Legislative update


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

The Senate continued to make progress this past week in winding down the 2017 legislative session, acting on some of the most important bills proposed this year including legislation addressing road improvements, suicide prevention and palliative care.

The Senate voted 25 to 6 last 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. The House passed it also on Wednesday.

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 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 tax increases included in Senate Bill 1221 are:
  • Incremental Gasoline tax increase, 6 cents over the next 3 years beginning July 1;
  • Incremental Diesel tax increase, 10 cents over the next 3 years beginning July 1;
  • Increased registration fee of $100 for an electric vehicle; and,
  • Increased Vehicle Registration Fees ($5 for most vehicles)

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 is otherwise known as the “High Priority Bridge Bill,” authorizes the Tennessee Department of Transportation to pay up to 100% 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. If we had not taken action, TDOT had estimated that within 10 to 12 years all 526 bridges that are in need of repair or replacement would likely be a safety risk.

Voluntary Prescription Drug Donation Repository Program would help indigent or uninsured receive prescribed medications

Legislation which sets up a repository program to help indigent or uninsured individuals who cannot afford their prescribed medications was unanimously approved by the State Senate on Monday.

Senate Bill 429 authorizes the Department of Health, in cooperation with the Board of Pharmacy, to operate a voluntary prescription drug donation repository program under which any individual, medical facility, or company may donate prescription drugs and supplies to help eligible persons.

For the donation to be accepted, the drugs must be in the original sealed or tamper-evident packaging and within the given expiration date. The donated prescription drugs include cancer and anti-rejection medications but would exclude any controlled substances. The donation must be inspected by a licensed pharmacist before being distributed to ensure it is not contaminated or misbranded.

The program calls for the donations of these specified prescription drugs and supplies to be made on the premises of a medical facility or pharmacy that has elected to participate in the drug repository program and meets the standards set forth under provisions of the act. A facility that receives donations may in turn distribute them to another eligible facility for distribution. Because it is a donation program, the legislation provides civil and criminal immunity to donors or participants except in the case of gross negligence, willful misconduct or bad faith.

In Brief…

Sexual Exploitation of Children — The Senate approved legislation, which I sponsored, that expands the definition of “material” in regard to the sexual exploitation of children. This new definition would include any computer image, or computer-generated image, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, to ensure Tennessee’s child pornography law covers the practice of morphing. Morphing is the smooth transportation of one image into another by a computer. The practice has been used by pornographers to put a child’s face over an adult body in lewd sexual situations. Although federal law covers morphing, not everyone is charged federally. Senate Bill 605 ensures state law bans such practices as well.

Help Find the Missing Act — The State Senate approved legislation 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.

Suicide Prevention Training Act – Legislation which aims to prevent suicide by providing training to medical professionals who are most likely to interact with troubled individuals has been approved by the full Senate. Senate Bill 489 enacts the “Kenneth and Madge Tullis, MD, Suicide Prevention Training Act.” This would require professional counselors, marital and family therapist, pastoral therapist, social workers, alcohol and drug abuse counselors, and occupational therapist to undergo suicide prevention training. The bill calls for the program to be in place by January 1, 2020. Professional affected would then have exactly two years to complete the initial training required with follow-up training every five years thereafter. Dr. Tullis, a survivor of seven suicide attempts and multiple addictions, is an award-winning psychiatrist specializing in mood disorders, addictions, psychological trauma, and suicide prevention. Tullis and his wife, Madge, organized and co-chaired Tennessee’s first-ever Suicide Prevention Conference. Together with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, they founded the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network which has become a model for other states.

Child Rapist / Monitoring — State Senators voted to approve legislation requiring any person who is considered a child rapist or a child sexual predator and who does not have either a primary or secondary residence to enroll in a satellite-based monitoring and supervision program. Senate Bill 468 would require that the offender remain in the program for the full duration of their probation for the protection of children.

Truancy — The full Senate approved legislation establishing a creative and innovative truancy intervention program for students in K-12 schools. Truancy is the most frequent reason given for schools referring juveniles to court. Senate Bill 196 creates a mentorship-type relationship between a designated school representative and child and parent in an opportunity to focus on attendance prior to it becoming a juvenile court issue. The legislation requires that the schools notify parents at the beginning of the school year in writing regarding their attendance policy. After three unexcused absences, the student and parent meet with a school representative to address the absences and to implement the first tier of the progressive truancy intervention. An agreement is then signed by the student, parent and school representative, including the school’s attendance expectations for the child and penalties for additional absences. Two additional tiers of interventions would be applied if the student accumulates additional unexcused absences in violation of the attendance contract.

Tennessee Educator’s Protection Act – State Senators voted to create liability protections for teachers, education employees, school board members, and authorized volunteers in Tennessee’s public and private schools. Named the “Tennessee Educator’s Protection Act,” the proposal protects school employees from frivolous lawsuits aimed at harassing faculty and staff while performing their duties.

Human Trafficking / Minor Victims -Legislation was approved by the full Senate which makes the identifying information of the minor victim of a criminal offense confidential and not open to inspection by members of the public, unless a court waives the confidentiality at the request of the minor’s parent. Minors who have been victimized, such as child pornography or sex trafficking victims, should not have their identifiable information available to the public in a manner that could potentially be discovered and used to further victimize the minor in the media or social media. Social media victimization is an ever increasing problem and has been cited in a number of suicides in Tennessee and across the country. Senate Bill 550 provides a measure of protection for both children and families and is supported by the Chiefs of Police, the Sheriffs Association and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

Soldiers / Handgun Permit – Legislation received final Senate approval to help soldiers applying for a handgun permit who have already received handgun training while serving their country. Senate Bill 1388 provides that a handgun carry permit applicant shall not be required to comply with the firing range requirements for obtaining a handgun carry permit if the applicant submits proof of successfully passing small arms qualification or combat pistol training in any branch of the military.

Taxpayer Money / Audit Findings — Legislation aiding taxpayers passed the full Senate, calling for a plan of action when a local government entity is audited and problems, or findings, are cited. Senate Bill 315 adds to the Local Government Modernization Act of 2005 to require a local government receiving annual audit findings to submit its annual budget and a corrective action plan to the Comptroller of the Treasury. If the local government does not agree with an audit finding, or believes corrective action is not required, the corrective action plan must state the reasons and justifications for disagreement or belief.

Palliative Care – Legislation creating a State Task Force on Palliative Care and Quality of Life in Tennessee has received final Senate approval. The purpose of the bill is to promote patient-centered and family-focused palliative care in the state. Palliative care is an approach intended to improve the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing serious or life-threatening illnesses. It aims to prevent and relieve their suffering by means of early identification, impeccable assessment, and the treatment of their pain, physical, psychosocial, spiritual, and various other ailments. Senate Bill 1170 creates a nine-member task force charged with consulting and advising the Department of Health on matters relative to the establishment, maintenance, operation, and outcome of palliative care initiatives. Over the last decade, a multitude of studies have shown the benefits of palliative care, including improved quality of life, reduced patient and caregiver burden, and an overall reduction in total health care costs.

Human Trafficking — 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 was approved by the full Senate. 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.