By Tom Humphrey,
April 27, 2012

NASHVILLE — The House joined the Senate Friday in giving unanimous approval to legislation aimed at reducing abuse of prescription drugs, sending it to Gov. Bill Haslam for his assured signature.

The governor had made SB2253 part of his legislative “anti-crime” package for this year, citing statistics that show illicit trafficking in pain medications is a major problem within Tennessee.

The bill requires doctors, or someone acting under their direction, to check the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database when initially prescribing some types of medication and to make follow-up checks at least every six months thereafter. Pharmacists are required to collect information from patients when filling a prescription for the designated drugs — those involving opioid or benzodiazepine — and provide it to the database within seven days.

The bill also enhances penalties for doctor shopping from a Class A misdemeanor offense to a Class E Felony when it involves 250 or more pills. The stiffer penalties allow law enforcement officials to go after dealers who distribute the drugs illegally.

Inheritance tax: The Senate passed and sent to Gov. Bill Haslam Friday legislation abolishing Tennessee’s inheritance tax and lowering the sales tax on groceries.

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, said they will also back passage of a third bill that would repeal the state’s gift tax. Haslam has said he supports that move as well.

The bill providing a phased-in elimination of the inheritance tax, HB3760, passed the Senate 32-1. The House had approved earlier, 88-8.

As approved, the bill calls for raising the current exemption for the inheritance tax from $1 million to $1.25 million this year and increase the exemption annually until 2016, when the tax would be eliminated entirely.

The sole no vote in the Senate came from Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who had attempted to amend the bill to block the final step, leaving the exemption at the scheduled $5 million level for estates of those dying in 2015.

Herron’s amendment was tabled, on motion of Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in a 20-11 vote. All 11 no votes came from Democrats.

Under Herron’s proposal, the state would use the revenue from estates of over $5 million to fund college scholarships for children from low-income families. He said “20 to 30 heirs and heiresses” would annually benefit from removing the inheritance tax from estates of over $5 million while thousands of youngsters would get a college education they could not otherwise afford.

Herron said that about 160,000 eligible students apply for Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. grants each year, but the state only provides funds to cover about 30,000. He estimated that revenue from estates of over $5 million would cover 700 extra students in each of the 33 state Senate districts.

“Who is going to be the job creators, the heirs and heiresses? … I bet you its going to be those folks who get to go to college,” Herron said.

The bill lowering the state sales tax on grocery food, HB3761, was approved unanimously by the Senate, just as occurred earlier in the House. Currently, the sales tax on groceries is 5.5 percent. The bill, part of Haslam’s administration package, drops that to 5.25 percent. The governor says he plans to push legislation next year that will bring the level down to 5 percent.

Herron also filed amendments to the sales tax bill, ranging from one that called for a complete repeal of the levy to another jumping a year ahead of Haslam’s schedule to lower the rate to 5 percent in the coming year. All were defeated on party line votes.

Gateway to sex: The House has passed a bill to allow parents to sue teachers or outside groups for promoting or condoning “gateway sexual activity” by students.

The chamber voted 68-23 in favor of the bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Gotto of Nashville on Friday. The Senate is expected to take up the measure on Monday.

In the House, some Democrats argued that the bill’s definition of “gateway sexual activity” was too vague and could cause teachers to be disciplined for not breaking up students hugging or kissing during a high school dance. Gotto said that was not the case.

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