Last Week of 2012 Legislating: God, Guns, Gays and Money

God, guns, gays and money are scheduled debate topics for the 107th Tennessee General Assembly in its windup week.
Enactment of a state budget for the coming fiscal year, a duty formally assigned to the Legislature by the Tennessee constitution, is clearly the most substantive issue remaining as legislative leaders push to adjourn the session by Friday.
The $31 billion budget plan submitted by Gov. Bill Haslam is generating some disputes. The general theme of Democratic critics is that Republican plans unnecessarily hoard at least $200 million from increasing state revenue. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh says the total could reach $400 million if revenue trends continue.
Republicans are ready to dip into the growing surplus for some causes, notably including a last-minute move to repeal the state’s “gift tax” at a cost of $15 million in lost revenue. But they insist some hoarding is appropriate because of potential fiscal problems in the year ahead.
House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, cites the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold a federal health care reform law. That alone, he says, could require another $200 million in state spending in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
But, insofar as debate rhetoric and media attention go, the budget may be overshadowed by pending action on several social issues. Among them:

n An all-out effort by the National Rifle Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association to have a vote on two bills, though House Speaker Beth Harwell, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and Haslam all say they are not going to pass.
In an email to legislators Thursday, NRA ” lobbyist Darren LaSorte said the efforts of Republican leaders amount to “a perversion of representative democracy” and that the organization will base its political ratings of incumbent legislators on how they vote on SB3002 and SB2992.
One measure, called the “guns in parking lots” bill, would allow employees of a company to keep weapons inside their locked cars in a parking lot even if the company prohibits guns on its premises. The other declares that companies cannot discriminate against workers on the basis of gun ownership. Both are adamantly opposed by business lobbyists, who contend they infringe on company property rights.
n A so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB229), which began drawing national media attention last year in its original format — a fairly straightforward ban on discussion of homosexuality in kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms. After passing the Senate in amended form last year, the bill spent most of the 2012 session stalled in the House Education Committee until last week, when it was approved on an 8-7 vote.
As revised, the bill limits classroom discussion of sexuality to “natural human reproduction” in the designated grades. The next scheduled vote is Tuesday in the House Calendar Committee, a panel heavily dominated by Republican leadership where approval of bills approved in other committees is typically granted almost automatically. “Don’t Say Gay'” and the gun bills could be exceptions.
There is also a bill (SB3310) that would rewrite the state’s “family life curriculum,” which covers sex education, to put more emphasis on abstinence. The bill has passed the Senate and awaits a House floor vote.
n Two pending bills mix religion with politics. the “Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act” (SB3632), which declares that students can discuss their religious beliefs in arenas ranging from valedictorian speeches to homework, has cleared the Senate and awaits a House floor vote.
The other, nicknamed “the Vanderbilt bill” (HB3576), grew out of conservative Christian objections to Vanderbilt University’s policy of requiring student organizations — including those with religious affiliation — to admit “all comers” without discrimination based on religion or sexual orientation. As introduced, the bill would apply only to Tennessee’s public colleges and universities — which critics say is pointless because those institutions have no such policies. But pending amendments would extend the ban to private universities receiving state funds — and virtually all do through the lottery scholarship program. The bill awaits floor votes in both the House and Senate.
n Two bills pushed by anti-abortion activists are still in the works. One (HB3517) would allow criminal prosecutions for assault or homicide in situations where the assailant’s actions resulted in the death of an embryo. The other (HB3808) requires doctors performing abortions to have hospital admission privileges in the county where the procedure is performed or in an adjoining county. Both have passed the House and await Senate floor votes.
n Legislation requiring drug testing for persons receiving welfare benefits (SB2580) has been revised to require urine tests only for applicants suspected of using illegal drugs through a “pre-screening” questionnaire. It awaits a floor vote in the Senate, but still has a committee to clear in the House.
n Also awaiting action in the closing days are somewhat conflicting proposals to amend the state constitution’s provisions on selecting judges for the state Supreme Court and appeals courts. Ramsey has called for approving both this week, which would allow the Legislature to debate the matter further in the 108th General Assembly with the goal of getting one or the other on the 2014 ballot for approval of voters statewide. If both measure fail, any change in the constitution would be delayed until at least 2018.
The budget bill is interrelated to pending tax legislation. Passage of two bills cutting taxes is contemplated as part of the Haslam budget plan, HB3760, which phases out the state’s inheritance tax over a four-year period, and HB3761, which reduces the state sales tax on groceries from the present 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent.
Both have passed the House and are assured of passing the Senate this week with little, if any, dispute.
Sargent says the Haslam administration has agreed to further revise the budget bill to accommodate repeal of the gift tax and the resulting loss of an estimated $15 million in annual revenue. The tax applies at rate ranging from 5.5 percent to 16 percent to transfers of assets or money to non-related persons with a $13,000 exemption.
The House Finance Committee chairman said the Legislature needs to act now because of a forthcoming change in the federal gift tax law at the end of the year. Conservative economist Arthur Laffler has championed repeal of both the state inheritance and gift tax laws, saying they deter wealthy individuals — he described them as “the crème de la crème of job creators” to a legislative committee — from locating in Tennessee.
Democrats have proposed an “alternative budget” that would spend substantially more money than planned by Haslam and Republican legislators. The plan would, for example, lower the sales tax on food to 5 percent instead of the 5.25 percent level recommended by Haslam and provide $30 million in college grants to students from low-income families and $20 million to provide new equipment at community colleges and technical institutes.
The Democratic alternative is highly unlikely to win approval in the Republican-controlled legislature. The Finance Committees are also certain to kill almost everything in a huge pile of amendments to the budget filed by individual legislators.
In the House, individual legislators have collectively filed amendments that would collectively add $589 million to state spending in the coming year while in the Senate the total is $501 million.
A few amendments go beyond the governor’s plan, which in its latest version leaves room for about $7 million in “legislative initiatives.” Legislators may decide to go beyond that for add-ons that seem to have statewide benefit.
For example, Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, says he is optimistic for approval of about $230,000 in funding for the Epilepsy Foundation of East Tennessee and similar groups around the state.
If the Legislature does adjourn by Friday, it will mark the first April adjournment since 1996, according to The Tennessee Journal. The closing day that year was April 26.

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