July 1st may not mean much to most Tennesseans, but it's New Years Day in the world of Tennessee state government. The state's fiscal year begins anew and the $31.5 billion state budget takes effect. It also means that dozens of bills passed during the most recent session of the Tennessee General Assembly officially become the law of the land.
This year, Tennessee's busybody lawmakers passed a mind-numbing 176 laws that go into effect today.
A few of the new laws have merit. Most are simply opportunities for lawmakers to tell their constituents they did something, when doing nothing would have served just as well.
For example, scam artists who defraud Tennesseans in Bernie Madoff-type Ponzi schemes now face more jail time. Of course, Madoff-type Ponzi schemes rarely strike Tennessee.
Tougher penalties are now in place for anyone intentionally interfering with a service dog while it is performing its duties. Not that someone heartless enough to try to lead a blind person in the wrong direction by misdirecting his service dog would care what the penalties were, anyway.
Lawmakers made transporting "wild-appearing" swine into or within the state a misdemeanor.
Other laws that will impact the lives of most Tennesseans about as much as the price of lipstick in Zimbabwe include:
• Introducing specialty license plates celebrating tennis, recycling and the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs;
• Delaying the harvest season for wild ginseng by two weeks; and
• Providing ice skating rink operators immunity from civil liability for ice skating injuries.
While most of the laws the Tennessee legislature enacted this year were useless, unnecessary or silly -- or all three -- several deserve praise.
The state legislature took a positive, but measly, step in the right direction by reducing the state's most regressive tax. The sales tax on groceries will be lowered from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent today, saving the average family in Tennessee a paltry $15 a year. Any time taxpayers get to keep even a few extra dollars a year out of the hands of lawmakers should be considered a victory.
Realizing high schools are in need of more qualified teachers, lawmakers voted to allow college and university professors the opportunity to teach in public high schools. As of today, college professors are eligible to receive a state teaching license, provided they meet experience requirements and are in good standing with their higher education institutions.
Perhaps the most important law to take effect today is a "loser pay" style of tort reform. In an attempt to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits, parties who file particularly outlandish suits now may be required to pay the legal fees of the defendant. This law aims to prevent businesses and individuals from racking up costly legal bills fighting baseless lawsuits.
These good laws are proof that the members of the Tennessee General Assembly occasionally display the common sense to do what's best for the state. Almost all new laws, however, do little or nothing to make Tennessee a better place to live.
After all, does anyone think that Tennessee is any safer, cleaner, healthier, smarter, freer or more prosperous because 176 more laws are now in place?