Legislative update


Senate passes the budget and works towards passing key legislation to adjourn for the year

The Senate, along with the House, passed the 2017-2018 $37 billion budget this week and it has been sent to the Governor for his signature.  “The budget lays the foundation for the peace, safety and happiness of Tennesseans by further reducing taxes, resourcefully reallocating revenues, and responsibly reinvesting in our future as a state and as a people,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris.

The budget funds $150 million in road improvements, as well as $250 million in tax cuts, $127 million in spending cuts and $132 million added to our rainy day reserves.  Our state constitution requires the General Assembly to pass a balanced budget each year.

This budget recognizes a 3.17% projected annualized annual growth which is a conservative estimate.  It includes $17.9 billion in state revenue and $13.5 billion in federal revenue.

Some noteworthy budget items include:

  • Road Funding:  The plan includes $150 million in new road building and maintenance funds generated largely from a hike in the gas and diesel taxes.  The tax increases-6 cents per gallon gradually implemented over the next three years and 10 cents per gallon on diesel over the same period-anchored the roads funding package.  These funds will begin chipping away at the $10.5 billion backlog of road and bridge projects statewide.
  • Tax Cuts:  The bill covers $257 million in tax cuts, featuring reductions in the sales tax on groceries; cuts to corporate taxes for manufacturers; and lower taxes on income from stocks and bonds.  These tax cuts will help Tennesseans save more on groceries than they will pay in added costs at the pump.
  • Gatlinburg Fires:  Gatlinburg and Sevierville would receive $10.7 million in disaster relief in the aftermath of the December wildfires that left 14 people dead.
  • Pay Raises:  The plan also includes $77 million for state employee pay increases and market rate adjustments.
  • Education:  Fully funds the Basic Education Plan with $200 million; teacher raises at $100 million and also teacher pensions.
  • Capital Improvement:  Capital projects are funded at $660 million including state parks, a law enforcement training center, improvements at our post secondary institutions; and the funding for a new veterans home.
  • Health Initiatives:  Funding for substance abuse treatment programs, children’s services, programs for the elderly and disabled, and TennCare.

Legislation focuses on providing help for children suffering adverse childhood experiences 

The Senate passed a  bill that would establish a new pilot program to help children from troubled homes avoid chronic adverse childhood experiences. Senate Bill 887 would establish the “Zero to Three Initiative Courts” within either a Juvenile Court or General Sessions Court, similar to Tennessee’s Drug Courts.

Chronic childhood trauma, or what experts call adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), can disrupt a child’s brain-building process. Studies document the impact on brain development these chronic experiences, like emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect, growing up in a home with domestic violence or substance abuse, have on children. Left unaddressed, ACEs and their effects make it more difficult for a child to succeed in school, live a healthy life and contribute to the state’s future prosperity – our communities, workforce, and civic life.

The primary goal of the Zero to Three Initiative is to reduce time of permanency of children in at-risk environments by surrounding families of children age 36 months or younger with support services, whether it is returning them to parents, living with relatives or getting them ready for adoption.

Currently, there are two courts embracing this initiative in Nashville and Grundy County. The legislation calls for five courts to be added in Tennessee this year, with five more following in fiscal year 2018-2019. The courts would use best practices evolving from ACEs research to provide interventions and structures to optimize social, economic and health outcomes for these children.

Legislation authorizing autonomous vehicles passes

Tennessee Senate

Legislation was approved by the Tennessee Senate which allows for the roll out of autonomous vehicles in the state as long a human is in the driver’s seat.   Senate Bill 151 authorizes manufacturers and others to makes ADS (Automatic Driving System)-operated vehicles available to the public for operation on public roads and highways.

The action comes as Tennessee continues to grow as a major U.S. automotive hub.  The bill establishes certain procedures for manufacturers to operate ADS vehicles.  In addition, ADS-operated vehicles must have an instrument of insurance, surety bond, or proof of self-insurance in the amount of at least $5 million under the measure.

In Brief

Middle College Scholarship Program — The State Senate approved a measure creating a Middle College Scholarship Program to help students who are earning a Middle College degree.   Middle College is a public community college program that, in partnership with the Local Education Agency (LEA), permits high school students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree during their junior and senior years.  Although the program facilitates a seamless transition to post-secondary education, due to the requirement that recipients have a high school degree, the students are not eligible for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship.

Senate Bill 720 calls for a grant of $600 per semester, or $1,200 per year, to offset the cost of tuition and books during the two-year program.  The legislation also expands eligibility for the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship to students who complete Middle College.

School Bus Safety — Legislation aiming to increase safety on Tennessee school buses was approved by the full Senate on final consideration and sent to the governor for his signature. Senate Bill 1210 raises the minimum age for drivers to 25 and requires all drivers to complete a school bus driver training program based on standards developed by the Department of Education and the Department of Safety prior to transporting any students. The legislation clarifies that drivers must have five consecutive years of unrestricted driving experience prior to the date of application. The proposal also requires school districts and charter schools to appoint a transportation supervisor, who receives annual training and is responsible for monitoring and overseeing student transportation for their district or charter school. The transportation supervisor would be responsible for implementing the school safety policy set by the local board of education, including a policy for investigating complaints.

Consumer Protection / Automobiles — Legislation protecting consumers from purchasing a used automobile that has been recalled and is unsafe to drive has received final Senate approval. Senate Bill 172 provides transparency to buyers regarding the recall before the purchase is made from a licensed Tennessee dealer. Also called the “Motor Vehicle Recall and Disclosure Law,” the legislation prescribes that any vehicle deemed unsafe by the Highway Safety Administration to drive is too dangerous to be sold until properly repaired by the dealer. Other than “stop sale” recalls, vehicles for sale with unrepaired open recalls would have to be disclosed to the customer in writing before the sale. The bill also provides that after 30 days of waiting for a repair part, the manufacturer must pay a one percent monthly payment to the dealer based on the average trade in value of the vehicle being withheld from sale.

Child Abuse — The full Senate passed a bill that would broaden the definition of child endangerment to protect children at great risk of harm. Senate bill 310 includes actions by a parent who knowingly exposes or fails to protect a child from abuse or neglect, placing the child in imminent danger. Tennessee law defines imminent danger as “the existence of any condition or practice that could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious bodily injury.” Broadening this definition would mean that a child under the age of eight years old does not have to exhibit signs of physical injury to be considered endangered.  This legislation gives law enforcement the tools to rescue them before greater harm occurs, even though the child does not display current physical injuries.

Rape Victims / Parental Rights — The Senate approved legislation this week to assist rape victims in terminating the parental rights of their rapist. Currently, Tennessee law allows for termination of parental rights if a child is conceived as a result of rape only when there is a conviction. Senate Bill 554 changes the standard to clear and convincing evidence that the rape occurred. The legislation will also help bring additional federal funds to Tennessee for much-needed services to rape victims. In May 2015, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act was enacted by Congress, increasing the amount of STOP formula grant funding under the Violence Against Women Act for those states that have a law permitting mothers of children conceived through rape to seek termination of parental rights of their rapists. Various studies over the last two decades estimate that there are between 17,000 and 32,000 rape-related pregnancies in the United States each year.

(Note: I will be sending out a wrap-up of the first year of the 100th General Assembly in several parts)