April 4, 2014

Senator Norris joins with members of the General Assembly for National Walking Day

Senator Norris joins with members of the General Assembly for National Walking Day

State Budget and Law and Order Bills Highlight Capitol Hill Week

The State Senate approved major law and order legislation this week as the General Assembly worked diligently towards adjournment of the 2014 legislative session. The state budget also moved front and center this week, as Governor Bill Haslam presented an amendment to his fiscal year 2014-2015 spending plan, identifying $160 million in reductions due to an ongoing decline in revenue collections.

The governor presented a budget in February addressing a $126 million gap in the current budget year which ends on June 30. The new budget amendment provides for an additional $150 million needed to cover the gap in the 2013-14 fiscal year, which has now grown to $276 million. This will be covered by capitalizing on efficiencies departments have been making throughout the year and right-sizing several reserve funds.

“Unlike the federal government, the Tennessee Constitution requires state government to balance its budget every year,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “This careful budgeting practice has kept the state in better shape to withstand periods of revenue downfalls.”

Sales tax revenue collections have lagged behind budget projections due to a modest holiday season, followed by a long, cold winter that kept shoppers indoors. The state also had an estimated revenue loss of nearly $332 million due to online commerce. This is in addition to less than expected losses of franchise and excise tax revenues which were down $215 million due to overpayments by businesses last year that are now resulting in credits and refunds. Franchise and excise taxes are privilege taxes on corporations, limited partnerships, limited liability companies and business trusts doing business in Tennessee which often fluctuate.

Other revisions to the governor’s budget proposal include:

  • Savings from automating TennCare’s eligibility system – $6.5 million
  • Contract reductions to Families First vendors – $4.75 million
  • TennCare provider rate reduction – $18.5 million
  • Eliminating pay increases for state employees and teachers – $72 million
  • Reducing next year’s funding for Higher Education to the current funding level, eliminating proposed increase – $12.9 million
  • Reduction of the BEP Growth Fund – $5 million
  • Recognizing savings in the Career Ladder program – $4 million
  • Reducing proposed funding for the Rainy Day Fund by $4.8 million, which preserves an investment of $35.5 million bringing the state’s savings account to $491.5 million on June 30, 2015.

The amendment eliminates a proposed increase to health insurance premiums for state employees and teachers to provide them some compensation. It keeps funding increases intact for key areas which serve some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens such as the Department of Children’s Services and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and local property tax relief for disabled veterans and elderly disabled citizens. It also preserves funding for the Basic Education Program’s (BEP) salary equity fund. Senate Bill 2596 is expected to be on the Senate floor for final consideration as early as next Thursday.

In other action affecting the appropriations bill this week, State Senators gave final approval to legislation which supports the budget by continuing the Hospital Coverage Assessment. Senate Bill 1908, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), prevents more than $800 million in potentially catastrophic TennCare cuts from taking effect on July 1, 2014. The cuts would negatively affect hospitals, physicians, patients and enrollees across the state. The budget was drafted on the assumption the assessment would be continued for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

The assessment, which has saved Tennessee over $1 billion over the last four years, is used to draw down federal funds available through a Medicaid match program approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The bill’s language ensures that the coverage assessment cannot be passed along to patients.

Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Community Safety Act Targeting Gang Crime

The Community Safety Act, which aims to curb gang crime, has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the General Assembly acted on several major law and order bills this week. Senate Bill 1634, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson), would clarify that a petition for the abatement of gang-related conduct may be filed against a criminal gang itself to which the members belong. The court would have the authority to restrict gang activity in certain geographic locations.

Gang-related offenses include crimes that Tennessee communities combat every day, such as robbery, carjacking, and drug possession with intent to sell, among other more violent offenses. This year’s legislation builds on a law passed in 2013 that changed the definition of “criminal gang offense” from a vague and broad definition to a specific list of offenses to make it easier for prosecutors to seek a greater sentence. Other laws enacted since 2011 create tougher sentences for certain types of crimes committed by three or more acting in concert and tougher sentences for convicted felons who persist in illegally possessing guns.

“Gang-related crimes are of increasing concern across Tennessee, in the state’s rural and urban communities,” said Senator Watson. “This bill builds on legislation already passed by the General Assembly to provide an effective tool to communities plagued with violent gang activity.”

The bill would require gang-related conduct to be proven beyond clear and convincing evidence. It includes an opt-out provision that would allow a gang member to be dismissed from an injunction if he or she renounced membership. The proposal would also make it a Class C misdemeanor for a gang member to knowingly violate any temporary or permanent injunction.

“Law abiding citizens should not have to surrender their neighborhoods to thugs,” added Watson. “We cannot sit back and let entire communities be terrorized by gangs. This bill gives law enforcement the tools to fight back.”

Survivor’s Safety Bill Helps Ensure Repeat Offenders Convicted of Domestic Violence Serve Mandatory Sentences Day-for-Day

Legislation was approved by the Senate on Wednesday to aid victims of domestic violence and ensure perpetrators serve 100% of their sentences day-for-day. Senate Bill 1794, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), requires that repeat offenders must serve at least the mandatory minimum sentence in jail day-for-day and consecutively. It also prescribes that, if the offender receives less than the maximum sentence for the crime, that he or she must spend the difference between the actual time served and the maximum allowable sentence on supervised probation.

“Domestic violence is one of the most serious problems in Tennessee today,” said Senator Massey. “According to TBI, in Tennessee domestic violence accounts for more than half of all crimes involving victims and a majority of all female-victim homicides.”

Tennessee is currently ranked 6th in the nation for the number of women killed by men.

In 2012, the General Assembly passed minimum sentencing for repeat domestic assault. However, repeat convicted offenders do not necessarily serve their sentences day-for-day, which means a second-time offender may receive two for one credit and spend as little as 15 days behind bars for inflicting bodily injury on their partner or family member. Called the “Survivor Safety Bill,” this legislation goes a step further to require convicted batterers who inflicted bodily injury to serve longer consecutive day-for-day sentences.

“Repeat convicted offenders are sometimes permitted to serve their time on weekends, often returning home to their victims during the week,” added Massey. “This legislation gives survivors of domestic violence more time to get on a path to safety and healing following a violent assault, while holding their abusive partners accountable. It also sends a message in a state that is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous states for women that Tennessee is making domestic violence awareness and prevention a priority.”

In Brief…

Telehealth — The State Senate voted on Monday to approve a bill calling for equitable telehealth reimbursement. Telehealth is the delivery of health care services to patients in remote sites by using electronic information and telecommunications technology to connect providers to patients who need them. Senate Bill 2050, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), calls for telehealth services to be reimbursed by insurance entities in the state, thus making the cost-saving benefits of telehealth more widely available, especially to rural citizens.

Channon Christian Act — The full Senate approved two minor amendments and sent to the governor Senate Bill 1797 which puts new restrictions on bringing into evidence presumptions or false information that are related to a crime victim that is totally unrelated to the crime. This measure, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), would put Tennessee law into agreement with the constitutional amendment passed by Tennesseans in 1998 which states crime victims should be free from intimidation, harassment or abuse throughout the criminal justice system. Passage of the legislation came as a result of the brutal murder of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom, who were carjacked, brutally raped, tortured and murdered. During the trial, the defense made numerous attempts to paint the victims negatively in order to advance their case.

School Buses – State Senators voted this week to approve Senate Bill 1966, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), authorizing the use of conventional and Class D school buses until they have reached their 18th year of service. Currently, school buses in Tennessee are allowed to operate up to 15 years with a 200,000 mile limit, whichever comes first, if they pass additional inspections. Under the bill, the Commissioner of Safety, through the inspection process, may approve the use of buses for additional years of service beyond the 18th year if the bus has less than 200,000 recorded miles. The legislation requires school buses which are 16 to 18 years old to be inspected twice annually. It also allows a bus that reaches the 200,000 mile mark during the academic year to be kept in service until the end of the academic year.

Senior Property Tax Freeze — Senior citizens who participate in Tennessee’s property tax freeze program would be aided by legislation given final Senate approval on Wednesday. Senate Bill 1128, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), re-freezes their tax bill when the tax amount due becomes lower to benefit the seniors. Twenty-seven cities and 23 counties participate in the tax freeze program for senior citizens.

Theft / Re-encoders — State Senators voted this week to approve Senate Bill 1959 making it a Class A misdemeanor offense to use a credit card skimming device, also known as a re-encoder, to steal an individual’s credit card number or data stored through the card’s magnetic stripe. Since 2001, 31 states and Puerto Rico have enacted statutes that provide criminal penalties for using the device to aid or abet theft. The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville).

Controlled Substance Monitoring Database — The State Senate approved a bill this week to require a dispenser of a controlled drug to add that prescription to the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database within one business day beginning January 1, 2016. Currently, the reporting time is seven days. Senate Bill 2547 is sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald).

In addition, Hensley received final approval of Senate Bill 1312, which adds anyone convicted of a drug felony to the Methamphetamine Registry to prevent them from purchasing pseudoephedrine, the precursor used for making meth. The bill also extends the time from 7 to 10 years in which offenders would be prohibited from purchasing any pseudoephedrine products if they are on the Drug Registry.

Industrial HempSenate Bill 2495 to allow farmers to be licensed to grow hemp in Tennessee was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week sending the bill to the floor for final consideration. According to sponsor, Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), many people have mistakenly associated hemp with marijuana; however they are actually two very different species which are grown in dissimilar ways. Although it is legal to import, purchase or export hemp, it is illegal to grow it in Tennessee. In recent years, states like neighboring Kentucky have passed measures legalizing the farming of hemp for industrial purposes. These purposes include turning the plant’s fibers into such products as oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, and fuel. There are approximately 75 manufacturers using hemp in America today, most prevalently with plastics, which can be reinforced with hemp.

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