State Senator Mae Beavers’ Legislative Update

 

Senator Mae Beavers

Senator Mae Beavers

Final Report on the 106th General Assembly – (Part 3 of 3)

NASHVILLE-The General Assembly passed a number of significant bills before gaveling the 2009 session to a close.  Highlighting the final part of the year-end wrap are some of the most important issues that were addressed this year, including economic development, military issues, the court system, and passing a budget during hard economic times.

 

Economic Development / Jobs / Consumers

Small business investment – Before adjourning the 2009 legislative session, the General Assembly passed innovative legislation designed to grow jobs through a program that would provide capital to small businesses.  The bill, SB 1203, creates the TNINVESTCO Program to provide benefits to small, medium-sized, and start-up businesses that do not enjoy the same economic development incentives that have been provided to the larger companies that invest capital in Tennessee.  The overwhelming majority of jobs in this state are created by small businesses.  The new law authorizes tax incentives for private investors to invest in Tennessee. 

 

Market Regulation Act – A new law passed this year will modernize state telecommunications policy and promote more competition and choice for Tennessee consumers.  The measure, SB 1965, allows existing traditional telephone providers to be treated on the same terms as their competitors in the cable, wireless and Internet telephone companies.  Sponsors feel that the increased competition will keep companies from raising rates as they vie to attract and retain customers.  In addition, the legislation includes language to assure there will be no rate hikes in rural areas for at least one year.

 

Electric coops – Finally, the Legislature passed a new law this year to allow municipal and rural electric companies to join together to provide electric generating capacity to consumers.  Currently they can only provide those services separately.  The measure, SB 1089, gives the localities the flexibility to form a cooperative so they can provide wholesale electric power and energy services to customers. 

 

Military / Veterans

Numerous bills were passed this year to honor veterans and those who serve our state and nation in the military.  Tennessee has the 6th largest National Guard in the U.S, with a 72 percent re-enlistment rate.  

 

Military / Personal Rights Protection Act – Legislation designed to protect soldiers from having their names or likeness used in anti-war activities without permission was approved during the 2009 legislative session.  The new law allows individuals to recover three times the amount of damages plus attorneys fees, for knowingly using or infringing on the rights of an active member of the armed forces in violation of Tennessee’s “Personal Rights Protection Act.”  The legislation, SB 836, comes after several violations were reported, including T-shirts sold on the Internet using the names of about 1700 soldiers.  The T-shirts contained defaming information about the country with the name of soldiers on the back.   

 

Elections / Military – The General Assembly passed a bill, SB 1420, to make it easier for those serving overseas to access and return the necessary documents to vote absentee.   In the last election, many Tennesseans in the military serving overseas requested that they be allowed to send their scanned documents by email because they did not have access to a fax in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

 

Court System

Judicial Selection – This year, the General Assembly approved legislation that renews, with some changes, the current method for selecting the state’s appellate and Supreme Court judges.  The current system, called the “Tennessee Plan,” consists of a commission comprised of various special interest groups who select a panel of possible judges for the governor to choose from. 

 

The eventual appointee will then have to run in a retention election in order to keep his/her judgeship.  Only one judge has ever been replaced since the plan was first adopted.  The bill that passed this year is a modified version of the current system.

 

 “Unfortunately, this year the General Assembly once again caved to the special interests and not to the Constitution, and decided to renew a version of the unconstitutional ‘Tennessee Plan’ which does not allow for the people to elect their judges as the Constitution provides,” said Judiciary Chairman Beavers.

Tennessee’s constitution clearly uses the same language regarding election ‘by the qualified voters of the state’ as is used to describe the election of the Governor and members of the Legislature. 

 

Many legislators, including Chairman Beavers, have argued that popularly electing judges may not be the ‘best’ way to achieve an unbiased judiciary.  Yet, all legislators must take an oath of office that includes following the Constitution, and unless the Constitution is changed, legislators are bound to follow the election process laid out by the founders.  Many of the Republican leaders in the Senate have pushed for a constitutional referendum to allow for the citizens of Tennessee to decide the matter once and for all.

 

Education

Charter Schools – Major education reform legislation that strengthens Tennessee’s public charter school law was among the final bills approved by the General Assembly as the 2009 session wrapped up this year.  The new law (SB 2133) widens eligibility, clarifies funding and addresses rules for renewal of the public charter schools.  Previously, Tennessee had one of the most restrictive public charter school laws in the nation.  The legislation also puts into place a process so the best practices gained from the “laboratories of learning” go into traditional school programs.

 

Home school diplomas – The General Assembly has approved legislation that requires home school diplomas to be recognized as a regular public high school diploma. Previously, those graduating from a home school were treated unfairly in seeking jobs that, by statute, require a high school diploma – ranging from day care worker to law enforcement officer. The Department of Education has been “misinterpreting” those statutes by declaring that homeschool graduates do not meet the high school diploma requirement unless they also obtain a GED certificate.

 

This measure, SB 433, makes sure that graduates of church-related schools or home schools are recognized by all state and local governmental entities as having the same rights and privileges of those holding diplomas issued by public school systems. 

 

Budget

Under state law, the legislature and governor must pass a balanced budget that does not break the “Copeland Cap.”  The Copeland Cap was a provision to the Constitution that says that state spending cannot increase at a higher rate than the increase in personal income.  Such a provision was added to force government to live within its means, especially during hard economic times. 

 

Ultimately, the final version of the budget did not meet these requirements and consisted of even more initial spending than last year.  Some of the funds were federal grants and stimulus money, yet the final version of the budget fell short of the fiscal responsibility desperately needed during an economic recession.

“We cannot continue to operate like the federal government in terms of our budgets,” said Senator Beavers. 

 

“This Governor has driven this state from massive surplus to huge deficits while in office, and I don’t think that modeling our state’s spending after irresponsible federal spending is a good policy.”

Senate Republicans were able to improve the budget, adding an additional 55 million of future cuts to be made at the discretion of the Governor if optimistic revenue projections are not made. 

 

Nevertheless, Senator Beavers was the only Senator to vote against the budget, calling it way too “political” in nature and with far too much spending during hard economic times.  She joined eleven courageous House Representatives in voting against the bill, including Representative Terri Lynn Weaver.

 

State Sovereignty

The Tennessee General Assembly joined 28 other states this year that, by June, had approved resolutions claiming sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  The measure is designed to send Congress a message that the federal government has overstepped its Constitutional bounds by mandating a massive amount of federal policies upon the states in violation of the Bill of Rights.

 

The resolution, HJR 108, states that the federal government was created by the states specifically to be an agent of the states, not vice-versa.   It was such an important point with the founders that they specifically provided for this sovereignty in our Constitution.  The resolution also points out a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in New York v. United States, stating Congress may not commandeer the legislative and regulatory processes of the states.