delivering, dispensing or selling to an adult. The bill also creates a new Class A misdemeanor offense for a person knowingly to possess or casually exchange under a gram of a controlled substance analogue.

Schools / Extracurricular Activities — State Senators approved Senate Bill 2488 this week calling for local education agencies to put the names of all clubs or school-associated extracurricular activities and their purpose in the student handbook. The bill, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), would give parents the opportunity to prohibit membership through written notice to the school.

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