3/1/2019: In Brief…

More jobs coming to the Volunteer State – Two major job announcements this week show Tennessee is open for business, as the Volunteer State continues to enjoy historic low unemployment rates.  JNJ Express announced that the transportation company will invest $83.6 million and create 610 jobs over the next five years by expanding their operations in Memphis.  The other announcement was by the ICEE Company, who plans to invest $10.3 million to establish a headquarters in La Vergne, resulting in 200 additional jobs.  The two announcements follow last week’s news that Togo North America Inc. will invest $11.4 million to establish a production facility in Portland, creating 58 jobs over the next five years.  Tennessee is first in the nation for advanced industry job growth.  Other significant job announcements in February include a $4.6 million investment and 40 new jobs by VP Racing Fuels in Huntingdon, $44 million investment and 689 new jobs by FedEx Logistics in Memphis, and a $780,000 investment and 45 new jobs by Quore in Franklin. 

Middle College Program Scholarships – The Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 1379 this week increasing Tennessee’s Middle College Scholarship from $600 to $1,000 per semester.  Middle College is a public community college program that, in partnership with the local education agency (LEA), permits high school students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree during their junior and senior years. Although the program facilitates a seamless transition to post-secondary education, due to the requirement that recipients have a high school degree, the students have not been eligible for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship.  The scholarship helps offset the cost of tuition and books during the two-year program.  This is a program that encourages our best and brightest to get a jump start on their education and compliments the governor’s Drive to 55 to accelerate the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary degrees or certifications.  Middle College students are among the most sought-after students in the nation by four-year colleges and universities and typically achieve 100 percent proficiency on high school benchmark exams. 

Election Laws – Three proposals that aim to strengthen the state’s election process advanced in the Senate this week. The first bill, Senate Bill 1258 intends to close loopholes in the state’s election laws by prohibiting a candidate who has been defeated in a primary election from qualifying as a write-in candidate for the general election.  The second bill, Senate Bill 1354 requires that in the event a party’s state executive committee removes a candidate’s name from the ballot, that person must receive notice in a reasonable amount of time for them to respond. Both proposals were approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee and are pending final action by the full Senate.  The third bill, Senate Bill 1264 aims to prevent incidences of voter fraud by prohibiting a person convicted of this crime in another state from assisting a person with either early voting or casting an absentee ballot in Tennessee. That proposal was unanimously adopted by the full Senate and awaits action in the Finance, Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives. 

Election Laws / Vacancies The Senate State and Local Government Committee also approved legislation this week calling for a change in the process to fill a vacancy in the State Senate if it occurs within 45 days or less before a November general election.  Current law requires a write-in election under such a scenario.  Senate Bill 1355 establishes that if such a vacancy occurs, the county executive committee for the respective party of the vacant seat may nominate a candidate for the November ballot within 48 hours of notice. Independents can also run by filing a petition by noon of the same day that the candidates are being certified. The proposal allows the county election commission to publish the sample ballot on its website or on the Secretary of State’s website due to brevity of time.  If early voting occurred prior to the vacancy, persons who have already voted would be allowed to cast a ballot in this election. 

Emergency Response / Automated External Defibrillator —  On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation designed to remove barriers to individuals using an automated external defibrillator (AED) as part of an emergency rescue for a person who is in cardiac arrest and unresponsive. Senate Bill 314 provides that any entity responsible for the AED shall not be civilly liable for any personal injury that results from an act or omission related to the use or maintenance of the AED that does not amount to misconduct or gross negligence. The goal of the legislation is to encourage more facilities to use an AED in emergencies, rather than discourage facilities from using the life saving device for fear of liability if the device does not work properly. The need for this legislation was prompted by a mobile app now available in Chattanooga that sends alerts to CPR-certified individuals when a cardiac event is nearby and dispatches them to an AED.

Smoking / Vaping – Two bills that address regulation of smoking tobacco and vapor products were approved by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week. Senate Bill 26 prohibits the use of vapor products in certain areas where children are often present. Areas prohibited include child care centers, group care homes, healthcare facilities, and others. The legislation also expands the definition of vapor products to include visible or non-visible vapors and the substances used to fill a vapor cartridge.

The second bill, Senate Bill 932 would give local governments decision-making authority regarding the use of smoking tobacco on property owned or leased by a municipality or county, airport authorities, and hospitals within their jurisdiction. 

In other action, Senate Bill 1200, which would have raised the age of persons allowed to purchase tobacco and vape product from 18 to 21, was deferred to the committee’s last calendar. 

County Road Relief Act – Legislation which continues indefinitely a 2015 law that gives counties more opportunities to tap into State Aid Road Grant Program funds was approved by the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week.  Senate Bill 1364 lifts a 2019 sunset date of the 2015 law which has makes it easier for counties to access state funds to upgrade, repair and improve local roads.  Before, in order to receive funding through the State Highway Aid System, local governments had to provide a 25 percent local match.  The 2015 law allows local governments to use state highway aid for a project, as long as the county contributes at least 2 percent of the approved project cost or provide in-kind work as approved by the Department of Transportation.  The County Road Relief Act was modeled after the County Bridge Relief Act lowering match to allow local governments to access unused funds in Tennessee’s State Aid Bridge Grant Program.  That program has allowed counties to access unused funds to improve bridges in disrepair.

Student Health / Morning Mile — A group of 8th grade students from Jonesborough Middle School appeared before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week to talk about the “Morning Mile” program at their school to increase activity and establish healthy habits.  The group also shared their research findings regarding the positive effects of exercise on attendance and grades, as well as improved physical and behavioral health.  The Morning Mile was created by Niswonger Children’s Hospital to help children in Northeast Tennessee and Southeast Virginia develop healthy habits by getting them off to an active start every morning before the school day begins.  The student’s research showed that the program has beneficial health effects on various conditions like ADHD and obesity.  They asked lawmakers to help promote the program statewide.  Last year, more than 49,000 kids participated in the Morning Mile, completing over 325,000 miles.

AG Launch — On Wednesday, the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard from AgLaunch, an organization that works to help agtech startups, facilitate the development of new agriculture and food value-chains and build collaborative farmer networks. Pete Nelson, Executive Director of AgLaunch, told committee members that Tennessee has unique assets with abundant water and good soil, small and large farms, different types of production environments, and established farmers who are willing to try new technologies and ideas. These assets allow Tennessee to be very diverse in the crops grown in the state.  The goal of AgLaunch is to ensure citizens have good local food and farmers have opportunities to participate in value-added enterprises by growing companies, enabling research, aligning capital, and continuing to be led by farmers.

Automobile License Plates – This week, the Transportation and Safety Committee unanimously passed Senate Bill 435 which creates a specialty license plate for the American Veterans (AMVETS).  The organization’s mission is to enhance and safeguard the entitlements for all American veterans who have served honorably and to improve the quality of life for them, their families, and the communities where they live through leadership, advocacy and services. The AMVETS license plate will be added to the current list of 40 military and memorial license plates provided in Tennessee. The bill now moves to the full Senate floor for a final vote.

Enhanced Penalties / Theft of a Gun — Legislation enhancing penalties for theft of a firearm advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.  Senate Bill 681 increases the penalty of theft of property that includes a firearm valued at less than $2,500 to a Class D felony.  Current law penalizes theft of a firearm valued at less than $1,000 as a Class A misdemeanor.  It is estimated that approximately three-fourth of guns stolen are valued at less than $1,000.  Under this proposal, stealing any firearm would be punishable as a felony offense.  If the value of the firearm is determined to be over $10,000, the penalty would be graded higher.

Safe at Home Program / Domestic Violence — At a press conference on Thursday, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, announced the new state program, Safe at Home, to protect domestic abuse victims, is taking effect on March 1, 2019. The Safe at Home Program was established through legislation passed by the General Assembly last year.  The program provides victims with a government-managed substitute address for both themselves and their children, which can then be used to obtain a driver’s license, register to vote, and complete most other government forms without disclosing their home address. 

The Secretary of State’s office will receive all mail sent to the substitute address and then forward that mail to the participant.  Under current law, abusers can access their victims’ private information making them extremely vulnerable.  Safe at Home will protect the victims’ information allowing them to escape their abusers and start a new life. Hargett predicts that approximately 1,500 Tennesseans will participate in Safe at Home helping protect over half of the 2,169 repeat domestic violence victims.

More information about the Safe at Home program can be found at sos.tn.gov/safeathome.

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