State Senator Brian Kelsey sends this report on the just ended legislative session:
The legislative year that ended last week felt largely like Act I of a two-act play. Many pieces of legislation moved in the right direction, but the final outcome was postponed to 2016, the second act of a two-year Tennessee General Assembly.
Scholarships for K-12 Students
My ten-year push to provide Opportunity Scholarships once again passed the Senate but was mired in the House Finance Committee. Opportunity Scholarships would allow low-income children to take $6,500, a portion of the money we already spend on them, to attend private schools in grades K-12. I first passed this legislation through the Senate in 2011. This year the bill passed the House Education Committee before being postponed in the House Finance Subcommittee. Please contact these members to ask for their support.
For the first time, however, Tennessee did pass a bill to offer scholarships to disabled students. The Individualized Education Act, which I co-sponsored with Sen. Dolores Gresham, will provide even larger scholarships to attend private schools for children with autism, hearing or visual impairments, orthopedic impairments, or intellectual disabilities. I hope we can build on the success of this program to expand it to low-income children.
Once again, we were unable to end the Hall tax on interest and dividends, but we did raise exemptions to include individuals making less than $37,000 per year and couples making less than $68,000. When I traveled the state last year promoting the constitutional ban on a state income tax, I heard from hundreds of voters who urged me also to end the Hall tax. A bill to do so passed the Senate Finance Committee and awaits action in the House Finance Committee.
Last year, we finally passed legislation I co-sponsored to end forced annexation without a vote from the community being annexed. Now it is time to allow those communities that were annexed against their will to vote to de-annex from the city. They would still have to pay back the services they received. A bill I am co-sponsoring was primed to pass in the Senate when it was delayed a year in the House Finance Committee. Are you seeing the trend here?
A second constitutional amendment I sponsored that was ratified last November adopted a Founding Fathers model for selecting appellate judges. They are now appointed by the governor, confirmed by the legislature, and later face a retention election. Legislation I filed to implement legislative confirmation passed the House and Senate but in different forms. It awaits final reconciliation next year.
Working with the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Memphis Commission, and the Shelby County Environmental Court, I was able to pass legislation outlawing aggressive panhandling. This includes asking for money while blocking, touching, or following someone. The jail sentence of up to 90 days for a second offense will deter this activity and help Memphis attract more tourists.
While we did not do enough to crack down harder on violent criminals this year, I am proud to be serving on a task force to do just that next year. The Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing & Recidivism is currently meeting to make recommendations for truth-in-sentencing legislation for next year.
A resolution to elect our Attorney General passed the Senate 23-9 and awaits action in the House. Forty-three other states elect their Attorney General. Tennessee is the only state in which the Attorney General is appointed by the Supreme Court. Our Attorney General is twice removed from the people because the court is also appointed. It is time for the House to address this issue with a floor vote.
Successes from Session:
Racial Profiling Prevention
I was proud to sponsor a law to help reduce racial profiling. Racial profiling has no place in law enforcement in our state. The new law requires police and sheriffs’ departments to adopt policies prohibiting racial discrimination in traffic contacts, field contacts, and asset seizures. The law will also protect officers by providing them clear guidelines for appropriate action. That will make us all safer.
Stopping Human Trafficking
Tennessee continued to lead the nation in legislation to prevent human trafficking, thanks to a number of laws I have sponsored with Rep. Jim Coley in the past three years. Sen. Bill Ketron passed perhaps the most significant law in years by funding the hiring of four new TBI officers to train law enforcement to better spot the crime. Sen. Mark Norris also passed a law to ensure future sexual assault kits are tested and stored in a timely manner. In addition, I sponsored laws to allow law enforcement to utilize wire tapping against traffickers and to allow juveniles caught in the sex trade to be sent to a shelter care facility to facilitate the release to their guardians. Sen. Ketron also extended the statute of limitations to 25 years for promoting prostitution.
ObamaCare Medicaid expansion in Tennessee was sold as free money from the federal government with the Tennessee Hospital Association promising to pick up any state tab and the program ending if they could not. That description was not true. No money is free. Every dollar spent by the federal government is a dollar our grandchildren must pay back to the Chinese. The eventual 10% state portion is still $200 million from state taxpayers. The state tab is likely to increase beyond 10%, according to Congressman Paul Ryan in a conference call I recently hosted with him. Even if the state portion remained 10%, the funding mechanism that hospitals proposed to pay the state share has been criticized and targeted for phase out by U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and even President Obama himself. All four Memphis hospital CEOs admitted to me they have no backup plan if this phase out were to occur. Finally, it is an uncertain legal question whether states that opt into Medicaid expansion can opt out later. For these reasons, the vast majority of state Senators and state Representatives opposed Medicaid expansion, and it was defeated twice– once in special session and again in regular session.
Local School District Opt Out
States must learn to wean themselves from federal money. The federal government has no constitutional authority to pass laws on issues like health care or education. It does so by dangling federal money in front of states and forcing them to accept the strings attached. Tennessee must fight back against federal overreach. We should start with education because federal spending accounts for less than 1% of some local school district budgets. A law I passed this year allows school districts to refuse federal mandates without penalty from the state. Hopefully, some of our school districts will follow those in other states and just say, “No.”
Repealing Arcane Criminal Laws
It is as important to repeal laws as it is to pass them. I am proud to have repealed a law that had made it a crime to fail to place your address on fruit sold at a farmers market or on the side of the road. The law was from 1915, was no longer being used, and needed to go. Limited government is a good thing.
Please keep in touch before Act II begins next January!