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Haslam Has 59-Bill Package, Seven ‘Priorities’

Gov. Bill Haslam has introduced a package of 59 administration bills in the 108th General Assembly, excluding those dealing with state budget issues. He has a news release today proclaiming seven of them as “priorities.” Here it is:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced his priorities for the 2013 legislative session, building on momentum from his past proposals focused on attracting and growing Tennessee jobs, pursuing meaningful education reform, managing an efficient and effective state government, and strengthening public safety.
“In working together over the past two years with the Legislature, we’ve accomplished a lot for the people of Tennessee, and I look forward to working with the 108th General Assembly in the same way,” Haslam said. “Our proposals represent our top priorities of making Tennessee the No. 1 state in the Southeast for high quality jobs, continuing to improve education, being the best managed state in the country, and keeping our citizens safe.”
The governor’s legislation:
· Strengthens the state’s attractive business climate through the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Improvement Act by reforming worker’s compensation laws to simplify the process and to make it more equitable for both the employer and employee. Additional details here.
· Completes the governor’s two-year plan to cut the state’s portion of the sales tax on food and groceries from 5.5 percent by taking the last step and reducing the sales tax from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, a reduction that affects every Tennessean. Additional details here.
· Establishes WGU-Tennessee, an online competency-based program with curriculum geared toward the 800,000 adult Tennesseans with some college credit but no degree. The program also emphasizes mentors who guide these adult students through the academic process. Additional details here.
· Rewrites and simplifies the Criminal Gang Enhancement statute by clarifying the definition of “criminal gang offense” and creating a list of specific offenses considered criminal gang offenses. Additional details here.
· Gives Tennessee parents another option for school choice through a program that allows students in the lowest income brackets in the lowest performing schools to attend other schools. Additional details here.
· Encourages college accessibility by creating an endowment to provide need-based, “last dollar” scholarships or grants to Tennesseans pursuing a degree from a postsecondary institution. Additional details here.
· Reduces the Hall Income Tax burden on seniors for the second time since 2011 by exempting single filers with a total annual income of $33,000 or less and joint filers with either a spouse 65 years or older and having total annual income of $59,000 or less. Additional details here.
“We’re proposing to cut taxes further, address college affordability and encourage degree attainment, improve the environment for job creation and make Tennesseans safer,” Haslam said. “Tennessee is different. We’re not like Washington or other states because we work together to get things done for Tennesseans, and we’ll continue to focus on the things that matter most to Tennesseans.”
The governor will also strongly support SJR 2/HJR 8 regarding judicial selection, which is up for two-thirds vote this year in the General Assembly.
The Haslam administration has filed a total of 59 non-budget related bills, but the above pieces of legislation represent the governor’s priorities.

DAs Target Child Abusers in 2013 Legislative Package

The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, which represents the state’s 31 DAs, has issued the organization’s 2013 legislative agenda, reports the Commercial Appeal. Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich is quoted.
“In 2013, we’re focused on continuing our push to protect our kids, strengthen sentencing guidelines and fight drugs,” Weirich said. “If the legislature approves these proposed changes, I’m confident we will be able to accomplish these goals and more.”
The district attorneys are asking lawmakers to require people convicted of aggravated child neglect to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they are eligible for parole — the same as for aggravated child-abuse cases — rather than the current 30 percent minimum.
“Right now, there are individuals who are convicted of extremely serious child neglect — cases in which children suffer as much as those who are victims of physical abuse — who end up serving very short sentences. We need to change that to send a message that the state takes all offenses against children seriously, even if they fall short of the legal definition of abuse,” said Guy Jones, deputy director of the conference and its chief lobbyist.
DAs also want changes in state law that would allow them to prosecute a serial child-sexual abuser with a single trial even if the abuses occurred in multiple judicial districts. Currently, a defendant charged with multiple counts of child-sexual abuse involving different victims in different Tennessee jurisdictions must be tried separately in each of those jurisdictions.


Note: See also the Kingsport Times-News, quoting Sullivan County DA Barry Staubus.

Haslam Anti-Crime Bills on Guns, Gangs Get Unanimous Approval

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The House on Monday approved two key pieces of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s anti-crime package and sent the bills for the governor’s signature.
The chamber voted 91-0 to increase penalties for violent crimes committed by groups of three or more people. A bill to enhance penalties for gun possession by people with previous felony convictions was approved on a 95-0 vote with no debate.
The companion bills were approved earlier by the Senate. Haslam included the estimated $6 million cost of the enhanced penalties in his budget proposal, but did not include funding for other parts of his crime package.
As a consequence, some of those measures have faced a bumpier road in the Legislature. They include bills seeking to create a prescription drug database and to require mandatory jail time for people receiving repeat domestic violence convictions.
The domestic violence bill has been further complicated by charges filed against Rep. David Hawk last week after his wife said he assaulted her. Hawk has denied the charges and alleged that his wife threatened him with a gun.
The governor’s plan was produced over the course of a year by representatives of 11 state agencies to reduce drug abuse and trafficking, lower violent crime and cut the rate of repeat offenders.

Note: The bills are SB2250, Ifirearms) and SB2252 (gangs)

Haslam Proposes to Lower Taxes on Inheritances, Groceries

Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed to incrementally lower both the Tennessee sales tax on groceries and the state inheritance tax as part of a package of 55 bills his administration will push in the legislative session that began Tuesday.
Other highlights of the legislative package as outlined by Haslam at an afternoon news conference would:
-Overhaul “antiquated” rules and laws for hiring, firing and paying state employees. Haslam said the changes would “simplify” the hiring process, change the method of laying off workers and “streamline” the appeals process for workers who believe they were fired or disciplined illegally.
-Change laws that set teacher salaries on the basis of seniority and training so local school districts will have “flexibility to make decisions such as how to address hard to staff schools or subjects along with rewarding teacher performance.”
-Eliminate average class size requirements in schools, though there would still be a limit on the maximum number in any given class, varying by grade levels.
-Increase the amount of direct cash grants given to businesses that locate or expand in Tennessee, though declining to give a figure at this point on how much money would be involved. The cash would be provided “only in exceptional cases” providing jobs to Tennesseans, Haslam said.
-Restructure 22 state boards and commissions, including the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. The TRA, which now has four full-time directors and no executive director, would instead have five part-time commissioners and an executive director, who would be appointed by the governor.
-Require that the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission answer to the governor rather than the THEC board. Haslam said he thinks the governor, who appoints the commissioner of K-12 education, should have the same authority over the agency that oversees higher education at the University of Tennessee and the Board of Regents.
On the tax bills, Haslam is effectively backing both a call from House Speaker Beth Harwell for reducing the state’s inheritance tax and backing a call from Democratic legislators for reducing the sales tax on food. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, meanwhile, has been calling for reduction of the Hall income tax on dividends and interest – a move that is not part of the Haslam plan.
Tennessee’s inheritance tax now applies to estates of $1 million or more. Haslam said his bill will raise that exemption to $1.25 million in the coming year, resulting in a loss of about $15 million of state revenue. His long-range plan, the governor said, is to raise the exemption level over a five-year period to $5 million, which is the current level of the federal estate tax exemption.
The state sales tax on grocery food is currently 5.5 percent, already lower than the general state sales tax of 7 percent — though local governments may add up to 2.75. Haslam proposes to lower the rate to 5.3 percent effective July 1, costing the state about $18 million in lost revenue. The governor said he push to lower the state tax groceries to 5 percent in steps over the following two years, providing tax relief that will “benefit every Tennessean.”
The governor said Tennessee’s inheritance tax is now higher than most other states, prompting “a whole lot of people” to leave the state as they age.
“It’s cheaper to die in Florida,” he said, predicting that, in the long term, a $5 million exemption will mean more overall tax revenue for the state.
Haslam said the grocery tax reduction is “the only way to really touch every Tennessean in a significant way.”
“So we felt like it was important to do both at the same time,” he said.
Harwell and House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh both praised the tax-cutting plans. Ramsey, who was attending a hearing on Senate redistricting, did not attend.
Haslam said he is sympathetic to cutting the Hall income tax, but there is a need to balance that with the state’s need for revenue.
The governor insisted his proposed change of civil service rules would not mean a return to the patronage system of bygone days in Tennessee politics. Currently, state employees are in two categories – those covered by civil service who can be dismissed only under specified circumstances and those in “executive service,” who may be fired at will.
Haslam said only 15 percent of executive service employees who served in the Bredesen administration that have left state government.
The 55-bill package compares to just 24 bills last year from the governor, who has indicated plans to take a more assertive role in the 2012 session.
NOTE: News release below

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