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Cohen Co-sponsoring U.S. House Version of Paul/Booker Federal Medical Marijuana Legislation

Press release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; March 24, 2015:

Bipartisan, bicameral legislation would increase states’ rights to regulate marijuana and allow veterans and other patients to access safe, effective & state-legal treatments without risking federal prosecution

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Congressmen Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Don Young (AK-AL) have introduced H.R. 1538, the bipartisan House companion to the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act that Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced in the Senate this month. The legislation would let states set their own medical marijuana policies, recognize a legitimate medical use for marijuana at the federal level, allow Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend safe and effective marijuana-related treatments, let states set their own medical marijuana policies, and increase access to a non-psychoactive treatment that could have helped save the life of 3-year-old Memphian Chloe Grauer, who suffered from hundreds of seizures each day before tragically passing away late last year.

“Drug policy reform is long overdue, but I am pleased that today it is an issue that unites both Democrats and Republicans,” said Congressman Cohen. “The science has been in for a long time, and keeping marijuana on Schedule I—with heroin and LSD—is ludicrous. I am pleased to join with Congressman Don Young in introducing this important bill to bring the federal government in line with the science and the American people, respect states’ rights, remove the threat of federal prosecution in states with medical marijuana, and help our citizens access the treatments they need.”

“The topic of medical and recreational marijuana has always been an issue of state’ rights for me, a position based upon a strong belief in the 10th Amendment and the principals of federalism established by our Founders,” said Congressman Don Young.“The CARERS Act aims to protect states that have legalized medical marijuana and allow them to properly enforce their own laws. My position aims to reaffirm the states’ rights to determine the nature of criminal activity within their own jurisdictions, which I believe is critical for states to effectively legislate within their borders.”

This bipartisan legislation, which builds upon previous House efforts, would not legalize medical marijuana in any state but it would cause the federal government to respect states’ rights to set their own medical marijuana policies and prevent federal law enforcement from prosecuting patients, doctors and caregivers in those states. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have already legalized medical marijuana. Roughly a dozen additional states recognize a medical use for cannabidiol (CBD), a therapeutic compound derived from marijuana that has virtually no THC, the drug’s psychoactive ingredient, but that families have used successfully to treat their children’s seizures.

Memphis 3-year-old Chloe Grauer suffered from a rare neurological disease that caused her to have 100 to 200 seizures daily. Her family tried dozens of options to treat her disease including medications and surgery, but nothing stopped the seizures. Her family also tried to treat her with CBD, but were unable to because of marijuana’s Schedule I classification—the same highly-restrictive classification as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Sadly, Chloe passed away late last year. Despite current federal limits on marijuana research and medical usage, there is mounting evidence that the drug is an effective and safe treatment for nausea, pain, anxiety, and other disorders including certain symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

If passed and signed into law, the CARERS Act would:

  • Allow states to set their own medical marijuana policies and eliminate federal prosecution of patients, providers, and businesses in states with medical marijuana programs,
  • Reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II, recognizing legitimate medical use
  • Allow for greater access to cannabidiol (CBD),
  • Allow access to banking services for marijuana-related businesses that are operating pursuant to state law,
  • Allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana, and
  • Cut red tape and expand opportunities for research on marijuana.

When the Controlled Substances Act first became law in 1970, Assistant Secretary of Health Roger Egeberg recommended that marijuana be placed on Schedule I temporarily until the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (known as the Shafer Commission) reported its findings on the drug. The Commission’s 1972 report recommended decriminalizing the drug, though that recommendation was never acted upon.

Congress Puttering Forward with Federal Gas Tax Discussion

As the average national cost of gas descends to $2 per gallon, a congressional discussion has reignited over the possibility of raising the federal fuel tax to meet shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee’s junior Republican senator, announced a bipartisan proposal in June to increase the federal gas tax by 12 cents over two years, and index it to inflation so “it remains viable into the future.”

The legislation, co-sponsored by Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, “would provide enough funding to offset current MAP-21 spending levels over the next 10 years,” as well as replace “the buying power” the tax has lost since last raised to 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993.

Corker’s plan also calls for tax relief to offset the burden for Americans. Corker wasn’t specific about what the relief will look like, but a press release indicates it could include “permanently extending” tax breaks included in the “tax extenders” bill, or “another bipartisan proposal” to cut taxes over the next decade by “at least the amount of revenue” the fuel tax raises.

Over the past several years, Congress has approved several short-term fixes to the fund — transferring $54 billion from the Treasury Department’s general fund since 2008 — and the fund will face another shortfall in 2015.

“Growing up in Tennessee as a conservative,” Corker said in the release, he learned something important enough to have was important enough to pay for. “If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it.”

However, the two-term senator also said whether or not Congress’s solution amounts to a tax increase, he’d like to see a permanent fix to the highway trust fund by May.

Although the proposal was met with lukewarm response last Summer when gas was around $3.50 a gallon, the recent sharp decline in fuel costs — influenced in part by the U.S. oil boom and OPEC’s refusal to cut production — has emboldened the former Chattanooga Mayor to again take up the issue.

Other senators — including Republicans John Thune of South Dakota and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairmen of the Senate committees on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Environment and Public Works, respectively — have recently said they won’t rule out a fuel tax hike. Similarly, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said last week “It’s a small price to pay for the best highway system in the world.”

However, the proposal has been met with more skepticism in the U.S. House.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican in his third term as speaker, said that while a new highway funding bill is a priority for this year, he isn’t hot on the idea of raising taxes.

And Marsha Blackburn, a Republican representing Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District, said on Fox Business this week that while raising taxes may be “a quick fix,” it’s “the wrong step to take.” Instead she suggested legislators look at the structure of the trust fund, and fix the root of the problem.

TWRA Announces Closure of Federal Public Lands in TN

Press release from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency; October 1, 2013:

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is informing sportsmen that due to the federal governmental shutdown on Oct. 1, several federal public lands have been impacted.

All Tennessee national wildlife refuges, including Tennessee and Cross Creeks, are now closed. The permitted hunts will be canceled and the refuges will be closed to all public use. All refuge boat ramps are closed and refuges are closed to all fishing.

All refuge roads, observation decks, and hiking trails are closed to all access. All refuge offices and visitor centers are closed.

Land Between the Lakes remains open to hunting, back country camping, and hiking. However, all facilities that are normally staffed are closed. The process of evacuating all paid campgrounds is underway. The visitor centers are closed. Persons in need of a hunting permit will need to purchase those online or at a license agent other than the LBL visitor centers.

In regard to other areas, Fort Campbell hunting and fishing remains open at this time. Big South Fork is closed to the public. On both the North and South units of the Cherokee National Forest, all gates that are open will remain open although some campgrounds and restroom facilities may not be available.

The closures have come due to the lapse in appropriated funds, affecting all public lands managed by the Department of the Interior (National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management facilities, etc.). For more information, FAQs, and updates, please visit www.doi.gov/shutdown.

Persons interested in visiting federal lands and facilities are advised to monitor media outlets for further and updated information.

Federal Unemployment Benefits Extension Provides Benefits to About 30,000 Tennesseans

Press release from the Department of Labor & Workforce Development; January 3, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – The American Taxpayer Relief Act, which became law late Wednesday, extends the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC08) program through January 1, 2014. The federal benefits were slated to expire at the end of 2012 with claimants receiving their last payment the first week of January.

EUC08 is a federally-funded program providing unemployment benefits to approximately 30,000 Tennesseans who have exhausted the first 26 weeks of state benefits (maximum). The legislation only extends the deadline to receive existing federal benefits and does not add additional weeks. Tennessee claimants are currently allowed a maximum of 26 weeks of state benefits and an additional 37 weeks of federal benefits.

“This has been an uncertain time for those depending on unemployment benefits,” said Labor Commissioner Karla Davis. “I would encourage claimants to focus their job search by using our jobs database at Jobs4tn.gov and visiting a Tennessee Career Center.”

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development must still receive authorization from the USDOL to pay federal EUC08 claims. While the USDOL expects to have authorizations in place to provide a seamless transition, a delay of a week or more is possible. A retroactive payment would then be made to make up for lost weeks before resuming regular weekly payments.

Those presently receiving federal benefits should continue their weekly certification that notifies the department by phone or Internet they are still unemployed. If claimants stop their certification, they will have to contact the claims center to verify their unemployment status and could face a delay in their benefit resumption. Claimants should also continue to complete at least two work searches per week in order to meet the requirements for receiving federal benefits.

Claimants can check the status of their unemployment benefit deposit by logging in to https://ui.tn.gov with their personal identification number. If their account shows the benefit amount is “released,” the deposit will be available within 48 hours.

Additional updates will be provided on the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development website at http://www.tn.gov/labor-wfd/2012_Unemployment_Update2.shtml.

RYO Shop Operators Claim Victimization by Gov’t, Big Tobacco

Tennessee tobacco farmers will see taxes on their products rise because of legislation passed this year by the General Assembly, mirrored by a provision in the federal highway bill passed in July.

Although the highway bill has been touted by Washington politicians as supporting or creating around a million jobs, the provision taxing roll-your-own tobacco shops as manufacturers could put an end to an entire industry.

“It’s definitely a major body blow, a knockout punch if you will,” said Mark Griffey, one of the proprietors of Smokes-4-Less in the Knoxville area. Griffey says he shut down two of his three stores and laid off nine of his 10 employees after the federal bill was signed. “So, for all intents and purposes, if we don’t get some kind of injunction or antitrust suit, or something, we’re dead.”

The federal bill raises taxes on pipe tobacco to the same rates as cigarette tobacco and requires that roll-your-own shops be licensed as manufacturers in order to run the machines, which cost over $30,000 apiece — an investment businesses say now looks to be a money loser.

The state legislation sought to “level the playing field” by requiring the roll-your-own shops to register with the state to ensure that they were using the proper tobacco, paying the proper taxes on the tobacco, and paying into the Master Settlement fund, said Senate bill sponsor Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. The fund was set up after a 1998 settlement between the top four cigarette companies and the states, which required payments from the companies over a 25-year period.

“As I understand it, the federal law is pretty much going to put them out of business,” said Johnson, who, in the interest of full disclosure, admitted during the legislative session that his wife operates a convenience store. “That was not our intention with what we passed at the state level, but we did feel like it was necessary to level the playing field a little bit.”

Voting against the measure was Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Knoxville, who says it will work a hardship on farmers.

“It was just a tax on Tennessee farmers, and I‘ve never voted to tax Tennessee farmers,” said Niceley. “And I’m probably not going to be starting.”

Business owners like Griffey say the bills are a thinly-veiled effort by government and big business to butt roll-your-own operations out of the market. Although the state measure would have been crippling enough, it at least allowed them time to adapt, Griffey said. But the enaction of the federal bill was instantaneous.

“They started talking about it at the end of June, and then July 5th or 6th, Obama signed the thing, and it’s instant,” said Griffey.

Nationwide, there are about 1,000 stores with roll-your-own machines from RYO Machines, a leading manufacturer, RYO told the Huffington Post in July.

Griffey said he feels that much of the pressure on legislators to level the playing field seems to have come from lobbyists for larger tobacco companies and convenience stores, industries which were negatively affected by the roll-your-own shops’ ability to sell tobacco at a lower tax rate. This sentiment is one that Niceley shares.

“They call these machines manufacturers, they can make 200 in about 10-12 minutes, with the customer doing it themselves,” Griffey said. “The way they make them, they make 20,000 in a minute. It’s just the big guy snuffing out the little guy.”

Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Diane Black also sponsored a measure to raise the tax rates on roll-your-own shops, though it was not her measure that ultimately passed.

Nat’l Online Business Trade Assn. Opposes New Internet Taxes

Press Release from NetChoice, July 23, 2012:

Washington, D.C. – NetChoice Executive Director Steve DelBianco today testified before the House Judiciary Committee about the dangers of enacting the Main Street Fairness Act (H.R. 3179).

While the proposal is intended to put traditional brick-and-mortar retailers on a level playing field with online retailers, it widely misses that mark while adding unfair new tax burdens on small online and catalog businesses.

NetChoice also announced its membership in a coalition dedicated to opposing new taxes on Internet sales. The True Simplification of Taxation (TruST) Coalition represents American businesses in the fight to keep interstate commerce and competition free from unfair tax burdens imposed by states where our businesses have no operations or representation.

Businesses that sell goods and services online are already required to collect taxes in areas where they have a physical location. Research shows that uncollected taxes related to online sales equal less than one half of one percent of state tax revenues.

“Even though the vast majority of online sales taxes are already collected, state tax collectors and big box retailers are teaming up to levy taxes on businesses that have no local presence,” said Steve DelBianco, executive director or NetChoice. “TruST will counter this new tax campaign that would saddle online retailers with a new and burdensome tax system that weigh most heavily on the smallest of sellers.”

States have tried and failed to simplify their tax systems in a way that would not add cost or complexity for online retailers. Having failed at that program, tax collectors are now asking Congress for the authority to tax first and answer questions later.

TruST will be an ongoing resource for those mobilizing against new online taxes that will slow and harm the growth of online retail.

NetChoice is an advocacy organization that fights threats to online commerce and promotes policies that protect Internet innovation and communication on a state, federal and international basis. The Washington, DC-based group protects Internet commerce-driven competition and battles rules that hinder consumer choice and hurt small businesses. For more information, see www.netchoice.org.

Federal Dishing Out Drought Disaster Loans

Press release from the U.S. Small Business Administration (via PRNewswire.com); July 20, 2012:  

ATLANTA, July 20, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The U.S. Small Business Administration announced today that federal economic injury disaster loans are available to small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture and most private non-profit organizations of all sizes located in Henry, Lake, Montgomery, Obion, Robertson, Stewart and Weakley counties in Tennessee as a result of the drought that began on June 19, 2012.

“These counties are eligible because they are contiguous to one or more primary counties in Kentucky. The Small Business Administration recognizes that disasters do not usually stop at county or state lines. For that reason, counties adjacent to primary counties named in the declaration are included,” said Frank Skaggs, director of SBA’s Field Operations Center East in Atlanta.

“When the Secretary of Agriculture issues a disaster declaration to help farmers recover from damages and losses to crops, the Small Business Administration issues a declaration to assist eligible entities affected by the same disaster,” Skaggs added.

Under this declaration, the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program is available to eligible

farm-related and nonfarm-related entities that suffered financial losses as a direct result of this disaster. With the exception of aquaculture enterprises, SBA cannot provide disaster loans to agricultural producers, farmers, or ranchers. Nurseries are eligible to apply for economic injury disaster loans for losses caused by drought conditions.

Loan amounts can be up to $2 million, with interest rates of 3 percent for non-profit organizations and 4 percent for small businesses. Terms can be up to 30 years. The SBA determines eligibility based on the size of the applicant, type of activity and its financial resources. The agency sets loan amounts and terms based on each applicant’s financial condition. These working capital loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable, and other bills that could have been paid had the disaster not occurred. The loans are not intended to replace lost sales or profits.

Applicants may apply online using the Electronic Loan Application (ELA) via SBA’s secure website at https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.

Disaster loan information and application forms may also be obtained by calling the SBA’s Customer Service Center at 800-659-2955 (800-877-8339 for the deaf and hard-of-hearing) or by sending an e-mail to disastercustomerservice@sba.gov. Loan applications can be downloaded from the SBA’s website at www.sba.gov. Completed applications should be mailed to: U.S. Small Business Administration, Processing and Disbursement Center, 14925 Kingsport Road, Fort Worth, TX 76155.

Completed loan applications must be returned to SBA no later than March 12, 2013.

For more information about the SBA’s Disaster Loan Program, visit our website at www.sba.gov.

Contact: Michael Lampton
Release Number: 12-660 KY 13127
Phone: 404-331-0333

Harwell Forecasts Cuts to Budget, Business Regulations in 2012

With four months to go before she gavels the House of Representatives back into session, Speaker Beth Harwell says she expects the Legislature to spend next year reining in the state budget and easing regulations on small businesses.

Earlier this week, the Haslam administration finished drafting a contingency plan of $4.5 billion in budget cuts the state could make if federal funds to Tennessee were reduced by as much as 30 percent.

“They’re never pleasant. I don’t want to see them come, but everybody’s got to step up to the plate,” said Harwell, R-Nashville. “They do give us that opportunity to take a critical look at what we’re doing with our money, with the taxpayers’ money.”

Gov. Bill Haslam will use the contingency plan to make the case to the three major credit bureaus that the state can weather federal budget reductions and should keep a high bond rating.

The plan outlines scenarios for 15 percent and 30 percent reductions in federal funding. A Congressional “super committee” is brainstorming ways to save $1.2 trillion over 10 years, with a deadline of Nov. 23.

The state’s contingency plan “will give us some idea of what we could rein back in,” Harwell said, although she added she does not have any specific cuts above and beyond the anticipated federal reductions in mind.

Hal Rounds, an active member of the Tea Party movement, says reductions are a great idea, but the state should be careful to ween itself off of current spending.

“Whenever you cut spending, somebody was getting that money, and that’s going to hurt some people,” said Rounds, who lives in Fayette County. “You can’t just assassinate what things are being spent on.”

The Legislature is also expected to focus on rolling back unnecessary or duplicative government regulations that hamper operations or the possibility of job-creation at small businesses — a recurring theme at the governor’s roundtable chats with business leaders. State officials are also expecting Congressional hearings on federal regulations to be held in Tennessee later this year.

The Haslam administration hopes to finalize a list of business regulations to target later this fall. Last week Haslam said it was too early to say what would make the list, but that he’s heard a lot of complaints about the state’s regulations on worker’s compensation.

Harwell, who leaned on the governor’s goal of making the state the best in the Southeast for high-quality jobs, said reducing regulations needs to be part of that effort.

“I think this Legislature is dedicated to reviewing what regulations we currently have in place on our small businesses to make sure that all of them are absolutely necessary,” Harwell said.

State Prepares Contingency Plans to Trim $4.5B from Budget

CORRECTION: This post originally misreported the dollar-amount in proposed cuts to the TennCare budget. The correct figure is $2,253,687,900. TNReport regrets the error and apologizes for any confusion it may have caused.

Tennessee government officials are prepared to cut up to $4.5 billion from the state’s $30.8 billion budget and lay off 5,100 people if the federal government significantly clips funding to the states.

That contingency plan, ordered by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration in preparation of defending the state’s bond rating in September, is a 153-page list of reductions under two “what-if” scenarios to consider following a Congressional budget deal earlier this summer that increased the federal government’s borrowing authority. A Congressional super-committee has been charged with finding $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years by Thanksgiving, and Haslam has said the state must prepare for potential budget reductions.

Each state department has broken down how it would adapt to a 15 percent and 30 percent reduction of federal funds, including money for programs funded by state and federal dollars. Agencies were instructed to “free” up their portion of any state match and further reduce total funding for those programs instead of compensating for the loss in Washington revenue with state dollars.

At the 30 percent reduction level:

• Some $2.2 billion would disappear from the TennCare budget, which funds health care for low-income women, children and the disabled. TennCare alone eats up about a quarter of the state’s budget.

• Another $861 million would be reduced in the human services budget.

• And $276 million would be trimmed from K-12 education.

“The human service agencies are where we are the most vulnerable,” Haslam said, referring to potential cuts to TennCare and the Department of Children’s Services. “Human services, children’s services, you see how much of their budget is federal-related, and it does cause you to catch your breath a little bit.”

Haslam told reporters last week he finds it unlikely that the federal government’s cuts will slice broadly across state governments. Instead, he said he expects officials will target individual programs. Federal dollars make up roughly 40 percent of the state’s annual budget.

Mike Morrow contributed to this report. 

Governor Predicts Program-Specific Cuts from Feds

Gov. Bill Haslam said he expects the federal government to target programs instead of issuing across-the-board funding cuts to states as part of efforts to reduce the deficit this fall.

The governor made the prediction the day after his administration finalized contingency plans for 15 percent and 30 percent federal funding reductions in each state department.

“This is in the unlikely event that the federal government cuts that much. We don’t think they will, but we think it’s smart of us to say, ‘What happens if they do?’” the governor told reporters at the Blue Grass Country Club in Hendersonville after an economic development roundtable with local business owners.

“I actually think if the cuts come from the federal government, what they’ll cut is programs,” Haslam continued.

In light of the ongoing debate about the national budget, a Congressional deficit reduction committee expects to lay out a plan by Thanksgiving to reduce the budget by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The reductions were part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling approved earlier this month.

The governor’s office plans to release details of its backup plans Friday or Monday, according to an administration spokeswoman. Roughly 40 percent of the state’s budget is made up of federal funds.

The budget work comes ahead of Haslam’s planned visit to bond rating agencies in September. Moody’s Investors Service announced in July that Tennessee could lose its AAA status because of the federal budget drama and the state’s dependence on federal funding.