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The Legislative Year

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.

Hall Tax

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?

Judicial Confirmation

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.

Attorney General

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.

Medicaid Expansion

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!

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NYT Columnist Likes Rubio

New York Times columnist David Brooks went on the Laura Ingraham radio show (that’s surprising in itself) and talked about Marco Rubio.

Brooks, if you recall, greatly admired the crease in Obama’s pants in 2008 and was swayed to his side. That may negate what he says for conservatives, but he did latch on to something the electorate saw in the inexperienced Illinois senator too.

So he thinks Rubio has “the best stuff” and a “huge upside” compared to other candidates. He wrote about this in a piece today in the New York Times called “The Talented Mr. Rubio.”

Political audiences always like patriotic rhetoric, but as several reporters have noticed, this year’s Republican audiences have a special hunger for it. The phrase “American exceptionalism” has become a rallying cry. There is a common feeling on the right that the American idea is losing force and focus, that the American dream is slipping out of reach, that America is stepping back from its traditional role in the world and that President Obama doesn’t forthrightly champion the American gospel.

Even more than normal, Republicans seem to want their candidate for president to be drenched in the red, white and blue.

Along comes Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio, 43, doesn’t just speak in the ardent patriotic tones common to the children of immigrants like himself. His very life is the embodiment of the American dream: parents who tended bar and worked at Kmart with a son who rose to become a United States senator. His heritage demonstrates that the American dream is open to all who come here legally and work hard. He is what many Republicans want their country to be.

So there is beginning to be a certain charisma to his presidential campaign. It is not necessarily showing up in outright support. The first-term senator still shows up only with 8.3 percent support on the Real Clear Politics average of 2016 Republican presidential nomination polls, leaving him tied for 5th in the field. But primary voters are open to him; the upside is large.

As Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight pointed out, Rubio’s net favorable/unfavorable rating is higher than every other candidate except Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Philosophically, he is at the center of the party. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 56 percent of Republican primary voters said they could see themselves supporting him even if he wasn’t their first choice at the time, which put him above every other candidate.

So it’s probably right to see Rubio as the second most likely nominee, slightly behind Jeb Bush and slightly ahead of Walker.

He is, for starters, the most talented politician in the race. Set aside who has the most money and who has the best infrastructure. (Overrated assets at this stage in the race.) Set aside the ideological buckets we pundits like to divide the candidates into. (Voters are not that attuned to factional distinctions.) In most primary battles, the crown goes to the most talented plausible candidate.

Rubio gives a very good speech. He has an upbeat and pleasant demeanor. He has a great personal story. His policy agenda is more detailed and creative than any of his rivals. He has an overarching argument — that it is time for a new generation to reform and replace archaic structures.

The circumstances of the race might benefit him. With such a big field, nobody is going to lock up the race early. Republicans will likely be beating each other up for months while looking across the aisle and seeing Hillary Clinton coasting along. At some point, they are going to want to settle on a consensus choice.

That point may come around March 15, when Florida holds its winner-take-all primary. Rubio was virtually tied with Bush among Florida Republicans, 31 percent to 30 percent, according to a Mason-Dixon poll conducted last week. If Bush is bloodied in the earlier primaries, Rubio could win Florida and loom as a giant.

His weaknesses are not killers. Rubio’s past support for comprehensive immigration reform irks activists. But it’s not clear if it will hurt him with the voters who are more divided on reform. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year, 66 percent of Republicans believed that illegal immigrants should be eligible for citizenship if they meet certain criteria. Immigration reform didn’t kill John McCain’s candidacy seven years ago.

Rubio’s inexperience concerns everybody. But at least he was speaker of the Florida House. As Jim Geraghty of National Review has detailed, his record running that body was pretty good. He was a tough but reasonably successful negotiator. On his first day in office, he handed each legislator a book with the cover “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future.” The pages were blank. He was inviting his members to fill them in — a nice collaborative touch.

Can Rubio win a general election? Well, he believes more in expanding the party than in just mobilizing the base. In his past races, he’s done better than generic Republican candidates because of his success with Hispanics. Youth is America’s oldest tradition. Who’s to say that voters won’t side for the relative outsider over the know-what-you’re-getting Hillary Clinton?

One big test for Rubio is this: Are Americans disillusioned with government or just disgusted? If they are disillusioned, they would likely want to play it safe and go with the experienced, low-risk candidates, Bush and Clinton. If they are disgusted, then they would be more likely to take a flier on change. The New American could be the guy.