April 27, 2012

Senator Norris with Governor Haslam and other legislators at signing of TEAM Act reforming state employment system.
Senator Norris with Governor Haslam and other legislators at signing of TEAM Act reforming state employment system.

Senate passes budget as legislature prepares to close 2012 Session
Tax cut bills approved

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a balanced state budget and major legislation this week attacking prescription and synthetic drug abuse as the legislature prepared to close the 2012 legislative session. The legislation to curb drug abuse in Tennessee is among a list of key bills passed by the General Assembly this year.

The budget is typically among the last measures to be considered by the General Assembly before adjourning. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) the appropriations bill spends $31.1 billion, nearly $1 billion less than the almost $32.1 billion budget estimated for the current budget year. The proposal also incorporates $50 million in tax cuts for Tennesseans.

The Senate legislation made deeper cuts to the budget than the version sent to them by the House of Representatives on Thursday, by further reducing local appropriations that do not have statewide application. In addition, the Senate appropriations bill gave the House another option for a budget with more moderate cuts. The House of Representatives voted to “non-concur” with the Senate’s plan, an action which placed the measure in a Conference Committee to work out the differences between the two versions. The full Senate will return on Monday to take up the conference committee report.

Norris said the budget was cautiously optimistic, as he pointed to a recent poll conducted by MTSU which says that although Tennesseans are more upbeat in general, they are on edge regarding the future.

“This is an upbeat budget despite some of the difficulties we’ve encountered in making the adjustments,” said Leader Norris. “We have a third disappointing claims report in terms of unemployment claims and negative data in terms of durable goods orders. But most disturbingly, perhaps, were comments made on April 25th by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake who said the size of the fiscal cliff that the federal government faces is such that there is no chance that the fed could or would have any ability whatsoever to offset that effect on the economy. This is in addition to comments made on April 26th by U.S. Treasurer Timothy Geithner who yesterday warned the economy will encounter a fiscal cliff at the end of the year.”

“Although most people may not be following Bernake and Geithner, they do have a sense that there is a little uneasiness about what the future may hold,” Norris continued. “Tennesseeans are upbeat but on edge. With this budget we are upbeat too, but on guard. This budget reflects a renewed sense of confidence in our destiny and a renewed sense of responsibility to safeguard as best we can against the inevitable uncertainty of life in the 21st century.”

The budget as further cut by the Senate includes:

  • $60 million increase in the Rainy Day fund and over $50 million in reduced taxes
  • $160 million in salary improvements, including a 2.5 percent raise for all employees, $30 million for salary market adjustments and $5 million for step raises
  • $59 million for economic development
  • $80 million for public safety and corrections programs
  • $547 million for capital outlay, including $335 million for higher education, the first significant investment in 5 years
  • Restores $125 million of the core services that were scheduled to go away July 1

Separate tax cut legislation also advanced through the Senate as members voted to phase out the state’s inheritance tax and to reduce the sales tax on food. Senate Bill 3762, sponsored by Leader Norris, takes the first step in a four-year process to phase out the state’s inheritance tax, also called the death tax.

“I am thinking about the family farms in Tennessee and the folks who paid taxes many, many times over to hang on to them,” said Norris. “And, when the patriarch or the matriarch of that family farm passes, they are going to lose it all because they have to pay again. That’s why we call it the death tax. It is the death tax to those folks who stand to lose everything when that moment of truth comes along.”

Similarly, Senate Bill 3763, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), would 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.

“This lowers food tax by phasing it in, just as we are endeavoring phasing out the inheritance tax. It enables us to properly balance priorities as we move forward to stay optimistic but on guard. One thing is certain as we leave here with a balanced budget, and that is people will be paying less in taxes and we will be living better,” he concluded.

Legislation to curb drug abuse lead list of major bills in 2012 session

Several bills to curb drug abuse passed the Senate this week. One key measure requires doctors or their designees to check Tennessee’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database before initially prescribing an opioid or benzodiazepine substance or at every six months thereafter for the same episode of treatment. Senate Bill 2253, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), comes after a Tennessee Drug Diversion Task Force report showed 56 percent of patients who receive opioid prescriptions have filled another opioid prescription within the previous 30 days.

“Tennessee ranks second in the nation in regard to the overutilization of prescription pain medications, with an average of 20 Tennesseans losing their lives each week from drug overdose,” said Senator Yager. “Last year, there were more deaths in Tennessee due to drug overdoses than motor vehicle accidents, homicide or suicide. This bill is a huge step in the right direction in curbing this major state health epidemic.”

Currently, Tennessee’s database includes basic patient information, the identity of the prescribing practitioner, the pharmacy that filled the prescription, and the name, amount and form of medication that the patient received. Although the database requires doctors, pharmacists or their designees to report, there is currently no requirement that they check the database before prescribing or dispensing scheduled drugs to patients.

This legislation requires pharmacies to collect a patient’s prescription information and report that information to the database within seven days. Currently it must be reported within 40 days. Finally, the bill enhances penalties for doctor shopping from a Class A misdemeanor 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.

“Prescription drug abuse has far reaching effects on our state,” added Yager. “It has touched virtually every family in Tennessee. I am very pleased this legislation has been approved and believe it will save many lives.”

Synthetic Drugs — Two key bills attacking the growing problem of synthetic or “designer” drug abuse are now on their way to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature after passage by State Senators this week. Senate Bill 3018, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), takes another approach to attack synthetic drug abuse by defining it 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.

“We are very hopeful that the new definition will give clarity regarding what constitutes the illegal drug, while strengthening penalties will make certain that these substances are out of reach of Tennessee’s youth,” said Senator Beavers.

Likewise, Senate Bill 2280 makes it a Class E felony to possess, use or sell synthetic substances intended to imitate controlled substances.

Synthetic drug products are sold under the guise of “bath salts” or “plant food” but are comprised of a class of chemicals perceived as mimics of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine. The effects of synthetic drugs include impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes. Although the General Assembly has passed laws previously to ban the chemical compound used in synthetic drugs, unscrupulous chemists continue to modify molecules in the organic compound to avoid prosecution. Law enforcement officials have testified that by the time a new synthetic drug is discovered and banned, another altered form of the compound has taken its place.

“This approach makes it easier to prove,” added Faulk. “We believe in many instances this bill alone will dry up a lot of vendors whose distribution of this drug is filling emergency rooms in Tennessee due to the adverse reactions to these bath salts and synthetic drugs.”

Prescription Drug Abuse / Hospital Employees — The State Senate approved a House amendment and sent to the Governor legislation to authorize the Controlled Substance Database Committee to provide a hospital or mental health facility an employee’s prescribing information. Under current law, a hospital’s Quality Improvement Committee exists to evaluate the safety and quality of care provided to patients as well as qualifications and competency of healthcare providers in a confidential and privileged environment. Senate Bill 2407, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) would give hospitals more information about any potential for prescription abuse by their own employees.

Drug Test / Welfare Recipients — In similar action to prevent drug abuse, State Senators voted 24 to 9 favor of legislation which calls for drug testing for welfare applicants. The bill would apply to testing for illegal use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine and opiates such as morphine, with the possibility that other drugs could be added later by rules set forth under the bill. Senate Bill 2580, sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), applies to adult recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.

The drug testing plan includes a referral process for any applicant who tests positive to be referred to an appropriate treatment resource for drug abuse. If the applicant is otherwise eligible during the treatment period, he or she can receive TANF benefits during the treatment period for up to six months. If the applicant refuses treatment, he or she would be disqualified. After six months of disqualification, the applicant can reapply, but upon testing positive again he or she would become ineligible for one year.

Under the federal Welfare Reform Act passed in 1996, states were authorized to conduct drug testing for TANF recipients. The implementation would occur in phases over a two-year period under the bill. The Department of Human Services would develop appropriate screening techniques and processes to establish reasonable cause that an applicant for TANF is using a drug illegally. The applicant could then be required to undergo a urine-based drug test to be conducted by a drug testing agency. If the applicant tests positive, the drug test would have to be verified by a confirmation test before TANF benefits could be denied. No drug for which an applicant has a current valid prescription could be used as a basis for denial of benefits.

The Senate honored Charlie Daniels on Thursday morning.
The Senate honored Charlie Daniels on Thursday morning.

State Senate approves and sends to Governor Haslam legislation strengthening penalties against repeat domestic violence offenders

Legislation which strengthens penalties against those convicted of domestic violence was approved on final consideration today, sending the bill to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature. The “Repeat Domestic Violence Offender” bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Vice-Chairman Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), creates a new offense for repeat domestic violence offenders and prescribes mandatory jail time and enhanced fines for those who have committed serious bodily injury.

“Tennessee is ranked second in the nation in domestic violence and is fifth in the number of women murdered by men as a result of domestic violence,” said Senator Overbey. “This legislation will help curb this despicable and ugly crime.”

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 a 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 for domestic violence due to serious bodily injury similar to the one used in the state’s drunk driving law.

Overbey said 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 law enforcement leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who is prime sponsor of the legislation, commented that crime is down in Tennessee, but domestic violence is not. “Fifty-two percent of violent crimes reported are due to domestic violence,” he said. “I commend Governor Haslam for bringing it to the General Assembly and thank Senator Overbey for shepherding it through this year.”

Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012 passes Senate

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey praised the unanimous passage of the Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012 (Senate Bill 3658) by the state Senate this week.

“A true jobs agenda is compromised of elements that help both job creators and job seekers. Government cannot create jobs but it can help remove burdens from employers and help the unemployed find work. This bill does both,” said Ramsey. “Nothing cures both social and economic ills like good paying jobs. This reform will inject accountability and fairness into our unemployment system further nurturing the pro-jobs, pro-business climate for which Tennessee is known.”

Senate Bill 3658 addresses many of the complaints Lt. Governor Ramsey received during his Red Tape Road Trips last summer. The road trips took Ramsey across the state meeting with business owners about how to eliminate red tape from government and make Tennessee the best state in which to own and operate a business. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).

“Our state unemployment system was always intended as a bridge from one job to the next for people out of work through no fault of their own,” Sen. Johnson explained. “By strengthening the work search requirement and the definition of misconduct, we are restoring the intent of the system and making the lives of our small business owners easier. It’s a win for both job seekers and job creators.”

The Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012 strengthens the definition of employee misconduct to ensure that those who have been fired for cause no longer receive benefits. The act also enacts new work search requirements for unemployment beneficiaries. Those collecting unemployment benefits must provide detailed information regarding contact with at least three employers per week or must access services at a career center. The act also provides for random audits to ensure the integrity of beneficiaries’ job searches.

Issues in Brief

Domestic Violence / 911 – Legislation passed this week that would make it a Class A misdemeanor offense for an individual to interfere with or prevent another person from placing a telephone call to 911 to request emergency assistance. Senate Bill 2836 aims to help victims of domestic violence who try to receive emergency assistance but are blocked in those efforts. The measure, sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), applies to those who block a person from requesting assistance from law enforcement, medical facilities, or other agencies or entities that provide assistance to that individual. It also makes it a Class A misdemeanor to intentionally render unusable a telephone that would be used for the purposes of obtaining aid.

Storm Victims — Legislation which would help storm victims who received damage due to the March storms was approved by the State Senate on final consideration. Senate Bill 2701, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Cleveland), allows for citizens who suffered damages between March 23, 2011, and May 12, 2012 and who qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to apply for tax rebates on household appliances and furnishings of up to $3,200 per item and on building materials up to $500 per item. The rebates are capped at $2,500 per household.

Tennessee Business Corporation Act — Final approval was given to a measure that updates and modernizes the Tennessee Business Corporation Act modeled after changes made to the Model Business Corporation Act (MBCA). The MBCA template is used by many states when compiling their own statutes governing corporations and has been adopted in 31 other states. The legislation passed this week makes several conforming changes to rules that govern the formation, operation and termination of corporations in Tennessee, including the rights of directors, electronic notification, annual corporate shareholder meetings and requirements regarding officers. The changes in Senate Bill 3070 modernize the act and help Tennessee maintain a competitive business environment that will draw new jobs to the state.

Dual Credit Courses — A bill to ensure students will receive college credit for dual credit courses that they complete successfully in high school was approved by the State Senate this week. Senate Bill 2809 would require public postsecondary institutions to accept for credit any dual credit course developed by another public postsecondary institution in collaboration with a high school if the student passes the course and a college proficiency test. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), specifies credit would only be provided when the student enrolls in college.

Unemployment Insurance / Seasonal Workers – Similarly, Senators approved Senate Bill 3657, also 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 employer will receive beginning in 2016.

Tennessee Regulatory Authority — Legislation reconstituting the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA), which regulates utilities across the state, advanced through the Senate and won final Senate approval. The TRA is currently governed by four full-time members, called directors, with salaries of $152,000 per year. Senate Bill 2247, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), would replace them with five part-time members who are paid $36,000 and a full-time executive director to manage the agency’s day to day operations. The proposal for part-time directors follows deregulation of many industries previously governed by the TRA, including the trucking and phone industries and most electric utilities. The TRA does not regulate the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) or other utilities owned by local government. As a result, only 19 rate cases have come before the agency since 2003. The legislation also follows a comptroller report which showed the TRA needs a better management structure to optimize functions of the agency.

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