Counting the days: Tennessee Legislature in final sprint before adjournment

Counting the days: Tennessee Legislature in final sprint before adjournment

April 19th, 2015 by Andy Sher in Politics State

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, makes a proposal during a House floor session in Nashville on April 16, 2015.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee lawmakers on Monday will begin their annual rush toward adjournment, racing through dozens of bills on issues ranging from new restrictions on abortion to school vouchers.

Despite passing a $33.8 budget -- the only thing the General Assembly is constitutionally required to do -- and resolving major controversies like guns in parks [it passed] and making the Bible the official state book [it didn't], lawmakers still have plenty of unfinished business.

The House has 110 bills on its Monday calendar and the Senate has 40. That doesn't count bills still in committees and measures passed by both chambers with differences that have to be sorted out.

Legislative leaders have their fingers crossed, hoping to wrap up this week. A lot of people, businesses, local governments, lobbyists and others are nervously watching to see what lives and what dies.

Here's a rundown on what's coming up:

* Abortion restrictions: The House is expected to take final action on a previously passed Senate bill that imposes 48-hour waiting period and mandatory informed consent by a physician for women seeking an abortion. Virtually every one of the 73 Republicans in the GOP-controlled House back the bill, as do some of the 26 Democrats.

* School vouchers: The Republican-controlled Senate has already passed this bill, just as it does every session. But it awaits action in the House Finance Subcommittee, where its prospects are unclear. The bill allows low-income parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private or religious schools -- Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim -- provided the student's zoned public school is in the bottom 5 percent for achievement statewide.

The bill would affect Hamilton County and four other systems with failing schools. It starts with 5,000 students, rising to 20,000 within a few years. If not enough parents use the vouchers, they could go to other low-income students attending nonfailing schools if their districts have even just one failing school.

* Auto insurance: Decades in the making, this bill finally puts teeth into enforcing the current mandatory insurance law. The bill, which passed the House last week, could affect one of every five vehicle registrations in Tennessee, or about 1.1 million vehicles and their owners who have no insurance.

The state's 95 county clerks will be required to check a computer to see if vehicle owners have insurance, and reject registrations if they don't. And they can revoke registrations if insurance is dropped.

* Common Core education standards: Action is expected in the House and Senate on a compromise on the state's Common Core standards for math and English language arts. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam hoped to stall an attack by conservatives on the states-initiated standards aimed at ensuring students know what they should.

The compromise retains Haslam's current review process. But it officially repeals Common Core standards. And it adds a 10-member commission with four gubernatorial appointees and three each by the House and Senate speakers. The commission would have to OK the new standards before passing them along to the state Board of Education for final approval. Proponents say it will retain high standards. Critics contend it's simply a rebranding of Common Core.

* Municipal de-annexation: Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, have a bill letting some city residents initiate referendums to "de-annex" their properties. If a majority of voters in the territory approved, the municipality still could levy taxes to pay for improvements like sewers incurred before the de-annexation.

Watson's version is ready for floor action. Carter's bill, a follow-up to his 2014 bill eliminating annexation by ordinance and requiring public votes, is up in the House Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Cities are opposed to de-annexation referendums. "We believe these matters are best handled locally," said Lacie Stone, a spokeswoman for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.

If the bill passes, Watson thinks some areas forcibly annexed into Chattanooga, such as Hixson, "will look at it."

"But remember," he added, "when you get de-annexed your financial responsibilities to whatever improvements that were made don't go away. I think it's a reasonable process to remove without undue [burdens] on cities."

* Undocumented students: After passing the Senate 21-12 last week, Sen. Todd Gardenhire's bill granting in-state college tuition rates to some undocumented students living in Tennessee faces its next big test in the House Finance Subcommittee this week.

As amended, the bill affects would-be students who have been designated "lawfully present" under a 2012 federal program.

"I was surprised at the [Senate vote] margin," the Chattanooga Republican said. "That's pretty remarkable. I think this margin gives it a real boost in the House. They were sort of waiting to see what we did."

* App-based rideshare services: Popular online transportation networks like Uber and Lyft are bypassing cities and lobbying legislatures to authorize their operations.

A bill by Watson strips cities' authority to license and regulate rideshare services and makes them self-regulating. The companies would be required to conduct criminal background checks on drivers.

While traditional taxi services have complained, the battle over the bill has involved Big Tech and Big Insurance. But Uber and Lyft and the major auto insurers compromised, and the bill is on the House and Senate floors this week.

"Uber and Lyft is a whole new concept in legislation and we're trying to build a model that's new," Watson said, who added the bill was "crafted, really, from a national perspective."

That's not making Chattanooga happy, since the city set up its own rideshare regulations earlier this year.

Stone said, "As you know, Mayor Berke fought for local control during his time in the legislature. We believe Chattanooga came up with a good, common sense solution to ride sharing and we would like to see our local legislation protected."

* Revenue reform: Senators are expected to take final action on Haslam's proposed Revenue Modernization Act. Haslam says the bill, passed last week by the House, brings fairness to Tennessee-based companies.

The state could collect its 7 percent sales tax on the online licensing of software by business as well as the purchase of video games.

A major change in state business franchise and excise taxes will benefit local-area companies such as Volkswagen and McKee Foods, with large workforces and major capital investments in plants and machinery. Changes increase the weight given to sales in the tax formula and decrease the portion for personnel and equipment.

The bargaining and negotiations on the bill were conducted secretly by the Haslam administration and various companies. The bill that originally would have raised some $45 million a year now will bring in about $17 million, according to the state Revenue Department.

Those changes are important, Carter told colleagues last week, citing McKee as an example.

"Let me explain something for all of us in Hamilton County and all of us in Tennessee," Carter said. "McKee family bakery is a huge employer in the state of Tennessee. Do you realize that without this modernization act, they are paying franchise and excise tax on more than 100 percent of their business, literally because payroll and plant and those things are more weighted?

"So why would they continue to bring more jobs to Tennessee?" he asked. "Why would they continue to build plants in Tennessee when they can go to their other regions throughout the country and not pay that tax."

The bill is "the first step in a process to correct [that inequity]."

* Transportation Equity Fund: A bill makes major changes to the 4.5 cents-per-gallon aviation fuel tax that helps pay for improvements at dozens of Tennessee airports, including Chattanooga's.

The bill delivers a tax break to Memphis-based FedEx, capping its aviation-fuel tax liability at $10.5 million annually. As a result, the Transportation Equity Fund -- now $41 million to $48 million -- would shrink by two-thirds.

FedEx pays an average 66 to 75 percent of the fund's annual revenues, which provide an estimated $32 million in annual grants to airports. In the last three fiscal years, the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport has received $7.35 million from the fund, according to state Transportation Department figures.

Proponents note the state has pumped hundreds of millions into incentives to lure and expand companies like Volkswagen, and say the break will help keep FedEx from moving refueling operations to other states.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.