NASHVILLE, March 15, 2017– It’s been an incredibly busy last few days at the Capitol and I wanted to give you all an update. Legislation concerning the gas tax, hi-speed internet, abortion, property owners, and welfare fraud are all moving forward (details below). We also said goodbye to one of Tennessee’s sons and a true statesman, Senator Douglas Henry.
Tribute to Senator Douglas Henry: Longest serving member in State Legislature’s History
One noteworthy event that transcends politics last week was the passing of Senator Douglas Henry. Senator Henry began his political career in the Tennessee House and was then elected to the Senate where he finished his service. We were given the opportunity to pay our respects to Senator Henry on Thursday in the House chamber. He is the longest serving member in our state legislature’s history.
House Transportation Committee Delays Action on Improve Act to Continue Weighing Options
Last week, legislation moved forward from the House Transportation Subcommittee, where Governor’s “Improve Act” was amended by substituting language that shifts a percentage of sales tax revenue to the transportation fund in lieu of raising taxes on gasoline and diesel. The committee decided to continue studying the options and delay actions for one week while members of the committee do more research and talk with constituents.
Landowners Given Option on How to Post Property
I voted in favor of legislation on the House floor Monday evening that gives farmers and other landowners new flexibility when posting property. House Bill 78 allows owners of property to use purple paint to mark trees or posts on the outskirts of property rather than being required to post signage stating such. The bill stipulates the swatch of paint must be three to five feet from the ground and one sign must be at a main source of egress. Eleven other states have already implemented this type of law, which we believe will make posting more permanent and less costly.
Abortion after 20 Weeks Legislation Advances
I am pleased to support legislation (House Bill 101) which prohibits abortions of babies whose mother is beyond the 20 week mark of pregnancy. The legislation clarifies our laws by designating a specific point at which a child may no longer be aborted. It keeps in place parts of the law which make exceptions to preserve the life and health of the mother.
Critical Legislation To Combat Welfare Fraud Moving Forward
At the end of February, the House moved forward with critical legislation designed to combat welfare fraud in Tennessee by passing House Bill 227 on the full House floor. Once passed by the Senate, the bill will travel to the desk of Governor Bill Haslam to be signed into law.
House Bill 227, referred to as the Program Integrity Act, is the result of over two years of work between Republican lawmakers and the Department of Human Services (DHS) and TennCare. As passed, the important legislation gives these departments more tools in the toolbox to help reduce welfare fraud across the state.
Specifically, the bill creates a new system of enhanced verification in Tennessee, requiring DHS to conduct quarterly data matches and crosscheck this data in various ways to help eliminate fraudulent payments that are being made. As society becomes more mobile, the bill allows DHS to explore joining a multi-state cooperative for identifying individuals who currently receive Tennessee benefits but who live in other states.
As people move, get jobs and get married, pass away, or simply falsify their economic statuses, the new computerized crosscheck system created by House Bill 227 will help ensure those who are receiving benefits are only those who actually qualify for the programs and who genuinely need state assistance.
In addition to the new enhanced verification system, the legislation also directs the Tennessee Department of Lottery to report to DHS, on a monthly basis, the name, prize amount, and any other identifying information of welfare recipients who win a prize of $5,000 or more. While this rule is already in federal statute requiring welfare recipients to self-report this information, this change simply adds an extra layer of security to the process by adding that the Department of Lottery will also report this information to the state.
In Tennessee, studies estimate the state loses approximately $123 million per year in fraudulent payments to people who are not actually qualified to receive benefits.
Administration’s Broadband Plan Clears First Committee
On Tuesday, proposed legislation to bring broadband to rural areas of Tennessee passed the House Business and Utilities Committee. According to the governor’s office 13% of Tennessee citizens currently do not have access to high-speed internet services. The plan comes following recommendations by the Tennessee Governor’s Rural Task Force and the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR).
Senate Bill 1215 (Norris R- Collierville)/ House Bill 529 (HawkR- Greeneville) creates a grant program to allow rural areas to gain access to broadband internet by extending incentives to providers. To qualify for the grants, communities must meet certain requirements set out in the bill. This $30 million provision of the legislation works in conjunction with the governor’s proposed 3 year, $45 million budget for the program.
The bill also allows electric cooperatives to begin offering broadband internet services, whether within their service area or outside of it. It also allows certain tax credits for select broadband internet equipment. Cooperatives will be subject to a number of other requirements set out in the bill, which as amended allows them to also provide television service to members.
The bill also allows local libraries to apply for grants to educate citizens relative to digital literacy and internet capabilities.
I am afraid many people think that this legislation is some kind of “magic bullet” that will immediately bring broadband to some of our remote areas and make speed and access better in others. In time, that may happen. However, there will still be infrastructure issues, agreements and affordability for the supplier as well as the customer to be considered. No one is going to be willing to lose money when the grants are exhausted. There is still going to be the need for everyone involved to work together in corroboration and fairness.
Hosting Maury County at the Capitol
It was a joy to introduce Youth Maury Leadership in the House Chambers last Thursday. I was so very proud of them. Jan had a great morning planned for them, including a visit to the Supreme Court Chambers. I know they also always enjoy a lunch visit to the Spaghetti Factory.
In the next couple of weeks, we look forward to hosting the adult Maury County Leadership group as well as the Mule Day Queen and her Court. It is always fun to recognize my constituents from Maury County on the Hill!