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Senate acts on major bills of 2017 session

Tenn. Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville)

Sen. Mark Norris

NASHVILLE — The Senate continued to make progress last week in winding down the 2017 legislative session, acting on some of the most important bills proposed this year, including legislation addressing road improvements, tax relief, elderly abuse and school bus safety.

The Senate voted 25 to 6 on April 19 to approve Governor Bill Haslam’s Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE) Act, which is also named the “2017 Tax Cut Act.” The purpose of the legislation is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayers’ return on that investment. While one category, highway user fees, increases by 6 cents on a gallon of gas and 10 cents on diesel (phased in over three years), the legislation cuts $428 million in taxes, which is the largest single tax cut in Tennessee history.

Up to half of the tax dollars collected on diesel fuel and 30 percent on gasoline come from out-of-state drivers, who share in the cost of keeping up Tennessee roads.

Proceeds from the fee increases, which have not been raised in 28 years, are dedicated to the highway fund under the bill, with $70 million going to counties and $30 million going to cities annually for local road projects. The $350 million in funds will deliver 962 road and bridge projects across all 95 Tennessee counties to alleviate a $10.5 billion backlog in transportation projects.

The Senate also voted to fully restore the property value threshold for 100 percent disabled veterans from $100,000 to $175,000. Previously, the legislation proposed an increase to $135,000. Because of this improvement, the bill must now go back to the House of Representatives, who also passed the bill on April 19.

We are taking some of the excess revenues we have for Tennesseans and reallocating those to return as much as we can to the taxpayers. It otherwise changes some of our priorities to allocate more to keep Tennessee safe by accelerating the pace we repair and expand our roads in this state.

The plan, as amended, is a lesser increase in the user fees, the gas tax and the diesel tax, than was originally proposed and will be phased in over three years in varying amounts. He noted that the tax cuts are greater than originally proposed as well.

Tax cuts included in Senate Bill 1221 are:

  • 0 percent reduction in the food tax from five to four percent
  • Hall Income Tax relief from 5 percent to 4 percent with language to reduce it by 1 percent until it is gone
  • An optional move to the single sales factor for Franchise and Excise (F & E) tax paying manufacturers
  • Tax relief for veterans, elderly, and disabled by raising the home value threshold from $100,000 to $175,000 for veterans and $23,500 to $27,000 for the elderly and disabled

Tennessee is one of only five states that do not use debt to fund its roads. This pay-as-you-go practice has been credited as one of the reasons for the state’s top financial rankings.

Last Wednesday’s Senate session also saw unanimous passage of legislation prioritizing the repair of structurally deficient bridges in Tennessee. I sponsored Senate Bill 1220 (known as the “High Priority Bridge Bill”), and it authorizes the Department of Transportation (TDOT) to pay up to 100 percent of the cost to repair or replace bridges on local roadways through a new category in the state-aid highway program. This is a move to help avoid local property tax increases for repairs.

According to TDOT, 200 of the state’s 526 structurally deficient bridges are on local roads and have been weight-posted, a status which can prevent school buses, fire trucks and heavy agricultural vehicles from crossing because of safety risks. Unless there is a comprehensive fix, TDOT expects within 10 to 12 years all 526 bridges that are in need of repair or replacement will likely be added to that list.

Penalties for elder abuse

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved major legislation last week, strengthening penalties for elderly abuse. The “Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act,” which I sponsored along with Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Lt. Governor Randy McNally, is one of three proposals stemming from the Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Abuse Task Force to protect Tennessee seniors. The other two bills, dealing with financial exploitation of the elderly, were approved on final consideration on the Senate floor last week as well.

Senate Bill 1230 further codifies elder and vulnerable adult abuse and exploitation by creating Class C and D felonies for those found guilty of committing these crimes. It also requires state agencies to submit offenders’ names to the Tennessee Department of Health’s Abuse Registry or local law enforcement.

Other Senate updates

School Zone Safety: This legislation bans drivers from knowingly driving through an active school zone while talking on a hand-held cell phone. It met the approval of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee last week.

Help Find the Missing Act: The State Senate approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), last week to create the Help Find the Missing Act. Senate Bill 113 streamlines the procedure for how local law enforcement, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), and the medical examiner’s office communicate with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

Human trafficking: Among bills approved by the full Senate on final consideration last week is Senate Bill 553, which adds “trafficking for a commercial sex act” within the definition of “child sexual abuse” and “severe child abuse” under Tennessee law. This ensures that child welfare can intervene and provide services in cases that involve any form of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

MARK NORRIS is a state senator (R-Collierville) for Tennessee and Senate Majority Leader. He chairs the Senate Rules Committee and serves as second vice-chair for the Senate Calendar Committee. He is also a member of the Senate Ethics Committee; Finance, Ways and Means Committee; State and Local Government Committee; and Joint Pensions and Insurance Committee. He may be reached at (615) 741-1967 or via email to sen.mark.norris@capitol.tn.gov.

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