Bill mandating school bus seat belts clears first vote

A bill requiring all Tennessee school buses be equipped with safety restraint systems by mid-2023 cleared its first House hurdle Wednesday, report the Times-Free Press. The voice vote came after two Chattanooga physicians gave dramatic testimony about the “terrible night” in November when a Hamilton County school bus crashed, killing six children and injuring others.

“I truly believe that the pain of those families and suffering of their children could have been prevented or lessened,” Dr. Alan Kohrt, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, told Transportation Subcommittee members.

He said that included not just the seat belt bill (HB395) sponsored by Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, but another Favors bil (HB127)l. It requires school bus drivers be at least 25 years old and have had a five-year clean driving history before getting licensed by the state to transport students.

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Shelby-only voucher bill gets House committee approval

A school voucher bill that targets Shelby County only moved through its first major House panel Tuesday amid testy debate among Memphis-area representatives, reports the Times-Free Press.

Education Administration and Planning Committee members spent nearly two hours fighting over the measure (HB126), which creates a five-year pilot project in which poorer parents in low-performing schools can use public tax dollars to send their children to private and religious schools.

Then they passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Memphis, the committee’s chairman. It now goes to other House panels. A similar bill is moving in the Senate. (Note: The bill itself was approved on voice vote; on an earlier key amendment backed by Brooks, the roll call vote was 11-5.)

Brooks’ bill retreats from the more ambitious, years-long effort by proponents to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers or “opportunity scholarships” to low-income students across Tennessee attending priority schools falling into the bottom 5 percent on academic performance.

Those previous efforts would have impacted Hamilton County, Knox County, Metro Nashville, Shelby County (Memphis) and Hardemann County.

But a version of the broader approach is in another bill that remains in committee.

Following the bill’s approval, Roy Herron, an attorney who represents Tennessee’s small school districts, said he’s concerned that if the voucher bill is approved for the Shelby County school system, other rural and urban systems like Hamilton’s will be under threat of similar treatment.

“Memphis is not Las Vegas,” said Herron, a former state senator. “What happens in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis.”

Proponents like to characterize vouchers as “opportunity scholarships,” saying they give parents with children “trapped” in failing public schools more choice. Critics say the loss of money is a harpoon into the side of public education.

Push for legalizing medical marijuana dropped for the year

Rep. Jeremy Faison, a leading advocate for legalizing use of marijuana for medical purposes, is abandoning the effort for this year and says that House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally have agreed to form a task force to study the issue over the coming months.

The House Health Committee rejected Tuesday a non-binding resolution (HJR65) by Rep.  Sabi ‘Doc’ Kumar, R-Springfield, that declared support for use of “government-approved marijuana plant products for medicinal purposes.”

Kumar’s resolution was officially deferred to “summer study” on voice vote – Faison made the motion — after testimony from advocates of medical marijuana use and Dr. Michael Warren, deputy commissioner of the Department of Health, who said he supported “the spirit” of the non-binding resolution.

Faison, R-Cosby, said during the hearing that he thought the resolution was “muddying the water” by suggesting Tennessee use should await Federal Food and Drug Administration approval, a process that could take years.

The legislator took his separate bill (HB495) – filed as a caption bill and still awaiting an amendment to spell out details on legalizing medicinal marijuana on the legislative website  — “off notice,” meaning no vote is scheduled.

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House Transportation Committee votes for revised Haslam tax bill

The House Transportation Committee today approved, 11-7, the same revised version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s tax package — including higher taxes on fuel and lower taxes on food – that was approved earlier in the Senate Transportation Committee. The panel has been viewed as the biggest obstacle to ultimate approval of the governor’s proposal, though several hurdles remain.

The vote came after about 90 minutes of debate and defeat or withdrawal of multiple amendments. A couple of amendments were adopted. Most notably, perhaps, one would reverse a current law that says that any cut in federal gas taxes would automatically trigger a corresponding increase in state gas taxes. The amendment says any increase in federal taxes would trigger a corresponding decrease in state fuel levies.

The most debated amendment was on a proposal by Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, that would have diverted money from sales taxes collected from the sale of vehicles to the highway fund without any fuel tax increase. It failed on an 8-10 vote.

The basic bill (HB534), as now approved by both the House and Senate Transportation Committees, raises the gas tax by six cents per gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon – both increases phased in over a three-year period. The governor’s original proposal was seven cents per gallon on gas and 12 cents on diesel, both taking full effect July 1.

The revised version also cut the state sales tax on groceries from 5 percent to 4 percent. Originally, Haslam proposed a reduction to just 4.5 percent. Administration officials say the grocery tax, for most average Tennesseans, would now more than offset the increased taxes they will pay for fuel.

Most other provisions of the governor’s original package remain in place — including a corporate tax break designed to benefit for manufacturers.

The revised bill also won approval today, as expected, in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. In the Senate, it now goes to the Finance Committee. In the House, it now goes to the Local Government Committee.

The committees overseeing local government legislation are involved because the bill also includes provisions allowing city and county governments to hold referendums on raising taxes for transportation spending.

Note: The House committee roll call vote is HERE.

Anti-tax leader: Revised Haslam transportation bill is not a tax increase

The latest version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s transportation legislation has received a blessing from Grover Norquist, a national anti-tax activist, who says the package overall reduces more taxes than it increases. Haslam, who sought Norquist’s opinion, says that is “a really big deal,” reports the Times-Free Press.

Under the version of Haslam’s plan advancing in the Senate, the state would increase its tax on gas by 6 cents per gallon and diesel by 10 cents per gallon, but also cut other areas including the sales tax on groceries, the tax on earnings from stocks and bonds and corporate taxes owed by large manufacturers.

Norquist, founder of the group Americans for Tax Reform, said in a letter to state House and Senate members that the most recent version of the governor’s bill advancing in Senate represents a “net tax cut,” and does not violate lawmakers’ pledges to not raise taxes.

He also noted that the Senate had removed a proposal to link fuel taxes to inflation, “which means gas tax hikes will not be put on autopilot.”

The Haslam administration sought Norquist’s input on the Tennessee plan after seeing that Americans for Tax Reform supported gas tax increases in New Jersey and South Carolina when they were coupled with tax relief.

Norquist’s position on the Tennessee gas tax proposal contrasts with the strong opposition voiced by the state chapter of Americans For Prosperity, founded by billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch.

…Haslam told reporters he considers the announcement from Norquist to be “a really big deal.”

“This is somebody who’s kind of staked his whole thing on we should never have tax increases,” Haslam said. “Whether you agree or not, the fact that the founder of that movement — who had people sign no-new-tax pledges — says this is not a tax increase.”

Note: The Nashville Post has full text of the letter HERE. Meanwhile, Tennessee Star reports Norquist’s support has caused a backlash.

(T)he fierce backlash from conservative opponents of the gas tax increase in Tennessee to the last minute attempt by supporters of the governor’s plan to bolster its chances by calling in a “celebrity ” who has never lived in the state and knows little of the intricacies of the bill or the state’s budget, spells more, rather than less, political trouble ahead for the governor and his allies.

Senate votes (again) for elected attorney general

News release from Senate Republican Caucus

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 20, 2017 — A resolution that would allow Tennessee voters to decide if they want to popularly elect the state’s attorney general (AG) was approved 22 to 8 tonight by the State Senate on final consideration. Senate Joint Resolution 57, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), begins the process of amending the State Constitution, which if approved by voters, calls for the AG to be elected beginning with the November 2024 general election.

“Currently, the attorney general is twice removed from those he or she is supposed to represent – the people of Tennessee,” said Senator Beavers. “It is time we let the citizens have more of a say in their government.”

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Legislators compromise on school recess

The legislature is poised to revise a law enacted last year that put new restrictions on school recess, inspiring both complaints and praise in the education arena.  HB45, sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, was approved unanimously in the House on Thursday and is scheduled for a Senate floor vote Monday evening with Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, a sponsor.

The original version of the bill would have repealed last year’s physical activity requirements, but it’s been amended in a compromise that seems to have broad support. An excerpt from WPLN’s report on recess for kids:

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Official state stuff: Memphis Belle OK; spat over Oak Ridge Playhouse

While the House and Senate have unanimously agreed to declare the “Memphis Belle” as Tennessee’s official state airplane, there’s a difference between the two chambers on granting similar official recognition to the Oak Ridge Playhouse.

The Memphis Belle, subject of two movie productions, is described in SB1263 as “a Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress” that is “arguably one of the five most famous aircraft in United States history.” The plane flew bombing missions over Germany during World War II. It was named, says the bill preamble, “for pilot Robert K. Morgan’s sweetheart, Memphis native Margaret Polk.”

The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett) passed both chambers unanimously on Monday evening.

Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) and Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) are sponsors of HB985, which – as introduced – declares the Oak Ridge Playhouse “the official state community theater.” But in a House committee, the measure was amended on motion of Rep. Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville) to amend by declaring the Oak Ridge facility “an” official state community theater rather than “the” official community theater.

Daniel said he was concerned that using “the” might unfairly exclude other community theaters from official state recognition and Ragan acknowledged that, while there are apparently other community theaters, he had no list of where they are or how many there are. The sponsor said the door would be open for others to seek similar state recognition in the future. Ragan said he preferred to keep “the” in place, but would go along with “an” to get the bill out of committee.

The bill is scheduled for consideration on both the House and Senate floor playhouses (OK, make that “sessions”) Monday evening, providing a bit of theater for the normally placid process of designating official state stuff.

Rep. Favors in House floor speech: Let my 94-year-old mother vote

State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, celebrated her mother’s 94th birthday on the House floor Thursday by pointedly telling the GOP-controlled chamber her mother can’t vote in Tennessee because of a 2011 law, reports the Times-Free Press.

“She taught school until well into her 70s and was always civically engaged,” Favors said. “Now she’s disheartened because she’s one of those individuals who was never issued a birth certificate.”

As a result, Favors said, her mother is “unable to obtain a photo identification license so that she can vote” under state law. “She loves Tennessee and is a citizen. And we hope she will be afforded the opportunity to vote before she transitions from this life.”

Favors said it’s not just her mother who has problems. A number of Tennessee senior citizens face similar issues, which is why she is offering a bill to remedy the situation, the lawmaker said.

She said when her grandmother gave birth to her mother back in 1923, it wasn’t in a hospital. Family members and neighbors attended the birth.

“They wouldn’t even let us in the hospital then,” said Favors, who is black. “It wasn’t even a midwife.”

There are a dwindling number of other Tennessee seniors facing similar problems, she said.

Favors’ bill (HB184)is pending in the House Local Government Subcommittee. It seeks to make it easier for Tennesseans age 65 and older to meet requirements to obtain official photo identification issued by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

The safety department issues non-driver’s license photo IDs as well as driver’s licenses. Those and other state ID, like a handgun-carry license or federally issued photo ID such as a passport, are required to show at Tennessee polls under the voter ID law passed after Republicans assumed control of the entire General Assembly six years ago.

House Repubs shut off ‘natural and ordinary’ debate, quickly approve bill

The House on Thursday passed a bill that the state’s LGBT community fears is an attack on their parental rights in disguise, reports the Nashville Post.

Sponsored by Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville), HB 1111 states that in the Tennessee Code, “undefined words shall be given their natural and ordinary meaning, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language, except when a contrary intention is clearly manifest.”

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh questioned Farmer on the necessity of the bill, asking if a catfish farm would count in the “natural and ordinary meaning” of the word “farm.”

“We’re not trying to step out and place anything in a small little box here,” Farmer replied. “We all know for example, there are places in the code that say ‘men,’ or maybe humanity, and we know that ‘men’ don’t always mean ‘a man.’ It can mean ‘a man and a woman,’ and there are portions of the code that make that very, very clear.”

“So you’re basically saying this is already the law,” Fitzhugh asked.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Farmer replied. But before Fitzhugh could follow up, debate was cut off. The bill passed 70 to 23.

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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