Tax Relief, Prescription Drug Abuse, Anti-Crime Legislation headline week

On March 15, 2012, in News from Nashville 2012, by Mark Norris

March 15, 2012 Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder and members of the Tennessee Honor Guard in the Senate Chamber. The primary role for the honor guard is to provide funeral honors for fallen Tennessee comrades. These soldiers were honored by the Senate during Thursday morning’s legislative session. Four branches of the military were […]

March 15, 2012

Tennessee Honor Guard
Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder and members of the Tennessee Honor Guard in the Senate Chamber. The primary role for the honor guard is to provide funeral honors for fallen Tennessee comrades. These soldiers were honored by the Senate during Thursday morning’s legislative session. Four branches of the military were represented.

Tax Relief, Prescription Drug Abuse, Anti-Crime Legislation headline week

Two tax relief bills that aim to help Tennesseans have begun moving through the State Senate in a week that was filled with action on some of the most important bills of the 2012 legislative session. One bill continues an incremental approach to reducing the sales tax on food, while the other would provide relief by raising the inheritance tax exemption level to $1.25 million with the objective of reaching a $5 million level in subsequent years.

Inheritance Tax ReliefSenate Bill 3762, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative initiatives, takes a first step towards providing inheritance or estate tax relief, which is also called the death tax. Currently, the tax applies to estates worth more than $1 million. Tennessee has a higher inheritance tax when compared to its neighbors, which range from 5.5 percent to 9.5 percent.

“Tennessee’s current inheritance tax hurts farmers and small business owners who have scrimped, sacrificed and saved their entire lives to build up a family business,” Norris said. “It is also a factor for senior citizens moving to other states that have a higher exemption level which hurts Tennessee’s economy.”

Reduction of Sales Tax on Food — In addition, the Senate Tax Subcommittee recommended key legislation to 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. Senate Bill 3763, sponsored by Leader Norris, has been a goal of many Republicans in the General Assembly over the past several years. This year it was included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package and is funded in the budget, which gives it a major boost towards passage.

“We need to not only keep our focus on the state budget, but also on the family budget,” said Leader Norris. “This bill implements the first phase in providing grocery tax relief in Tennessee.”

Prescription drug abuse legislation approved by Senate Judiciary Committee

Legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and co-sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), that would curb prescription drug abuse in Tennessee was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Tennessee ranks second in the nation in regard to the overutilization of prescription pain medications. The bill would require doctors or their designees to check the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database for patients’ prescription history before prescribing an opioid or benzodiazepine substance.

Senate Bill 2733, which is included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, 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. The bill also enhances penalties for doctor shopping from a Class A misdemeanor offense 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.

Under the legislation, information from the database regarding patients’ prescription information can be released to law enforcement officials if they are engaged in an investigation or through a court order. With appropriate board approval, doctors’ and pharmacists’ prescribing / dispensing information could also be released to departmental investigators to help identify those medical professionals who are contributing to Tennessee’s prescription drug problem.

“This is a public health epidemic,” said John Dreyzehner, Commissioner of Public Health. “At root, this bill is about patient safety and it’s about the lives of Tennesseans. As we sit here today, an average of three Tennesseans will lose their lives to drug overdose deaths just today. As we sit here this week, we will see 20 Tennesseans on average lose their lives from drug overdose deaths. These are not just statistics. These are mothers, fathers and parents that are loved by lots of other people. Many of these deaths could be avoided if physicians like me would take it upon ourselves to check that database and make sure that we know what our patients are taking.”

The bill now goes to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee for consideration.

“Felons with firearms” bill and legislation addressing gang activity approved in Senate Finance Committee

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) led passage of two key bills through the Senate Finance Committee this week. One bill would enact tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions, while the other would enhance penalties for certain crimes committed by gangs.

Norris sponsored a series of anti-crime laws dubbed “Crooks with Guns” passed in recent years designed to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping these criminals behind bars longer to protect the public. “This is a continuation of those efforts to give law enforcement authorities stronger tools to curb violence in Tennessee,” he said.

Currently, illegal possession of a firearm for convicted violent felons is punishable as a Class E felony, which carries a one to six-year sentence and up to $3,000 in fines. Senate Bill 2250 would increase the offense to a Class C felony, which is punishable by a 3 to 15-year sentence and up to $10,000 in fines for convicted felons carrying a firearm whose crime involved the use of force, violence or a deadly weapon. The punishment would be a Class D felony for felons whose conviction involved a drug offense.

Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons told members of the Senate Finance Committee that over the last 10 years, approximately 19,000 people arrested in Memphis possessed a firearm when charged. About thirty percent of those arrested had been previously convicted. He said the scope of the problem was increased by a rise in drug trafficking and gang activity. Gibbons said the proliferation of crimes involving firearms pointed to the need for a “more effective hammer” to deter felons from going armed.

The second measure, Senate Bill 2252, would enhance penalties for certain gang-related crimes committed by groups of three or more people one classification higher than if they had acted alone.

“A person robbed or assaulted by more than one assailant has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death,” said Senator Norris. “This bill would keep them behind bars longer by bumping up penalties by one classification for aggravated assault, robbery or aggravated burglary, if the crime is committed in concert with two or more persons.”

“We have made a lot of progress in the last couple of years addressing the problem of violent crime in our state,” said Commissioner Gibbons. “You passed Crooks with Guns 1 and then Crooks with Guns 2, which addressed certain types of violent crimes and provided enhanced sentences for those if the offender was carrying a gun. You also passed some very important legislation dealing with aggravated robbery, upping the percentage that an individual has to serve before being eligible for parole. This bill addresses certain types of serious crimes not covered by that previous legislation.”

Norris said both bills are part of a package of public safety bills included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda. The bills were recommended by a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group composed of more than 10 government agencies which held meetings with over 300 leaders in law enforcement, substance abuse and corrections. The group developed 11 objectives and 40 action steps in their multi-year safety action plan with the goal of significantly reducing drug abuse and drug trafficking; curbing violent crime; and lowering the rate of repeat offenders in Tennessee.

Issues in Brief

Nursing homes / Physicians – The full Senate approved Senate Bill 3263 which provides a monumental change to the way medical care is delivered to nursing home patients. The bill, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Cleveland), allows a nursing home facility to directly hire a doctor. The bill is modeled after the corporate practice law that was passed in 1996 to allow hospitals to hire doctors. Bell said the bill should lead to better care and shorter, less frequent trips to hospitals for nursing home patients.

Children / Abused and Neglected Youth / Transition — A bill to help ensure that abused and neglected youth in state custody get the chance they deserve to become healthy and productive adults was approved by the Senate Finance Committee. Senate Bill 2199, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would bridge the gap for those in foster care from the teenage years to adulthood by assuring the Transitioning Youth Act continues to remain in effect for years to come. This critical program, which was set to expire, provides assistance to youth in foster care between the ages of 18-21 — after they age out of the foster care system. The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative Organization reports that 40 percent of young people who were in foster care became homeless or without a stable living situation at least once since exiting foster care, and many were homeless multiple times.

Human Trafficking — State Senators gave final approval to Senate Bill 2369, which would give victims of human trafficking a civil cause of action to sue the person who has victimized them. Human traffickers target vulnerable victims which most often include immigrants, children and runaways. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that one in four children who run away are approached for commercial sexual exploitation within 48 hours of leaving home. State Senators also approved Senate Bill 2370, which calls for a plan to be developed in the Department of Human Services for the delivery of state services to victims of human trafficking to help them recover from this crime.

Motorcycle Safety / Children — Final approval was given by State Senators to Senate Bill 74 which prohibits the operator of a motorcycle from transporting a child whose feet cannot reach the foot pegs as a passenger. The safety legislation prescribes a $50 fine for violation. The bill is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).

Impersonation of U.S. Armed Forces — Legislation was passed and sent to the Governor that would make it a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person to falsely represent they are a member of the U.S. Armed Forces. Senate Bill 2287, sponsored by Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), creates a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person falsely representing to be or to have been a member of the United States Armed Forces when their intentions are fraudulent.