Tennessee General Assembly wraps 2016 session

On April 24, 2016, in News 2016, by Mark Norris

By Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican legislative leaders said the top accomplishments of the 2016 legislative session that ended Friday included a big increase in education funding, reduction of the Hall income tax, a restructuring of public higher education, a public safety act and the $34.9 billion […]

By Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican legislative leaders said the top accomplishments of the 2016 legislative session that ended Friday included a big increase in education funding, reduction of the Hall income tax, a restructuring of public higher education, a public safety act and the $34.9 billion balanced budget with no new debt.

In its 3½-month run, the General Assembly approved a long list of bills that will affect Tennesseans in ways large and small at work, at school, on their commutes, in their businesses and at play. Lawmakers expanded the places where permit holders can go armed, created new governing boards for the University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State and the three other Board of Regents universities, and ordered drivers convicted of texting while driving to driving school.

The Legislature legalized and taxed fantasy sports gambling, ended probation for vehicular homicide when the driver is intoxicated, and repealed a law that allows parents to reject needed medical treatment for their children due to their religious beliefs.

If Haslam allows the Hall tax bill to become law — he expressed concerns about its impact on the state’s future fiscal stability — it would cut the tax on stock and dividend income from 6 to 5 percent this year and eliminate the tax in 2022.

The progressive Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy says the reduction and repeal would make Tennessee’s tax system more regressive, with most Tennesseans getting little or no benefit. Meanwhile, Tennessee remains one of a dozen states still taxing food.

Legislatures also are known by what they refused to do. This session saw the defeat or failure of a dozen or more bills that captured headlines, including school vouchers, forcing women to watch an ultrasound of her fetus before an abortion, allowing communities to deannex themselves from their cities and towns through referendums, a tuition freeze at state universities, mandatory TBI investigations of shootings by police and public release of the results, the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan for up to 300,000 low-income uninsured residents, and allowing the Tennessee children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges.

The perennial effort to repeal the motorcycle helmet law failed again. Advocates blamed heavy lobbying by AT&T, Comcast and other for-profits for the defeat of efforts to let municipal and rural electric co-ops provide broadband internet service into areas not served by commercial providers. Bills to abolish the state-run Achievement School District and to restrict its authority also failed.

And then there were what Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, diplomatically called “distractions and diversions from time to time.”

Lawmakers spent countless hours debating, passing and trying unsuccessfully to override Haslam’s veto of a bill naming the Holy Bible as “the official state book,” despite a 2015 attorney general’s opinion that it was unconstitutional.

They spent exponentially more time on a bill banning transgender students in public schools and college from using the school restrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with than on Democrats’ bills to enact a state minimum wage, a non-starter. The restroom bill was killed, then resurrected by lawmakers frightened by calls and emails encouraged by the conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee. The council warned of grown men in little girls restrooms. Its House sponsor finally withdrew it last week in the wake of national ridicule and an attorney general’s opinion that it could halt the flow of federal education funding.

It was one of several bills targeting the LGBT community. A bill allowing counselors to deny services to people because of their “strongly held religious beliefs” — later changed to “sincerely held principles” — won approval. And lawmakers approved a resolution disagreeing with the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Several legislators’ efforts to defund diversity programs at the University of Tennessee, delivered with angry denunciations of students and administrators, culminated in a one-year diversion of $436,000 in salary money from UT’s office of diversity and inclusion and into scholarships for minority engineering students.

Lawmakers allowed employees of state colleges and universities with handgun-carry permits to go armed on their campuses, banned any “adverse action” by the colleges against students and employees with permits for keeping guns in their vehicles on campus, and required private schools and universities to write their own guns-on-campus policies.

The Legislature turned down a “constitutional carry” bill sought by some gun advocates, which would have allowed anyone who can legally own a gun to go armed without a permit.

After the National Rifle Association’s lobbyist expressed opposition, a committee killed a bill to penalize adults who leave guns accessible to children when children get them and injure or kill themselves or others. It was called MaKayla’s Law” after 8-year-old MaKayla Dyer, killed in Jefferson County last year by an 11-year-old neighbor boy with his father’s shotgun.

The Legislature approved the governor’s Public Safety Act, reducing prison time for less violent offenders and stiffening penalties for more serious offenses, including domestic violence. It also broadened existing law against sexual offenses and by authority figures.

At the last minute, lawmakers corrected flaws in a 2012 law that enhanced penalties for crimes by gang members but was struck down this month by the state Court of Criminal Appeals. The bill reinstates the tougher penalties if the crime is directly related to gang activity.

The Legislature passed a resolution ordering a lawsuit against the federal government over refugee resettlement in Tennessee, to be handled by a conservation out-of-state group that’s offered its help if the state attorney general refuses.

At the governor’s request, lawmakers altered the state’s school funding formula, called the Basic Education Program, although school districts had hoped for full funding of a separate plan called BEP 2.0, adopted in 2007 but never fully funded when the Great Recession struck. They did approve increases for teacher pay and insurance, technology, special education, and English Language learners.

Haslam is still considering vetoes but praised lawmakers’ overall work.

“We take it for granted here, but there are a lot of states that would love to have wrapped up a budget like we did that contains the largest investment in public education in history with a tax decrease. And not only is the state’s debt down but we didn’t take on any new debt. The comptroller’s office can’t find another year in which that happened,” he said.

In other action, the Legislature:

Restored property tax relief for disabled veterans and low-income elderly homeowners that had been reduced last year.

Required workers’ compensation claims to be filed within 15 days of job-related injury rather than 30, and stepped-up job search requirements for unemployment benefits.

Approved a measure making it more difficult to remove or rename monuments to historical figures, including Confederate symbols, by requiring a two-thirds approval of the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Nullified local governments’ authority to require contractors on local projects to hire specific percentages of workers from within the city.

Allowed shipments of wine to grocery stores in advance of the July 1 date in which food stores can start selling wine, and imposed a two-store limit on the number of liquor stores a single person or company can own.

Reserved for passing only the far-left lane on highways with at least three lanes in each direction — the “Slow Poke” law.

Authorized public-private partnerships for mass transit, and allowed transit buses to drive on the shoulders of highways.

Added Tennessee to a list of states calling for a national constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit powers of the federal government.

Imposed tougher penalties for school bus drivers for texting while operating the buses, in response to the December 2014 crash of two Knoxville school buses that killed two children and a teacher’s aide.

Created a task forces to study the potential for horse racing and gambling, juvenile justice reform and alternative ways to expand health coverage.

Made major changes in the “certificate of need” system that make it easier for hospitals to expand without state approval.

Required licensing and inspection of pain management clinics.