Sunday, May 1, 2016

109th General Assembly adjourns with tax reduction and public safety highlighting final week of legislative action

 Several members of the State legislature produce an email newsletter with almost the same verbiage word for word. This is from Senator Jim Tracy.

The 109th General Assembly adjourned on April 22, 2016 to become a part of Tennessee history with the last week of legislative action seeing passage of some of the most important bills of the 2016 session.  This includes legislation to phase out the Hall Income Tax, a bill to aid 100 percent service-related disabled veterans and the elderly disabled with property tax relief, the Public Safety Act to reduce crime and improve public safety, and the Rural Economic Opportunity Act to spur economic development in some of Tennessee’s most economically distressed counties.  The Senate also approved major legislation cracking down on drunk drivers and a key bill to address opioid abuse in Tennessee.
On the final legislative day, the General Assembly approved historic legislation reducing the Hall tax rate from 6 percent to 5 percent, a seventeen percent cut from the total dollars collected by the state for fiscal year 2016.   Senate Bill 47 calls for an annual reduction of at least one percent until the tax is eliminated.  Furthermore, the bill provides that by January 1, 2022, the Hall Income Tax will no longer be collected and eliminated as a legal means of taxation in Tennessee.
The General Assembly also approved Senate Bill 1796 before adjourning, which increases property tax relief for 100 percent service-related disabled veterans, and/ or their widows or widowers, by repealing the income cap that was put in place last year.  The legislation also raises the property value limit for the elderly disabled from $23,000 to $23,500.
2016 legislative session see passage of major legislation strengthening Tennessee’s DUI laws
The State Senate passed legislation in the closing week of the 2016 legislative session creating stricter penalties for DUI offenders in a year that has seen major legislation strengthening Tennessee’s drunk driving laws.   Senate Bill 2065 requires a judge to order an ignition interlock device for all convicted DUI offenders unless the judge provides a finding of fact for not ordering the device.  
Although Tennessee currently mandates the use of ignition interlock devices, there is only about 15 to 20 percent compliance rate with the law because judges must provide a reason why the device should be placed on a DUI offender’s vehicle.  This legislation flips that requirement by providing that a judge must state findings of fact on why an interlock device should not be installed on the offender’s vehicle.  
Under the bill, offenders must have the ignition interlock devices in their car and operating for 365 consecutive days or for the entire time their license is revoked, whichever is longer.  To ensure compliance, the legislation establishes penalties for the unauthorized tampering or removal of the interlock device.  If the device is removed during the 365-day period, the offender must start over until it is served consecutively.
Similarly, if there has been any tampering with the device in the last 120 days of the sentence, the legislation provides that the period for which the interlock system is required will be extended by another 120 days.   
The bill prescribes an additional $12.50 fee to the offender for administrative costs.
The Tennessee Senate also passed Senate Bill 35 this week prohibiting those convicted of vehicular homicide by intoxication from being eligible for probation. 
Other key bills addressing drunk driving offenses approved by the legislature this year include:
  • ·      Senate Bill 1572 which elevates a DUI offense for those convicted six or more times from a class E felony to a class C felony and requires prior convictions for alcohol-related vehicle offenses, including those committed out-of-state, to be counted as prior convictions;
  • ·      Senate Bill 2576which requires immediate sharing of an impaired driver’s DUI arrest and conviction history with law enforcement, the courts and the National Crime Information Centers, making the information accessible by law enforcement officers in their squad cars to check the criminal background of arrestees;
  • ·      Senate Bill 2577 which calls for timely transmission of fingerprints taken for vehicular impairment offenses;
  • ·      Senate Bill 1582 which allows judges to order any device necessary to ensure that the offender complies with probation conditions and a clinical assessment to better cover driving under the influence of drugs;
  • ·      Senate Bill 2399 which authorizes the use of the state’s Interlock Assistance Fund for transdermal monitoring devices or other alternative alcohol or drug monitoring devices when a court determines that an offender is unable to pay for it; and,
  • ·      Senate Bill 1730 which creates a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) memorial signing program to erect and maintain memorial signs on the non-interstate highways commemorating residents who died as a result of DUI related incident.
In 2015, 267 people died on Tennessee roadways from alcohol related deaths, accumulating 27.8 percent of all traffic fatalities that year. 
Major legislation to reduce crime passes legislature
The Tennessee Senate approved major legislation this week which aims to reduce crime and improve public safety.  The Public Safety Act of 2016 addresses the most serious offenses driving Tennessee’s violent crime rate by establishing mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of three or more charges of aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary, or drug trafficking.  A burglary is considered especially aggravated if the victim suffers serious bodily injury during the offense.
Under current law, those convicted three times or more of aggravated burglary and especially aggravated burglary must serve only 30 percent of their sentence before being considered for release or parole.  The act sets the mandatory minimum period of incarceration to 85 percent for third and subsequent convictions for aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary and Class A, B, and C felonies for the sale, manufacture, and distribution of controlled substances. 
To update the law and help control costs, the legislation also changes the felony thresholds for property theft for a Class A misdemeanor from $500 to $1,000, Class E felony from $500 to $1,000 to a range of $1,000 to $2,500 and a Class D felony from $1,000 to 10,000 to a range of $2,500-$10,000.
On domestic violence, the legislation will allow a law enforcement officer to seek an order of protection on behalf of a domestic abuse victim. Additionally, if a law enforcement officer makes an arrest for a crime involving domestic abuse, then an automatic order of protection will be issued when there is probable cause to believe that the alleged assailant used or attempted to use deadly force against a domestic violence victim. A hearing should be held within 15 days of the automatic order of protection being issued.
A third and subsequent domestic violence conviction would change from a misdemeanor to a Class E felony under the legislation. This change maintains the current minimum 90-day sentence for a domestic violence conviction.
In addition, the measure retools community supervision to reduce the number of people returning to prison for probation and parole violations when their noncompliance does not rise to the level of a new criminal offense.  The move is expected to save the state $80 million. 
Of the 12,588 people entering state prison last year, 40 percent were probationers or parolees sent to prison because they violated supervision conditions.  This legislation authorizes the department to utilize a robust, structured matrix of both sanctions and incentives to facilitate compliance with the conditions of supervision by the more than 71,000 state probationers and parolees.
The bill is funded by an $18 million appropriation in the state budget which passed the General Assembly last week. 
In Brief…
Pharmacies / Robberies -- The State Senate passed legislation this week to help tackle the issue of drug abuse and pharmaceutical robberies across the state.  Between 2006 and 2010, pharmaceutical robberies rose 81 percent nationally and Tennessee is ranked 5th in most cases.  Senate Bill 593 will enhance the sentencing of robbery, aggravated robbery or especially aggravated robbery on the premises of a licensed pharmacy with the intent to obtain controlled substances unlawfully.  The bill comes after a series of robberies, including one in Bean Station in 2013 that resulted in the deaths of a pharmacist and patient and left two clerks severely injured.  States with similar laws indicate a massive reduction in these types of robberies.  The bill is now awaiting the signature of the governor before becoming law. 
Rural Economic Opportunity Act -- The General Assembly passed significant job creation bill in the last week of legislative action to spur economic development in some of the state’s most economically distressed counties.   Twenty-one of Tennessee’s 95 counties are considered economically distressed, meaning that they are in the bottom 10 percent nationally in terms of unemployment, per capita income, and poverty. 
The “Rural Economic Opportunity Act of 2016” has two components that aim to alleviate unemployment in these areas by supporting jobs and economic development.  This includes implementation of the “Propelling Rural Economic Progress” (PREP) program that would create a grant fund to aid rural counties in building sites and infrastructure to incentivize businesses to develop in their region.
The second component of Senate Bill 2538 restructures the county tier system used for determining whether a company looking to locate or expand operations is eligible for job tax credits.  This legislation would lower the job creation threshold to 20 in tier three counties and 10 in the additional fourth tier, used for the economically distressed countiesTax credits help fuel company expansion by rewarding job creation based on the number of positions created, amount invested, type of business and location.
Small Business / SBIR / STTR Grants -- The Senate passed legislation this week to aid small technology businesses across the state.  Senate Bill 2606 seeks to take advantage of small business innovations and federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants.  It would allow the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, now known as LaunchTN, to have the authority to establish an applied research and developmental finance program to provide matching grants to small technology businesses.  Fifteen other states, including Virginia and Kentucky, have taken advantage of the US Small Business Administration match-granting program and this legislation will make Tennessee more competitive with the neighboring states. 
STEM Schools – The last week of legislative action saw passage of Senate Bill 1598 which simplifies the transfer of students, and the BEP funding that follows them, to regional Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) Schools.  Strong student performances in STEM education are vital to Tennessee’s future well-being. STEM knowledge is a core requirement for careers in some of the fastest-growing industries across the Volunteer State and is closely linked with our economic strength and competitiveness.
Federal Refugee Program – The Senate adopted a House amendment and sent to the governor legislation which urges Tennessee’s Attorney General to commence legal action in response to the federal government forcing Tennessee to spend state dollars for the Refugee Resettlement Program.  If the Attorney General does not commence civil action, Senate Joint Resolution 467 gives the General Assembly the authority to retain outside counsel for this purpose.  Recently, high ranking officials in Washington have cast doubt on the screening process.  Instead of the vetting process taking 18 to 24 months which the Obama administration said was proof of how through the process was, it has now been announced that Syrian refugees will be on American soil within 90 days
Lifetime Handgun Permits -- Legislation passed the General Assembly this week that reduces the lifetime handgun permit fee.  Senate Bill 1477 reduces the fee from $500 to $200 for current permit holders.  First-time applicants would pay the $115 fee currently in effect, plus $200 for a lifetime handgun permit.  The legislation takes effect January 1, 2017 in order to make the changes necessary to the computer systems in order to properly process the permits. 
Retail Accountability Act – Legislation passed the State Senate this week making changes to the state’s Retail Accountability Program (RAP).   The law was first passed in 2012 to ensure that the taxes paid by consumers for beer and tobacco products are properly submitted to the state by requiring wholesalers to report to the Department of Revenue what is sold to retailers.  In the first two and a half years of the program, the state has collected an additional $60 million in previously unreported sales tax revenue, which prompted an expansion of the program last year.  However, the Department of Revenue’s implementation of the expanded program was more far-reaching than legislators intended. Senate Bill 2570 more clearly defines the scope of the program, including exempting perishable groceries and frozen foods from the reporting process and creating a sunset deadline for the legislature to evaluate the program’s effectiveness at a later date.  It also calls for a change from monthly to quarterly reporting. 
Marijuana Oils and Concentrates -- Legislation passed the State Senate this week clarifying that marijuana concentrates and oils are defined as marijuana and are under the state’s Tennessee Drug Control Act.   The existing statute is not current with the recent increase in different and dangerous forms of the drug.  Senate Bill 1189, which works to correct that, now goes to the governor for his signature.
UTK Office of Diversity / Minority Scholarships -- This week, the Senate Education Committee passed legislation taking $436,000 from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) and using it for scholarships in a minority engineering scholarship program.  Senate Bill 1912 reallocates the salaries of the four employees in UTK’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the fiscal year of 2016-2017 for the purpose of awarding scholarships to minority engineering students.  The money may help up to 100 minority students in the engineering program receive a scholarship. 
The bill also provides that state funds shall not be expended by the University of Tennessee to promote the use of gender neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays or fund or support “Sex Week.” 
In August, UTK came under fire by lawmakers, alumni and the general public for an Office of Diversity and Inclusion post on the university’s website asking students and faculty to toss out “he” and “she” when addressing students for gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “zir.”  In December, the office posted guidance to students and faculty to ensure holiday parties at the campus are not a Christmas party in disguise.  These actions follow several years of widespread disapproval over the university’s “Sex Week” which included such events as drag shows, lectures given by a porn actress, and condom scavenger hunts.  Sex week has continued despite objections with an acceleration of objectionable content in this year’s list of courses. 
Worker’s Compensation -- This week the Senate passed a measure improving the worker’s compensation reforms adopted in 2013.  The legislation was brought by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and approved by the Worker’s Compensation Council.  Senate Bill 2582 changes the injury notification requirement for workplace injuries from 30 days to 15 days to encourage workers to more timely notify their employer if they have been injured on the job.  It also provides additional protections for workers by authorizing a worker’s compensation judge to award medical and/or disability benefits that have been wrongly denied during an expedited compensation hearing.  The legislation encourages more employers to participate in the Tennessee Drug Free Workplace Act by authorizing employers to offer annual acknowledgment or notification to all employees of the provisions in that program rather than require the one hour annual training. Approximately 4,000 employers use the drug free workplace act out of 120,000 estimated employers and this law aims to create more participation.  In addition, the legislation allows the Division of Worker’s Compensation to hire attorneys as ombudsman to help navigate the system.
Native Species Lumber Act -- The Senate passed Senate Bill 822 this week allowing Tennessee lumber mills the ability to sell native timber for agricultural buildings, including barns and sheds.  The Tennessee Native Species Lumber Act will create a certification program offered by the agricultural extension of the University of Tennessee for owners or representatives of sawmills.  The mill is then certified to grade lumber and to certify in writing to the purchaser that the quality and safe working stresses of the lumber are equal to or better than No. 2 grade.  The program will be offered biannually and in each of Tennessee’s three grand divisions at a nominal cost. 
Gang Violence -- The General Assembly approved legislation this week providing clarity to a 2012 law calling for enhanced penalties for crimes committed in association with gang activity.   Senate Bill 1558 requires an offense be punished one classification higher than the classification established by the offense if the defendant was a criminal gang member at the time of the offense and the criminal gang offense was committed at the direction of, in association with, or for the benefit of the defendant's criminal gang or a member of the criminal gang.  If the defendant was a leader or organizer of the criminal gang, then the offense shall be punished two classifications higher.  The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals recently ruled the 2012 law was too broad and that in order to meet constitutional standards that the offense committed needed to be related to gang membership in order to eligible for an increased charge. 
Aeronautics -- State Senators has approved legislation to create the Aeronautic Economic Development Fund.  Under Senate Bill 750, grants may be made in all counties to the local government or their economic development organizations, after approval by the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation.  The fund is not appropriated in this year’s budget, but will instead be funded at a later date.  Once funded, grants will be made to benefit aeronautical programs and infrastructure across the state, principally at airports. 
County Commissions -- Legislation designed to protect the integrity of county commissions and the confidence county citizens have in their commission has passed the General Assembly.  Senate Bill 466 prohibits any county employee that is simultaneously serving as a county commissioner of the county by which they are employed from voting on any matter that would increase the pay or benefits of that member or that member’s spouse.  The legislation also applies to members of the legislative body of the county who are also employed by that same county or whose spouse is employed by that county.  The employed commissioner would be able to vote on the budget, appropriations or tax rate resolution unless the vote is on a specific amendment, appropriation, or resolution
which the member has a conflict of interest.

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