March 1, 2014

SENATE APPROVES BILLS AIDING VETERANS

Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as State Senators examined the budgets of thirteen agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills. Among key legislation approved on final consideration this week was a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), creating a statewide support structure that offers in-state tuition rates for veterans pursuing higher education in Tennessee.

The vote on the bill came the evening before testimony was given by Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder who said Tennessee was tied with Michigan in the last quarter of 2013 as having the fourth highest veteran unemployment rate in the country at 9.7%. Grinder, who appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee to present her department’s budget proposal, said the national average is 6.5%. Commissioner Grinder advocates increasing educational opportunities to help veterans return to the workplace.

“In accordance with the Drive to 55 initiative, it is imperative to increase the number of Tennesseans with a college degree,” said Grinder. “We believe those who sacrificed so much for our state and country, our Tennessee Veterans, must be included as a priority in that goal.” The Drive to 55 initiative aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications from 32% to 55% by the year 2025.

Approximately 27.7% of Tennessee’s Veterans have some college or an associate’s degree, while 24.3% percent have a bachelor’s degree. The department’s goal is to increase the number of Tennessee veterans with an associate’s degree to 37 percent and bachelor’s degree to 25 percent by 2016.

“This bill will help us meet that goal,” said Leader Norris. “The VETS Act ensures that veterans have a clear, easy pathway to attend college in Tennessee. As a state, we want to recognize and assist those soldiers who are coming home and exploring their education options.”

Currently, recently-discharged veterans relocating to Tennessee must pay out-of-state tuition rates until residency is formally established. Under Senate Bill 1433, veterans enrolling within 24 months of discharge immediately receive the in-state tuition rate when starting college classes, eliminating the issue of residency for those relying on GI Bill benefits. To maintain in-state status and rates, veterans have one year to present proof of established residency, such as a driver’s license, motor vehicle registration or proof of employment. Registering to vote also fulfills the requirement.

Norris said the act also creates a “VETS Campus” designation to recognize and promote schools that make veteran enrollment a priority. Higher education institutions that satisfy veteran-friendly criteria, such as specialized orientation and the availability of mentoring programs, can receive the designation.

“This encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials,” Norris continued.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently in the process of creating an educational resource page to help Veterans quickly access educational resources and contacts at each of Tennessee’s colleges, universities and technical schools. In addition, Grinder said the department is working with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development to improve unemployment. This includes holding “Paychecks for Patriots” statewide job fairs which have connected thousands of Veterans with jobs. The department’s “Jobs for Veterans” page highlights upcoming job fairs, big job announcements and directs employers as well as job-seeking veterans to the new online Jobs 4 TN site, where specific information is listed to provide them with assistance.

In other action on veteran’s bills this week, the Senate Transportation Committee approved Senate Bill 2098 requiring the Department of Revenue to provide a free decal to disabled veterans that may be affixed to their vehicle’s license plate. Individuals with the decal attached to their license plate would be eligible for the same parking privileges as the holder of a disabled driver placard. The bill, which is sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE APPROVES RESOLUTION CALLING FOR A FEDERAL BALANCED BUDGET AMENDMENT

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously this week to approve a resolution calling for a convention of the states pursuant to Article V of the U.S. Constitution to require Congress to balance the federal budget each year. Joint Resolution 493, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) states that, in the absence of a congressional declaration of war or an economic recession, the total of all federal appropriations made by the Congress for any fiscal year may not exceed the total of all estimated federal revenues for that fiscal year.

LEGISLATION ENSURES LOCAL GOVERNMENT PENSION PLANS ARE ADEQUATELY FUNDED

The Senate Finance Committee approved a pension reform bill this week for governmental entities outside the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) to help ensure they have the adequate funding to pay retirees. Senate Bill 2079, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), requires that TCRS and each local government entity with a defined benefit pension plan calculate an actuarially determined contribution (ADC) which will include normal costs and the amortization of any unfunded liabilities.

Currently, the 487 local government entities and 118 local education agencies in the TCRS system are required to pay 100% of the annual required contribution (ARC) as actuarially determined each year. In April 2013, the Director of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) requested actuarial and financial information from local governmental entities with defined benefit pension plans which are not enrolled in TCRS. The survey found there were 31 local government pension plans external to TCRS, 13 of which did not pay 100% of the ARC in 2012.

“Only 2.04% of all Tennessee local government pension plans fund less than 100% of the ARC,” said Leader Norris. “This bill requires all governmental entities to reach this level in order to ensure that retirement funds are in place when employees call on them.”

The bill requires that each local government must maintain effort in the payment of the ARC based on what the entity paid during the first fiscal year the bill is enacted. Those entities paying less than 100% of the ARC are subject to a one year grace period plus five years of incremental phase-in, making an effective six-year phase in period to reach payment of 100% of the ADC.

If a local government cannot comply with funding progress during the phase-in period, the entity may submit a plan of correction to the State Treasurer to modify the required annual funding progress but may not extend the phase-in period. Consistent with the provisions of the Hybrid Pension bill adopted by the General Assembly in 2013, the bill includes provisions that, for employees hired after the effective date, the political subdivision may freeze, suspend, or modify benefits on a prospective basis and that no implied right to continuation of a benefit exists. The bill also provides that a local government may, upon agreement with the State Treasurer, have either its plan administration and/or the investment of its plan assets performed by the Tennessee Treasury Department.

In Brief

Drones / Hunter HarassmentSenate Bill 1777 was approved by the State Senate this week to add the use of drones to Tennessee’s hunter harassment law. The bill, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), prohibits the use of drones to conduct video surveillance of private citizens who are lawfully hunting or fishing. The measure comes after People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) announced a new hobby drone that can monitor hunters’ activities and subject them to harassment. “This bill makes technological changes to update our hunter harassment laws to protect hunters and fishermen in Tennessee,” said Bell.

Rape Kits / Justice for Victims – The full Senate voted this week to take inventory of all untested rape kits and forensic evidence and turn those numbers over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to help in the pursuit of justice for victims and survivors.

Untested rape kits are a national problem. Senate Bill 1426, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), requires all law enforcement agencies or departments charged with the maintenance, storage, and preservation of sexual assault kits to generate a report based on that inventory by July 1, 2014. The report must contain the number of untested kits and the date the evidence was collected. After receiving the information, the bill calls for the TBI to deliver a report to the speakers of the State Senate and House of Representatives regarding their findings. That report would provide information regarding a possible backlog in other Tennessee counties.

Local Governments / Debt — The Senate passed and sent to the governor Senate Bill 462 requiring local governments to obtain approval by the Comptroller of the Treasury before issuing balloon indebtedness. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), is focused on preventing the issuance of debt where the terms of bonds exceed 31 years when there is no significant payment on the principal in the first 10 years. If the municipality has a high credit rating, such as a AAA or AA+, then those governments are exempt from the provisions of the bill. The bill is designed to prevent current governments from creating debt that will have to be paid by a future administration.

Faithful Delegate Legislation — The full Senate has approved legislation to help ensure that delegates to any future convention called to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be “faithful to” limits imposed by the Tennessee General Assembly. The “Faithful Delegate” bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), is similar in purpose to legislation in other states to ensure that Presidential Electors remain faithful to their pledged candidate for President when voting in the Electoral College. Senate Bill 1432 requires that in the event of a constitutional convention, the General Assembly would adopt a resolution and provide instructions to the delegates and alternates regarding the rules of procedure and any other instructions relating to the convention. The delegates would then be required to obey those limits or face immediate removal and a Class E felony offense for knowingly or intentionally voting outside the scope of the instructions.

E-Citations — The Senate Transportation Committee has approved a bill setting up a framework for the issuance of e-citations in Tennessee. An e- (electronic) citation is an automated traffic ticket that is prepared by a law enforcement officer and filed electronically with the court. Senate Bill 2350, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), aims to cut the time police officers spend on the side of the road at a traffic stop by 10 minutes, freeing them up for more important duties. Several tragic accidents involving law enforcement officers during traffic stops point to a real safety concern during issuance of citations. The bill also eliminates concerns over legibility of handwritten citations and clerical errors, as well as reducing the costs for data entry processing of citations to the courts. In order to defray the costs of the system, a $5.00 fee would be would be paid by defendants that plead guilty or are found guilty. Currently six cities in Tennessee use e-citations and two are in the process of implementing the system. Eight states have already implemented e-citations in their state.

Fee Cut / Charitable Organizations — Charitable organizations and the people who raise funds for them might end up paying a lot less to register with the state under legislation that received final Senate approval on Thursday. Senate Bill 1919, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), would cut fees across the board by 20 percent. For a charity raising between $30,000 and $48,999.99 per year, the new annual fee would be only $80. At the top end of the scale, a charity raising $500,000 or more would pay $240 per year. The bill would also reduce the annual registration fees for professional solicitors from $800 to $250 and for fundraising counsels from $250 to $100. The changes would affect about 8,100 organizations and individuals who must register with the division.

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