Norris News – March 17, 2017

On March 17, 2017, in News from Nashville 2017, by Mark Norris

Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act overcomes first hurdle with passage in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Senate Committees wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government this week and moved a number of important bills to the Senate floor for final action. This includes Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act which proposes a […]

Fifth-grader and constituent, Gracie Baiel, visited Senator Norris in Nashville on her Spring Break

Fifth-grader and constituent, Gracie Baiel, visited Senator Norris in Nashville on her Spring Break

Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act overcomes first hurdle with passage in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee

Senate Committees wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government this week and moved a number of important bills to the Senate floor for final action. This includes Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act which proposes a responsible path to improve access to broadband through investment, deregulation, and education. Senate Bill 1215, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Senate State and Local Government Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), would spur deployment in rural unserved areas, opening them up to economic investment and job growth.

This week’s action was also highlighted by a visit from President Donald Trump who delivered remarks at The Hermitage in Nashville recognizing the 250th birthday of President Andrew Jackson, before holding a rally at the Municipal Auditorium where he talked about reducing taxes, bringing back jobs, and repealing and replacing Obamacare.

Broadband — The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s NextTennessee legislative plan to build and sustain the state’s competitiveness for the next generation of Tennesseans. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility. While only two percent of the state’s urban citizens lack access, 34 percent of rural residents are without coverage at recognized minimum standards due to low population density and challenging geography.

“We need better access, not bigger government,” said Sen. Norris. “Broadband is critical to commerce and the quality of life of every Tennessean and is essential for our current and future education and economic initiatives.”

The legislation calls for a three-year investment of $45 million in grants and tax credits that focus on the state’s unserved areas. This includes a $30 million “Broadband Accessibility Grant Program” and $15 million in tax credits to private service providers based on the purchase of broadband equipment used to provide access in the most economically challenged counties.

On deregulation, the proposal permits the state’s private, nonprofit electric co-operatives to provide broadband and cable video services. The co-ops are currently restricted from providing retail broadband services. To protect co-op ratepayers, the legislation prevents the use of electric system assets to subsidize broadband services.

Senator Bell said, “The co-ops have many years of experience in providing service to rural communities in the state. It’s what they were created to do, so they are uniquely qualified to expand broadband to unserved areas.” Bell said his support for the proposal stems “not from the people who want to watch Netflix, but for the people who have to drive 10 miles or more to truck stops to do homework.” Education is a key component of the broadband legislation as the digital divide is preventing thousands of Tennessee students in unserved areas from being able to do homework that requires Internet access.

The bill expands opportunities for education by providing grants to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve their digital literacy skills and maximize the benefits of broadband. This is in addition to education efforts by the state’s Rural Task Force and other groups to drive broadband adoption in unserved areas of Tennessee.

The legislation comes after an extensive report was issued by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), chaired by Leader Norris, regarding the subject of broadband accessibility which significantly contributed to the broadband proposal.

President Trump’s Tennessee Visit

President Trump at the Hermitage commemorating Andrew Jackson’s 250th Birthday.

President Trump at the Hermitage commemorating Andrew Jackson’s 250th Birthday.

State senators made news this week as President Donald Trump came to Nashville to visit the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s home and final resting place, on the 250th anniversary of the seventh president’s birth. President Trump and the Hermitage’s Andrew Jackson Foundation graciously extended invitations to state legislators to join the president at the Hermitage.

Traveling with Governor Bill Haslam, Senator Bob Corker and Senator Lamar Alexander, Trump arrived at the Hermitage in the late afternoon, took a brief tour of the Hermitage and then laid a wreath at the grave of President Jackson. Calling it an “inspirational visit,” President Trump gave a brief address to the intimate gathering. The speech focused on President Jackson’s life, sacrifices and rise to power. Calling Jackson a “military hero and genius” as well as a “flawed man,” Trump noted various parallels between himself and the seventh President. Trump especially identified with Jackson’s defiance of “an arrogant elite” that often questioned his legitimacy.

Trump left the Hermitage and made a longer campaign-style address to a large crowd at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville.

President Trump generated national news at the Nashville speech, making his first public comments on a federal judge’s restraining order against his revised executive order on immigration and travel. Trump, who vowed to fight the judge’s decision, threw out the possibility he might reissue his original executive order.

Tennessee files first lawsuit in the nation challenging constitutionality of the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program

A lawsuit was filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee challenging the constitutionality of the federal refugee resettlement program on behalf of the State of Tennessee, the Tennessee General Assembly, Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster). The state is challenging the program on the basis that it violates the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the principles of State sovereignty.

The Thomas More Law Center, a national nonprofit public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, MI, is representing the state in the case pro bono.

The lawsuit comes after the Tennessee General Assembly overwhelmingly passed Senate Joint Resolution 467 during the 2016 legislative session, authorizing legal action to stop the federal government from unconstitutionally commandeering State funds to finance the federal refugee resettlement program. It was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

Norris emphasized the point that the lawsuit should not be taken as a criticism of the Trump Administration, stating “We want to convey to the President that we support his efforts concerning immigration and refugee resettlement and believe this suit for declaratory relief is consistent with what would likely be his position regarding states like Tennessee which have withdrawn from the refugee resettlement program but are forced to continue paying costs associated with it.”

Senator Stevens stated, “Through federal economic dragooning of our State’s budget, past Presidents and Congresses have quieted my vote and thereby my constituents’ voices. President Trump, through executive action, has reversed the overreaches of the Obama Administration in numerous ways. I trust President Trump in this regard. However, he needs our help.”

“The Constitution does not allow the Federal Government to force me as the elected representative of the 24th Senate District to implement federal programs while they sit in Washington insulated from the consequences,” Stevens continued.

The state is seeking a court declaration that the federal government has violated the Tenth Amendment and an order permanently enjoining the federal government from forcing the State of Tennessee to pay money out of its treasury to finance the federal refugee resettlement program.

When Congress enacted the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980, the explicit intent was to assure full federal reimbursement of the costs for each refugee resettled and participating in benefit programs provided by the states. Eventually, however, federal reimbursements to the states for these benefit programs were reduced and, by 1991, eliminated entirely. The states thereby became responsible for the costs of the programs originally covered by the federal government. Tennessee officially withdrew from participation in the refugee resettlement program in 2007. However, instead of honoring Tennessee’s decision to withdraw from the program, the federal government merely bypassed the State and appointed a private, non-governmental organization to administer the program.

Senate Transportation amends IMPROVE Act with deeper tax cuts

An improved version of Governor Bill Haslam’s Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE Act) advanced in the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week with several significant tax cuts added by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). This includes a 20 percent reduction in the food tax. Norris said the move to reduce the food tax from five to four percent is designed to help Tennesseans “save more at the store than they pay at the pump.”

The committee action continues ongoing efforts to reduce taxes made by Norris in 2013 when the food tax was cut from 5.25 percent to 5 percent.

The purpose of the IMPROVE Act is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayer’s return on that investment. While one category, the gas tax, increases, it would be more than offset by the widespread cuts that most people pay for other necessities.

Senate Bill 1221, as amended, reduces the governor’s proposed increase from 7 to 6 cents on a gallon of gas and from 12 to 11 cents on a gallon of diesel, phasing them in over a three-year period. Other improvements made in the Senate bill include:

  • Removal of the provision to index the tax to adjust for inflation;
  • Removal of the proposed surcharge on rental cars; and,
  • Addition of more property tax relief for veterans and the elderly/disabled by moving the property value threshold from $100,000 to $135,100 for veterans and from $23,500 to $27,000 for the elderly/disabled, adjusting for inflation in future years.

The legislation maintains the governor’s proposal to make Tennessee’s franchise and excise (F&E) tax on manufacturing business more competitive by allowing companies to go to a single weighted sales factor. This provision aims to attract new and better paying manufacturing jobs to Tennessee which currently has higher F&E taxes than some neighboring states. It also provides for a one percent reduction in the Hall Income Tax.

The legislation continues the state’s long-time reliance on user fees rather than sales taxes to fund highway improvements. Tennessee does not use debt financing, tolls, or general fund revenues to fund roads. This pay-as-you-go practice has been credited as one of the reasons for the state’s top financial rankings and is especially important due to the instability of federal transportation funds over the past decade.

Tennessee has approximately 11,000 local roads, 40 percent of which are over 50 years old. Likewise, there are 8,000 state bridges in which 40 percent are over 40 years old. The aged bridges are causing significant safety concerns, as some are unsafe for the travel of heavy equipment, including fire trucks, ambulances and vehicles used in farming.

The legislation lists 962 projects identified by the governor as priorities. It includes 45 projects to improve interstates, 89 projects to improve road access in rural communities, 51 projects geared toward creating economic opportunities and 724 total bridge replacements.

Governor Haslam has said, “Scores of mayors across Tennessee – cities and counties, rural and urban – have told me that, if we don’t do something to address the fuel tax, they will have no alternative but to raise the property tax in their municipalities.” The governor’s proposal would mean $70 million annually in increased revenue for county road projects in Tennessee and $35 million for cities.

The bill now moves to the Senate State and Local Government Committee for consideration.

Addressing Leadership Professional Engineers class

Addressing Leadership Professional Engineers class

In Brief

Memphis Belle / Official State Airplane – Legislation naming the Memphis Belle as the Tennessee’s official state airplane was approved by the General Assembly this week. The Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress, which is arguably one of the five most famous aircraft in U.S. history, completed twenty-five missions in World War II with only minor damage and without the loss of any crew member. The heavy bomber was named for pilot Robert K. Morgan’s sweetheart, Memphis native Margaret Polk. The airplane and crew visited thirty-two U.S. cities, including Memphis, after World War II ended on a war bond tour before the airplane was retired. It was later brought to Memphis where it has been on public display for 59 years under the care of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association. The Memphis Belle is currently being restored to pristine condition as preparations are being made for a week-long “roll-out” ceremony of the airplane in May 2018 – the 75th anniversary of the Belle’s twenty-fifth mission over Nazi-occupied Europe. Senate Bill 1263 is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

James K. Polk Gravesite — Legislation which supports the relocation of President James K. Polk’s tomb from the State Capitol grounds to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site in Columbia, Tennessee, advanced through the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday. Senate Joint Resolution 141, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), aims to make the gravesite more accessible and bring better recognition to the 11th President of the U.S., who was one of only three Tennesseans ever to hold the nation’s highest office. The action to move the tomb to the state-owned site in Columbia is supported by the James K. Polk Memorial Association who requested the relocation. Both of Tennessee’s other presidents, President Andrew Johnson and President Andrew Jackson, are buried on land they owned. Polk had requested burial at his home, Polk Place, which no longer stands. The James K. Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site in Columbia was Polk’s only other residence, besides his residency at the White House. Senate passage of the resolution is part of a multi-step process before relocation can occur with the next step being approval by Tennessee’s Historical Commission.

Retired Teachers / Substitute Teachers — The Senate has approved Senate Bill 379 which guarantees a teacher without an active license that has retired within the last five years, is eligible for the same rate of pay as retired teachers that have maintained their licenses. The goal of legislation is to address the need for short-term substitute teachers who are highly qualified by giving an incentive for retired teachers to go back into the substitute teacher pool, even if they have not renewed their licenses. The bill is sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville).