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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

‘Repealer’ Legislation in Limbo

A General Assembly effort to create a specific government post responsible for detecting and trimming unnecessary or redundant government functions and regulations is bogged down and may be headed to a legislative conference committee.

Early in the day Wednesday Senate Bill 595 sponsor Sen. Jack Johnson made a motion to non-concur with an amendment that rewrote House Bill 500. The motion passed on a voice vote.

Later, Rep. Glen Casada’s made a motion in the House to “refuse to recede from our action,” sending the bill back to the Senate on Thursday. No vote was taken; it was simply accepted by Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

The so-called “Repealer” would be to go through Tennessee code and make recommendations to the Legislature on laws, rules and regulations that need to be scrubbed or modified because they are no longer relevant, overly burdensome or outdated.

The conflict between the two versions occurred when the Senate passed the original bill drafted by Casada, a Republican from Franklin, in March. That legislation that would have placed the Office of the Repealer in the Secretary of State’s office and for a period of only four years.

Meanwhile, over on the House side, Casada drafted an amendment that changed the bill, making it a permanent position in the Office of Legal Services, with Director Joe Barnes overseeing the work using existing staff in the summer and fall when the General Assembly is not in session.

“In speaking to the Speaker of the House and seeking the opinion of several in the House, the House just wanted to keep it totally under legislative purview,” said the representative from Franklin following Monday’s session.

Casada also explained that Johnson, also a Republican from Franklin, had moved the bill through the Senate before he had a chance to talk to him about the changes.

Following Wednesday’s sessions, Casada told TNReport.com that the next step is for House Bill 500, as amended, to go back to the Senate. If the upper chamber votes to non-concur again, the bill will return to the House where Casada will ask for a conference committee to be formed in an attempt to try and work out the differences between the two bodies.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Officer of Repealer, Revised Version, Passes House

Legislation creating the Office of the Repealer passed the House 79-12 Monday, but must now be reconciled with the bill that passed the Senate 30-1 in March.

Thirteen Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the Repealer, whose job would be to go through Tennessee code and make recommendations to the Legislature on laws, rules and regulations that need to be repealed or modified because they are no longer relevant, overly burdensome or outdated.. (See chart below.)

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However, while initially the position was to have been in the Secretary of State’s office and for a period of only four years, an amendment makes the position permanent and moves it to the Office of Legal Services.

According to House Bill 500 sponsor Rep. Glen Casada, Joe Barnes, director of the Office of Legal Services, will oversee the work using existing staff in the summer and fall when the General Assembly is not in session.

“In speaking to the Speaker of the House and seeking the opinion of several in the House, the House just wanted to keep it totally under legislative purview,” said the representative from Franklin following Monday’s session.

Casada said he’s talked to Senate Bill 595 sponsor Sen. Jack Johnson about the changes, and “He is intrigued. To his credit, he took it and moved it on through the Senate before I had a chance to talk to him.”

In addition to searching for laws, rules and regulations that may need to be repealed, the Office of the Repealer would be required to set up an online system to receive recommendations from the public, which he or she would be required to take into consideration.

Given that, Rep. Craig Fitzhugh brought an amendment that would have required the Repealer to publish quarterly on the General Assembly website “any meetings with lobbyists, trade associations, special interest groups and anyone else who seeks to seek the repeal of a law.”

“All this amendment does is add transparency to this newly created office,” said the Minority Leader from Ripley. “If any special interest groups of any type are going to the Office of the Repealer and asking that laws be taken off the books or our code changes in some way, then our citizens have a right to know who they are.”

Casada moved to table the amendment, saying, “Lobbyists can not interface with our legal department, so it’s just an amendment that not’s applicable.”

Fitzhugh said while he has “great regard for our legal department, I’m not so sure that in their capacity as repealer they would be under the same constraints as they are with us.”

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The vote to table the amendment was 60-34, with seven Republicans joining with Democrats to vote against the tabling motion. (See table at the right.)

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Annexation Legislation Faces Avalanche of Opt-Out Requests

Upon requests from several state lawmakers to exclude counties in their districts from a proposed moratorium on forced municipal annexations, amendments are under consideration that may make Senate Bill 279 more palatable to local Tennessee government officials.

The original intent of SB 279 was to require that local voters directly sign off on annexations before a city could move to absorb more land into its taxing jurisdiction. However, an amendment from the chamber’s State & Local Government Committee re-wrote the bill, placing a moratorium on annexations not completed by April 1.

“We are not sent here by local governments. We are sent here by individual citizens, and if a geographical area is being annexed, it is my contention and my argument to this body that the citizens that are within that geographical area should have a say as to whether they are annexed or not,” said Sen. Bo Watson, sponsor of the Senate bill.

The proposal now is to put off voting on all measures related to annexation that are currently under discussion in the Legislature. The bills, five of them in the House and Senate, would be put before the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations for “a comprehensive review and evaluation of the efficacy of state policies.”

TACIR is made up of public officials from state and local government, as well as private citizens for the stated purpose of working out problems between different layers of government. Under the study plan, annexations that are in progress, but not completed, must halt while the TACIR review is underway.

Senate Bill 279 had nine amendments attached to it. Three were withdrawn, while two exempting specific counties passed the Senate on voice votes.

Sen. Steve Southerland’s amendment allowing the counties of Cocke, Green, Hamblen and Sevier to opt out of the moratorium was one amendment that passed. “This bill as written will put at jeopardy over $300 million in investments and over 1,800 jobs in three different projects in my district,” said the Republican from Morristown. “My counties have asked that they be taken out.”

Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, brought the other amendment that passed, which exempts Davidson County from the moratorium, primarily becauseMetro’s charter uses the term “annexation” to refer to expansion of services provided in an area, not geographical growth since it is one government within the entire county.

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, brought an amendment to opt-out Williamson County, while Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, brought one to opt-out Madison County. However, both rolled their amendments to the heel to hear Watson’s explanation of his two amendments, both of which were not timely filed.

Watson’s two amendments would change the dates of the moratorium to April 1, 2013 through April 1, 2014, and addresses the opting out issue by allowing county commissioners to pass a resolution, by a two-thirds vote, that any municipality in the county could opt-out of the moratorium.

“Basically…adoption of this amendment would allow the local county government to make the decision whether this moratorium would apply to them or not,” said Watson, a Republican from Hixson.

The decision was made to roll the bill to Wednesday’s calendar, which marks the bill’s sixth appearance on the upper chamber’s floor for final passage.

Senate Bill 279’s companion House Bill 475 is scheduled for its first House floor vote Wednesday. It has 10 amendments attached to it, with eight of them dealing with counties wishing to opt out.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Governor Gets Bill Restricting Use of Welfare Cards

Legislation aimed at curbing the abuse of Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, cards by people receiving public assistance passed the Tennessee House of Representatives 90-2 on Monday.

House Bill 119, sponsored by Terri Lynn Weaver, is now headed to the governor’s desk. The House conformed the legislation to Senate Bill 244, which passed in the upper chamber 30-0 earlier this month. The bill bans the use of a recipient’s EBT card in liquor stores, casinos, gaming establishments or adult cabarets.

Representatives voting “no” were G.A. Hardaway and Johnnie Turner, both Memphis Democrats.

“This bill places the strictest possible limitations on the use of EBT cards,” said Weaver, a Republican from Lancaster. In initial form, HB119 included a prohibition on the purchase of tobacco products, but had to be amended because it would have conflicted with federal law, she added.

Passage of the legislation brings Tennessee into compliance with the federal Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which is designed to prevent Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients from abusing their benefits.

The bill also bans the use of EBT benefits at an ATM located inside a liquor store, strip club, casino, or gaming establishment. In addition, it assigns civil penalties to businesses that sell those products and accept EBT benefits as payment in violation of the law. The fine for a violation by the seller would be $1,000 for the first violation, $2,500 for the second violation within five years, and $5,000 for a third or subsequent violation within five years.

Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, explained that TANF benefits, which are a cash payment of about $185 on average to an individual, are loaded onto the EBT cards. Currently, there are no restrictions on where that cash money can be used. “So right now, they can use that in a strip club, in a bar, in a casino, the type places that you’re prohibiting,” Dennis said. “Your bill would prohibit in these certain locations that are listed from them getting those funds there. Welfare cash they can get right now wherever they want to use wherever they want.”

“That is correct,” Weaver replied.

Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, asked if there were potentially any ramifications if the General Assembly failed to pass the legislation. Weaver acknowledged that if the legislation failed to pass the state would lose federal matching dollars, because the Middle Class Tax Relief act required states to adopt the same restrictions as the federal law.

The legislation came after a report was released last summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which documented numerous examples of suspicious card-use by welfare recipients. According to Beacon’s report, EBT cards were swiped at liquor stores, nightclubs, malls, retail outlets, and adult-entertainment establishments, as well as for a hotel stay and UPS services, among others. The free-market think tank reported one transaction at a liquor store totaling $790.

“We applaud Rep. Weaver, Sen. Tracy, Commissioner Hatter, and all those who supported this important effort to restrict the abusive use of EBT cards in our state,” said Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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Featured Liberty and Justice

Senate Vote on Animal-Abuse Reporting Delayed

Legislation is on the Tennessee Senate floor that would require individuals who shoot video or take photographs of people being cruel to animals to submit those images to law enforcement within 24 hours.

The bill is on hold now though, after conflicting perspectives on the proposal emerged between fellow GOP caucus members. It was rolled until next week.

On Thursday Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris told members of the body that he sees problems with Somerville Republican Delores Gresham’s measure, Senate Bill 1248.

“This is a Catch-22 bill. I don’t know anybody in here who favors animal cruelty,” said Norris, an attorney from Collierville. “We oppose animal cruelty, yet it’s being construed in some quarters as a bill that supports animal cruelty.”

An individual could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor punishable by fine only if he fails to turn in a video or photographs taken of an animal being abused. Under Tennessee law, those found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor may be charged up to $10,000.

Norris said the way the bill is drafted, one could argue that it’s not designed to prevent animal cruelty but rather “to prevent the filming of animal cruelty under certain circumstances.”

“I don’t know why this bill doesn’t require those who witness animal abuse, whether they are filming it or not, to report it immediately,” Norris said. “This actually creates exceptions.”

Norris said the bill “sort of suggests” that it would be OK for somebody who likes to film animal cruelty to do it, because the person is not doing it for the purpose of exposing it.

Norris indicated he thinks the legislation came about as a result of “an incident that was filmed in (Gresham’s) district.” He added, “We shouldn’t be passing bills because of a particular incident like that.”

In May 2012, an undercover Humane Society-shot video showing a Tennessee walking-horse trainer mistreating horses aired nationally. Earlier this month, three people were indicted by a grand-jury in Fayette County on charges stemming from alleged “soring” of Tennessee Walking horses. Fayette County is in Gresham’s district.

Gresham, who is in her second term as a senator after serving two terms in the House, said she understood her colleagues’ struggles with the bill, but defended it by saying it “is very narrowly tailored in a specific way.”

She said the bill was directed toward livestock because agriculture, which is written across the state seal, “is our identity. We take care of our animals, and we will not have people abuse them, and certainly not allow the abuse to continue for the sake of documentation.”

Noting that some have called it “an anti-whistle blower bill,” Gresham argued it is just the opposite.

“What I’m saying in this bill is, ‘Whistle blower, blow your whistle and take what you have to law enforcement because that’s where it belongs,’” she said. “Investigations and documentation, if that’s what is required, needs to be done by law enforcement not by vigilantes.”

She acknowledged that while the inspiration for her bill “may be distantly related to an event in my district,” the fundamental concern is to stop abuse.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis suggested that the bill be rolled until next week and Gresham agreed. “If we can make it stronger, it is my pleasure to work on the bill,” she said.

The bill was rolled to next Tuesday’s Senate floor session. The companion House Bill 1191 was referred to the Calendar & Rules Committee on March 26. It has yet to be placed on the calendar for the lower chamber’s vote.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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Business and Economy NewsTracker

Legislature Approves TN Workers’ Comp Overhaul

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers’ compensation reform legislation passed the state House of Representatives Thursday, 68-24. The bill now heads to his desk to be signed into law.

The House moved to concur with Senate Bill 200, where the bill passed by a vote of 28-2, with little discussion earlier this month. Only one Democrat – Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta – broke rank with the House minority party in voting against the legislation that expands the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to oversee a process formerly handled by the courts.

“This bill is truly an overhaul of the system designed to make fundamental changes to avoid having to do it again in a few years,” said Rep. Kevin Brooks, who presented House Bill 194 to the body. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, is the bill’s prime sponsor. In the Senate it was Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.

Brooks predicts that the primary gains for employees will be fewer delays, better medical treatment, claim processes that are easier to follow and support from the workers’ comp division when problems arise. Gains for employers include cost reductions, predictability and more efficient claim-handling, said the Bradley County Republican.

Currently, the Volunteer State is one of only three states that adjudicate workers’ comp claims in courts. The legislation does away with the court system — but without any reduction of employees in the state’s 95 Chancery Courts located in each county, Democratic Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh noted.

Democrats complained that the legislation does not address the medical costs associated with workers’ comp. Opponents have claimed throughout the bill’s largely party-line trek to passage that the high cost of health care is the reason Tennessee’s costs continue to rise, while those in the surrounding eight states continue to fall.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner wondered from where the cost-savings in the new system will come. Brooks said “streamlining the process” will result in lower employer insurance premiums.

Turner said he suspects any real savings will come from lower payments to disabled-on-the-job employees. “We’re taking money out of the workers’ pocket. That’s not right. It’s not fair,” said the Old Hickory lawmakers, a firefighter who has served 13 years in the House. “We’re going to pass the savings onto business people. I’ve never seen a bill that tears at my heart like this one does.”

“I hope you understand what you know what you’re doing if you vote for this bill. We’ll be back in three or four years doing this again,” said Turner, urging members to send the legislation to summer study and to “do it right.”

Fitzhugh offered six of the eight amendments from Democrats. However, each one failed, just as they did when he presented them in the Finance, Ways & Means Committee, due to tabling motions to kill each without discussion. In both situations, the tabling motions overwhelming passed along party lines.

Following the House session, Fitzhugh told TNReport.com that he tried to “have amendments that would just put a little more common sense in there.

“The problems I have with it are that people thinks it’s going to be reform, but it’s really not,” said the nine-term representative from Ripley. “I’m afraid we’ll see it in a year or two and have to do something else with it. I don’t think this is going to turn out to be something very positive.”

Following the vote, Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a union-backed organization that has fought against the legislation, said in a statement that “the House of Representatives has clearly shown that instead of being on the side of protecting the hardworking Tennesseans who elected them, they are on the side of special interests like big insurance companies and large corporations who already benefit from so many tax loopholes and giveaways.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Voter Photo ID Bill Passes, Sans Use of Student Cards

With a near party line vote of 23-7 in the Senate Thursday, all that remains to block state-funded college IDs as valid identification for voting in Tennessee is the governor’s signature.

With no explanation, Senate Bill 125 sponsor Bill Ketron rose and simply said he would “move to concur” with House Bill 229 as amended. The Republican senator from Murfreesboro noted that one of the amendments from the House “retains the present law prohibition on the use of student identification card to veria person’s identity.” The other corrected a typographical error.

This was in stark contrast to a statement Ketron issued the previous week: “We will continue to push to allow state-issued student identification to remain in the bill as passed by the Senate, even if we have to go to a conference committee.”

Sen. Jim Kyle, D- Memphis, and Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, both spoke in favor of allowing student IDs.

“All the photo ID does is verify that you are the person who registered to vote,” Kyle said. “We sometimes seem to be confusing the idea of having a photo ID and the right to go vote. You don’t have a right to go vote unless you have registered to vote and have met the criteria of registration to vote.”

The 15-term senator also expressed a desire for legislation to go further and “give citizens the opportunity to use any valid form of governmental-issued photo ID, but we’re not going to go there. This Senate doesn’t want to do that.”

Kyle attempted to mount an effort to send the bill to a conference committee to reconcile the initial differences in each chamber about allowing student IDs.

Overbey said he believes that a student ID card does meet the standard of the other photo IDs allowed by the bill. Overbey also disclosed a potential conflict of interest based on his role as a trustee for Maryville College, invoking the legislature’s Rule 13.

“I believe in the principle of having a photo ID to ensure that the person going to vote matches a properly issued identification card,” he said. “Folks, I know of situations where folks obtain a false driver’s license, but we do allow driver’s licenses to be used.”

With only those comments, the amended bill passed the Senate along party lines, except for Overbey, who joined the six Democrats in voting against it.

During his weekly media conference following Thursday’s session, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said the bill ended up being what the majority of senators initially wanted when Ketron introduced SB125 earlier this year.

“The bottom line is all of us, to begin with, did not want student IDs included,” Ramsey said. “We simply did it because it helped our case in court if it ever got challenged again.”

Student IDs are allowed in Indiana under the voter ID legislation that was upheld by the United States Supreme Court, which Ketron had used as a model for SB125.

In addition to college IDs, the legislation would ban the use of out-of-state driver’s licenses, currently allowed even if they’ve expired, as well as ID cards issued by cities, counties or public libraries. The validity of library cards is before the Tennessee Supreme Court after the city of Memphis and two residents challenged the law.

Because both HB229 and SB125 are now one and the same, the legislation heads to governor’s desk for his signature.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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Business and Economy NewsTracker

Proposal Would Require Calculating ‘Impact on Commerce’ Before Approving New Laws

If you often wonder how new laws being debated in the Legislature might affect Tennessee business and industry operating costs, you might have a designated place to look in the future.

Senate Bill 116 and House Bill 220 would both require a statement of “impact on commerce” for proposed new legislation heard in certain committees. The full Senate has already passed its version of the idea this year, while HB220 is still slogging through lower-chamber committees.

“From a fiscal standpoint, when we pass a bill down here, our communities back home really need to know what is going to be that impact,” Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, told the Senate State & Local Government Committee last month during a hearing on the cost-to-business bill he’s sponsoring.

Ketron, who also chairs the Joint Fiscal Review Committee, said states like Florida, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey already require such analysis on legislative proposals. He said the bill was suggested to him by chambers of commerce around Tennessee.

Rep. Mark White, the House sponsor, said the bill will help legislators know how their proposals are “affecting the business person in the state as we try to make Tennessee a more business-friendly state.” The Republican from Germantown is vice chairman of the Fiscal Review Committee.

Ketron said initially there were concerns about the additional work becoming a burden on the staff who prepare cost-to-taxpayers and government revenue estimates for proposed laws, otherwise know as “fiscal notes.” However, after many conversations with Fiscal Review Director Bill Geise, Ketron said it’s been determined staff can take on the extra work within the existing budget.

The process would, if approved, be phased in over a two-year period, with three standing committees – House Business & Utilities, House Insurance & Banking and Senate Commerce & Labor – receiving the impact statements beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Then in January 2015, six additional standing committees will begin receiving the statements: Senate and House Finance, Ways & Means; House State Government; House Local Government; House Consumer & Human Resources; and Senate State and Local Government.

While the bill cruised through the Senate in March 32-0, HB220 was postponed Wednesday to the last meeting of the House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee after Rep. Charles Sargent raised a question about the phase-in implementation.

Sargent, the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee chairman, wanted to add a verbal amendment to the bill that would exclude the six other standing committees from receiving the business impact statements in 2015. However, Rep. Michael Harrison, chair of the subcommittee, would not allow it, saying that the committee had “turned down the gentleman from Knoxville on a verbal amendment…to be fair to everyone.”

House Bill 220 is on the House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee’s April 10 calendar.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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NewsTracker

Cities Considering Annexing Land Better Hurry

Property owners across the state will have a two-year reprieve from forced annexation – and the tax increases that come with it — if a bill moving in the Tennessee Legislature becomes law.

The original intent of Senate Bill 279 was to require a majority vote for annexation by qualified voters before a city could annex their land. The amended bill unanimously passed the Senate State & Local Government Committee Tuesday.

Sen. Bo Watson, who has brought some version of the legislation for six years, said the bill “seeks to remedy an obvious flaw in the current law, a flaw that has been addressed by 47 other states. That flaw is our current law gives no voice to the citizens subject to an annexation ordinance.

“It is in effect annexation without representation, ergo it is taxation without representation,” said the Republican from Hixson.

The amendment brought by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris made the bill and sent it, along with five other pieces of legislation, to the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) for “a comprehensive review and evaluation of the efficacy of state policies” in Title 6.

TACIR is made up of public officials from state and local government, as well as private citizens, and seeks to work out problems between different layers of government.

Norris, who is also the chair of TACIR, said that one of the “unintended consequences of this fine legislation” was that a number of cities were accelerating the pace of annexation.

To stop cities from annexing additional land while the TACIR review is underway, the amendment would impose a moratorium on annexations that are in progress but not completed. The ban would extend from April 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015.

The second reason Norris gave was that in 2012, TACIR started looking at Title 6, which was codified as a result of Public Chapter 1101, also known as the Growth Policy Act, in 1998.

PC 1101 required local officials within each of 92 non-metropolitan counties to work together to shape growth policy through the development of 20-year growth plans. However, the act did not impose a single, statewide solution.

“Our counties and towns are pretty much at year 15 through that process,” Norris said, adding there has never been “a stop, look and see” about how cities are doing in the planning process.

“Now we have this bill and maybe six or seven other bills all sort of taking bites out of 1101, and we don’t have a way of really fully absorbing what the impacts will be, not only on our constituents, but the counties or the cities in which they live,” the Collierville senator said.

Five other bills dealing with either annexation or development or growth were also sent to TACIR for study by the committee. (Story continues below graphic.)

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Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, sponsor of two of the bills (SB1316 and SB 1381) sent to TACIR, wanted clarification on the moratorium.

“This would be a moratorium on hostile annexation, but still permit the petition annexation?” she asked.

Watson said the amendment “does not prohibit consensual annexation. It allows for that if that’s what one would chose to do.”

He added that while the amendment “doesn’t solve the problem we’re seeking to solve, it is a step in the right direction. I know the chairman of TACIR is on this committee, and I would expect that this particular aspect of annexation would be specifically addressed by TACIR.”

Sen. Ken Yager, chair of the Senate committee, expressed his appreciation for “the cooperative attitude” of Watson and House companion bill sponsor, Rep. Mark Carter, R-Chattanooga, as well as Norris’ work on the issue.

“I think it’s properly characterized as a time out to give us a chance to look at it, and it is a step in the right direction,” the Republican from Harriman said. “I appreciate your gentlemen’s leadership on this.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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Business and Economy Featured NewsTracker

Workers’ Comp Rewrite Rolls Through Senate, Bearing Down on House Floor

While Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers’ compensation reform bill has had bumpy hearings in House committees, the track was clear and the ride mostly smooth on the Senate floor Monday night as SB200 passed 28-2.

Currently, the Volunteer State is one of only three states that adjudicate workers’ compensation claims in court. If the legislation passes, an independent agency run by an administrator chosen by the governor would oversee the process.

Supporters say the new system will process claims faster and cost less while opponents say it doesn’t address the real issue of higher medical costs and that workers will receive smaller awards and have more difficulty getting claims approved.

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Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, of Collierville, who carried the bill in the upper chamber, said he feels the reforms “are not only going to keep Tennessee competitive, but are going to benefit the workers of this state.”

Only Sen. Doug Overbey rose to speak in opposition to the sweeping legislation, which House Democratic leaders called “just wrong,” “shameful” and “immoral” during a show of solidarity with labor-union protesters on the steps of the Capitol last Tuesday.

“There are many good provisions in this bill,” said the Maryville Republican. “The part of the legislation I’m troubled about, though, is the part where we are creating new positions in state government.”

Overbey named 28 new positions outlined in the bill’s fiscal note, noting that there are already “spread all across the state” court clerks to file claims and judges “who have been adjudicating these claims since the workers’ compensation law came into effect.

“So my problem is that we have the processes in place in the status quo. If we were making only the substantive changes, or many of the substantive changes, I could support those, but to create all of these new positions, I cannot support it,” he continued.

While less concerned about the size of state government, groups opposing the reforms have raised similar doubts about the wisdom of moving the dispute resolution process away from the court system. The governor’s plan would place the new agency under the state Department of Labor, the subject of recent negative attention. A state comptroller’s audit found the DOL issued $73.4 million in overpaid unemployment benefits over the past six years.

Mary Mancini, of Tennessee Citizen Action, a group fighting the legislation, cited the comptroller’s findings Tuesday, telling TNReport that the DOL’s poor handling of unemployment benefits should give lawmakers pause.

“It’s being mismanaged, and it’s just completely plagued with problems now,” Mancini said of the Department of Labor. “It doesn’t make sense to add this entirely new system, an entirely new department within there without them fixing what’s wrong with it first. This is not good for working people and their families. It’s certainly not good for the state of Tennessee.”

Asked about these concerns Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Haslam told reporters that he thought the comptroller’s audit had no bearing on workers’ comp.

“I think it’s a whole separate deal,” Haslam said. “One of those is about processing claims, and one of them is about adjudicating workers’ comp issues, so those are two very, very different issues. They’re in the same department, I admit, but they’re two very different issues.

During discussion on the Senate floor, Sen. Jack Johnson noted that most of the new positions added under the bill would be converted from existing positions.

“For example, 20 existing attorney positions in the workers’ compensation division will convert to 16 workers’ compensation judge positions, as well as one chief judge position and three administrative review board judge positions,” said the Republican from Franklin.

Johnson did not address Overbey’s other concerns, that an administrator would appoint the judges deciding claims and that payments to injured workers who return to work would not be much higher than payments to those who do not.

“I am concerned there is not an incentive to get employees back to work, which is a very important incentive under the status quo,” Overbey concluded. He, along with Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney, of Jackson, both voted no, while Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield, of Knoxville, and Democratic Sen. Jim Kyle, of Memphis, did not vote at all.

At the protest rally last week, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the legislation would create “another administrative branch, basically, to government, which is something that we certainly don’t need to do. We have the court system that’s working well.”

The Ripley representative also noted that the real costs to employers “are coming from medical costs, and this bill doesn’t even touch those at all. It only looks at the already reduced benefits to an injured employee.”

On Tuesday, HB194, the companion to SB200, passed the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee along party lines. The bill is now headed to the House Calendar & Rules Committee.

Despite his best efforts, the six amendments offered by Fitzhugh all failed without discussion. Each one was met with a tabling motion to kill it without discussion.

Saying that he supported previous workers’ comp reforms, Fitzhugh urged committee members to not pass the bill, but to study it and look at the medical costs involved, which he believes “are the real drivers of cost in Tennessee.”

He also stated that he didn’t think that now is the appropriate time “to ramp up an entire new department,” given that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development is without a commissioner.

John Klein Wilson contributed to this story.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.