Norris News – April 21, 2017

On April 21, 2017, in News from Nashville 2017, by Mark Norris
Meeting with the Capitol Hill Press Corp after passage of the Tax Cut Act, otherwise known as IMPROVE.

Meeting with the Capitol Hill Press Corp after passage of the Tax Cut Act, otherwise known as IMPROVE.

Senate acts on some of the most important bills of the 2017 legislative session this week as legislative session winds down

NASHVILLE – The Senate continued to make progress this week in winding down the 2017 legislative session, acting on some of the most important bills proposed this year including legislation addressing road improvements, tax relief, elderly abuse, and school bus safety.

The Senate voted 25 to 6 on Wednesday to approve Governor Bill Haslam’s Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE) Act, which is also named the “2017 Tax Cut Act.” The purpose of the legislation is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayers’ return on that investment. While one category, highway user fees, increases by 6 cents on a gallon of gas and 10 cents on diesel phased in over three years, the legislation cuts $428 million in taxes which is the largest single tax cut in Tennessee history.

Up to half of the tax dollars collected on diesel fuel and 30 percent on gasoline come from out-of-state drivers, who share in the cost of keeping up Tennessee roads.

Proceeds from the fee increases, which have not been raised in 28 years, are dedicated to the highway fund under the bill with $70 million going to counties and $30 million going to cities annually for local road projects. The $350 million in funds will deliver 962 road and bridge projects across all 95 Tennessee counties to alleviate a $10.5 billion backlog in transportation projects.

The Senate also voted to restore fully the property value threshold for 100 percent disabled veterans from $100,000 to $175,000. Previously, the legislation proposed an increase to $135,000. Because of this improvement, the bill must now go back to the House of Representatives, who also passed the bill on Wednesday.

“We are taking some of the excess revenues we have for Tennesseans and reallocating those to return as much as we can to the taxpayers,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “It otherwise changes some of our priorities to allocate more to keep Tennessee safe by accelerating the pace we repair and expand our roads in this state.”

Norris pointed out the plan, as amended, is a lesser increase in the user fees, the gas tax and the diesel tax, than was originally proposed and will be phased in over three years in varying amounts. He noted that the tax cuts are greater than originally proposed as well.

The tax cuts included in Senate Bill 1221 are:

  • A 20 percent reduction in the food tax from five to four percent;
  • Hall Income Tax relief from five percent to four percent with language to reduce it by one percent until it is gone;
  • An optional move to the single sales factor for Franchise and Excise (F & E) tax paying manufacturers; and,
  • Tax relief for veterans, elderly, and disabled by raising the home value threshold from $100,000 to $175,000 for veterans and $23,500 to $27,000 for the elderly and disabled.

The legislation is the sixth in a series of laws passed by the General Assembly since 2011 which resulted in tax cuts, with the previous amounting to $438 million in reductions. This includes repealing the gift tax, killing the death tax, reducing the sales tax on food, exempting the sales tax on certain machinery and medical supplies, and a one percent reduction in the Hall Income Tax. Legislators also pledged to work on tax reductions for small businesses next year.

Proudly, Tennessee is one of only five states which do not use debt to fund its roads. This pay-as-you-go practice has been credited as one of the reasons for the state’s top financial rankings.

Wednesday’s Senate session also saw unanimous passage of legislation prioritizing the repair of structurally deficient bridges in Tennessee. Senate Bill 1220, also sponsored by Norris and is otherwise known as the “High Priority Bridge Bill,” authorizes the Department of Transportation (TDOT) to pay up to 100 percent of the cost to repair or replace bridges on local roadways through a new category in the state-aid highway program, a move to help avoid local property tax increases for repairs.

According to TDOT, 200 of the state’s 526 structurally deficient bridges are on local roads and have been weight-posted, a status which can prevent school buses, fire trucks and heavy agricultural vehicles from crossing due to safety risks. Unless there is a comprehensive fix, TDOT expects within 10 to 12 years all 526 bridges that are in need of repair or replacement will likely be added to that list, increasing the infrastructure backlog if funding isn’t approved in the IMPROVE Act.

Taking live questions on OpenLine with Ben Hall Wednesday night.

Taking live questions on OpenLine with Ben Hall Wednesday night.

Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation strengthening penalties for elderly abuse

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved major legislation this week strengthening penalties for elderly abuse. The “Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act,” sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Lt. Governor Randy McNally, is one of three proposals stemming from the Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Abuse Task Force to protect Tennessee seniors. The other two bills, dealing with financial exploitation of the elderly, were approved on final consideration on the Senate floor this week as well.

Senate Bill 1230 further codifies elder and vulnerable adult abuse and exploitation by creating class C and D felonies for those found guilty of committing these crimes and requires state agencies to submit offenders’ names to the Tennessee Department of Health’s Abuse Registry or local law enforcement.

The legislation builds on a new law, sponsored by Norris and passed by the General Assembly last year, that set up Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams (VAPIT) across the state to foster cooperation and information sharing between different government agencies whose purpose is to protect elderly and vulnerable adults.

“Elderly abuse is a silent crisis,” said Sen. Norris. “Crimes of elder abuse often go unreported, leaving its helpless victims to suffer silently. And, far too frequently, it happens at the hand of those whom they trust the most. This legislation would keep seniors and vulnerable adults safer by giving law enforcement the tools they need to prosecute individuals who prey on seniors.”

The Department of Health reports that an average of 116 individuals has been added to the Elder Abuse Registry each year over the last five years. This reflects an increase of 35 percent in 2015 and 28 percent in 2016.

The financial exploitation legislation approved on the Senate floor includes Senate Bill 1192, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), and Senate Bill 1267, sponsored by Norris. The measures give securities officials and financial institutions the tools they need to help detect and prevent financial exploitation of those age 65 and older and vulnerable adults with diminished capacity.

Studies show that over the past decade, reported cases of assault and financial exploitation of vulnerable adults has increased by 20 percent or more. It is estimated that only one in 14 cases of elder abuse are ever reported.

Similarly, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation establishing a Public Guardian Working Group led by the Commission on Aging and Disability to review Tennessee’s public guardianship for the elderly program and make recommendations on how the public guardianship program can be more effective.

Public guardians, also known as conservators, help people over 60 who can no longer help themselves. The person needing help may be unable to make decisions about money or medical care. They often need help with basic needs. Senate Bill 1287 calls for the working group to review who has access to the services of a public guardian and who does not and what best practices, if any, are available from other states with similar programs. The Commission shall report to the General Assembly by January 15, 2018.

The legislation also clarifies that background checks on employees or volunteers who come into direct contact with service recipients should be done and provides immunity for lawsuit for any licensed nursing home facility that declines employment to someone based on that background check. The legislation is sponsored by Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City).

In Brief…

School Zone Safety — Legislation which bans drivers from knowingly driving through an active school zone while talking on a hand-held cell phone, met the approval of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week. Senate Bill 954 applies to marked school zones, when warning flashers are in operation. The legislation, sponsored by SenatorJim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), aims to provide greater safety for children as they go to and from school.

Help Find the Missing Act — The State Senate approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), this week creating the Help Find the Missing Act. Senate Bill 113 streamlines the procedure for how local law enforcement, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), and the medical examiner’s office communicate with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The legislation would require every county medical examiner to submit to the TBI and NamUs copies of fingerprints, partial prints, dental records, and personal identifying data of deceased persons whose deaths are in a classification requiring inquiry by the medical examiner or coroner where the deceased is not identified or the medical personnel is not satisfied with the decedent’s information. In turn, the TBI must promptly make this information available to all Tennessee law enforcement agencies and those of other states if requested. In addition, the TBI will compare the submitted fingerprint data with information filed at the TBI in order to identify the deceased. The results are to be submitted to the appropriate medical examiner or coroner, and if a tentative or positive identification is made, they will also submit the results to the law enforcement agency that submitted the missing person report. The legislation now heads to Governor Haslam for his signature.

Human Trafficking — Among bills approved by the full Senate on final consideration this week is Senate Bill 553 which adds “trafficking for a commercial sex act” within the definition of “child sexual abuse” and “severe child abuse” under Tennessee law. Including child sex trafficking within this section of Tennessee law ensures that child welfare can intervene and provide services in cases that involve any form of commercial sexual exploitation of children. The legislation also changes the definition of “caregiver” in state law to allow victims to receive child welfare intervention. The changes proposed in the bill would help ensure that child sex trafficking victims are properly identified and that child welfare does not face barriers in responding to these young victims. Bringing child sex trafficking within the definition of abuse facilitates a protective, coordinated, and consistent response to this form of sexual abuse. It is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).

With Elijah Roberts and Wesley Percer on the Senate Floor after they served as Senate Pages.

With Elijah Roberts and Wesley Percer on the Senate Floor after they served as Senate Pages.

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