2013 Yearly Review

Get ready to vote in 2014! Two constitutional amendments that I sponsored received the necessary two-thirds votes to go on the ballot next year for ratification: one prohibiting an income tax and one establishing a Founding Fathers model for selecting judges. These were the highlights of a successful 2013 legislative session. Click on the links below for more information.

"Income Tax Prohibition" Amendment
"Founding Fathers Plus" Amendment
"ObamaCare" Medicaid Expansion
Pension Reform
Anti-Human Trafficking
Taxes
Tort Reform
Shelby County Issues
Education
Federalism
Conclusion

"Income Tax Prohibition" Amendment

The "Income Tax Prohibition" Amendment will ensure that Tennesseans never have to worry again about paying a state income tax. While many of us believe that the income tax is already unconstitutional, many others do not. Forty-five of ninety-nine members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the income tax in 2002. Now, a mere twelve years later, Tennesseans will have the opportunity to put this issue to rest, once and for all. The amendment will replace the current constitutional argument by silence with an explicit statement that neither the legislature nor local governments can tax wages. The amendment also prohibits a tax on business payrolls, which has been proposed as an alternative to an income tax by several Shelby County elected officials.

"Founding Fathers Plus" Amendment

The "Founding Fathers Plus" Plan adopts the tried and true system of the American Founding Fathers for choosing judges. It will allow the governor to appoint appellate judges, subject to confirmation by the legislature. It is called the "plus" plan because the Senate plus the House are included in confirmation, as opposed to the federal plan, in which confirmation is limited to the Senate. It also requires legislative action within sixty days and keeps in place a retention vote by the people at the end of the eight-year judicial term.

The "Founding Fathers Plus" Plan was passed in response to a constitutional crisis in Tennessee. The current constitution is clear that “judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state." Years ago, however, the legislature ignored that language and instead gave the power to select judges to a 17-person unelected, unaccountable panel of mostly lawyers, who recommend three names from whom the governor must choose. Thankfully, the legislature finally ended this charade by not renewing the nominating commission this year. A new system must be put in place next year. Now that we have the chance to amend our constitution, it is time to adopt the system that has served the U.S. well for almost 225 years. As Hamilton wrote of the federal plan in Federalist 76, "It is not easy to conceive a plan better calculated than this to promote a judicious choice of men for filling the offices of the Union."

"ObamaCare" Medicaid Expansion

For once in my life, I am thrilled that the federal government is not cooperating with our governor. Tennessee won a temporary victory over the federal "ObamaCare" legislation in March when Governor Haslam failed to receive federal approval for his plan to expand our Medicaid program. As I stated in my bill to prohibit him from taking these "ObamaCare" dollars, Tennessee simply doesn't have the money to pay the remaining $200 million that the federal government refuses to pay to insure these individuals. The $200 million figure assumes the federal government will keep its promise to pay 90% of the cost in future years, which is highly unlikely. In 1981 Congress was forced to reduce its Medicaid funding percentage to help cut the federal debt. With over $16 trillion of debt today, I suspect Congress will be forced to break its promise again. This would leave state taxpayers to foot the bill.

My TennCare Fiscal Responsibility Act garnered 15 of 33 Senators as co-sponsors and passed the Commerce Committee the same day as the governor's announcement. Governor Haslam says he is continuing to try to receive federal approval for his plan to give private insurance to the expansion population. He is correct that private insurance would be better than Medicaid, but those of us who believe the federal government will break its promise to pay 90% of the bill for public insurance, think it is even more likely the federal government will break its promise to pay for private insurance.

The Supreme Court "ObamaCare" decision last summer was a decided victory for federalism because it permitted states to turn down this expansion spending. It would be a shame to squander this victory. If the governor is successful in his negotiations with the federal government this fall, then I will push the TennCare Fiscal Responsibility Act for a vote in the Finance Committee the first week of session next year.

Pension Reform

The most significant bill you've never heard of completely reformed state pensions this year-- from a straight pension system to a 401(k)-style system. This bill, which I co-sponsored with Sen. McNally in conjunction with Treasurer Lillard, mirrored one that I have been introducing for years. It will ensure that Tennessee remains fiscally sound for the next thirty years or more.

Detroit, California, and Greece are learning the hard way what private businesses figured out fifteen years ago: you cannot promise to pay people pensions indefinitely now that they live into their nineties. The money simply won't be there for future workers. That's why all new workers in Tennessee will instead be given an individual retirement account with their name on it. It will be invested as they wanted it invested, and it will be there for them when they retire. All current state employees will remain in the current pension system, which is in good shape. In fact, Tennessee was recently named #1 for the lowest debt in the nation, as a percentage of personal income!

Anti-Human Trafficking

I am proud that Tennessee now has some of the toughest anti-human trafficking laws in the nation, thanks to a package of bills I sponsored this year with Rep. Coley. The bills originated from Ryan Dalton, a University of Memphis law student with a passion for ending this despicable practice. Human trafficking has now been documented in 73 of the 95 counties in Tennessee, and those are just the cases we have discovered. Unfortunately, this crime is real and is growing in the U.S., and much of it is focused on victimizing young girls.

This year, we increased the penalty for promoting prostitution of a minor from a class E felony to a class A or B felony. We added trafficking for commercial sex acts to the list of crimes which may be prosecuted as gang-related activities or as racketeering. We increased the statute of limitations to allow minors to report crimes 15 years after their 18th birthday rather than 10 years. We also clarified that victims may receive payments from traffickers for medical and counseling expenses. Finally, we established an Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force to monitor the problem, and I am pleased that Lt. Gov. Ramsey appointed me to the task force, where I will continue to work on ending this problem.

Taxes

Tennessee continued its march to eliminate taxes this year. More senior citizens over 65 now qualify for relief from the Hall income tax on interest and dividends, as the exemption level was raised from $37,000 to $59,000 for married couples and from $26,200 to $33,000 for singles. The sales tax on food was reduced from 8% to 7.75%. Also, the four-year phase-out of the death tax continued as the inheritance tax exemption was raised from $1.25 million to $2 million for 2014. In two more years, it will be completely eliminated. Hopefully, we can phase out the Hall income tax next year, as well. It is time for it to go!

Beer Tax

I sponsored the Beer Tax Reform Act of 2013 to bring consumers more choices of beer at lower prices and to bring more beer industry jobs to Tennessee. Tennessee had the highest beer tax in the entire nation. The tax was actually composed of three taxes: a 17% wholesale tax based on price, an excise tax based on volume, and a sales tax that consumers pay directly. Forty-nine other states tax only volume and not price. As prices of beers increased over the last few years, especially among specialty craft beers, our price-based tax increased dramatically relative to that of other states. The Beer Tax Reform Act converted the wholesale tax on price to a tax based on volume. Now, Tennessee can be competitive with other states in luring new breweries, both big and small, to Tennessee.

Tort Reform

Our effort to make Tennessee the number one state for job growth in the Southeast involves four goals: 1) low taxes, 2) streamlined regulations, 3) educated workers, and 4) tort reform. The 2011 Civil Justice Act, which I sponsored for Gov. Haslam, was monumental in encouraging businesses to locate in Tennessee, but like education reform, the effort for tort reform must continue to move forward every year.

Workers Compensation

Prior to this year, Tennessee was one of only two states in the nation to settle claims of injured workers against their employers primarily in the court system. That system was costly to employers and slow for workers seeking relief. The new law, which I co-sponsored and which was the centerpiece of Gov. Haslam's legislative package, replaces the adversarial court process with an administrative system. It also places both parties on a level playing field by eliminating judicial construction of the law in favor of employees. The administrative system will help cut insurance costs to businesses, create more predictability, improve the efficiency of claims management, simplify the physician selection process for injured employees, and speed up the process for receiving benefits.

Joint and Several Liability

The bill I sponsored to clarify the elimination of joint liability in Tennessee will ensure that parties to lawsuits have to pay only the damages that juries say they have to pay. This commonsense rule was adopted by the state Supreme Court in 1992, but the court has been carving out exceptions ever since then. If a jury finds one party 70% responsible for damages and another only 30%, then the party that was found 30% at fault should not have to pay 100% of the damages. The bill leaves in place exceptions for those acting together in a civil conspiracy and for certain manufacturers of goods with component parts.

Punitive Damages under Vicarious Liability

Under the theory of vicarious liability, employers may have to pay for a plaintiff's injuries for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering if such injuries were caused by an the actions of an employee of the company while on the job. Punitive damages are extra damages awarded after a plaintiff has been fully made whole for his injuries. They are meant to punish a party for especially bad acts, so I sponsored a bill this year to clarify that innocent employers should not have to pay punitive damages. Under the new law, employers may have to pay punitive damages only in three instances: 1) if the act was committed by a manager; 2) if the employer knew about the bad act; or 3) if the employer was reckless in hiring, training, or supervising the employee.

Shelby County Issues

I am determined not to let our county commission and city council turn us into Detroit. If those bodies continue to pass ordinances that drive jobs out of the county, then I will continue to work to overturn them.

Local Minimum Wage / Wage Theft

After many years of trying, I finally passed a bill this year that will increase job opportunities in Shelby County, especially among minority teens. The bill overturned Shelby and Davidson County ordinances that imposed additional mandates on businesses regarding minimum wage requirements, health insurance benefits, and family leave requirements that deviate from those required by state law. The bill also outlaws a wage theft regulation that was proposed this year in Shelby County. Every ten percent increase in the minimum wage decreases employment of African American male teenagers by 6.5 percent, according to a 2011 study by labor economists at the Miami University in Ohio and Trinity University in Texas. Excessive regulations from local governments were unwittingly pricing certain employees out of jobs, especially a disproportionate number of minority teens, many of whom do not yet have the skill set to demand high-wage, high-benefit jobs. If we want our economy to improve, we must get government off the backs of small businesses, so they can do what they do best: grow jobs.

Auto Emissions

I am pleased to announce that I received a commitment this year from Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Robert Martineau which guarantees Shelby County residents outside the City of Memphis will not have to participate in emissions testing for at least the next six years. He also committed to open more emissions testing locations in the future to make the process more convenient for Memphis residents. Thanks to the commissioner's commitment, I did not have to pursue passage of my bill on the issue.

South Cordova Property Taxes

South Cordova residents are due a 2012 property tax rebate from a bill I passed this year regarding newly annexed properties. The bill clarifies a city cannot assess property taxes until January 1 following an annexation. It also requires cities to mail notice of annexation within ten days of a court order finalizing annexation. Unfortunately, most South Cordova residents did not discover they had been annexed until they read it in the news. Now, if the city will simply follow the law rather than continue to fight it in court, South Cordova residents will finally be free of taxation without representation.

Municipal Schools

Last year, federal Judge Hardy Mays struck down the Norris-Todd bill to allow for suburban school districts in Shelby County on the ground that it was not a statewide bill. This year, the legislature decided to lift the ban statewide on the creation of municipal school districts. All seven Shelby County suburbs recently voted overwhelmingly to utilize the law for the 2014-2015 school year. Studies show Tennessee municipal school districts created before the ban was put in place in 1998 outperform county school districts. Almost 90% of Tennessee municipal districts are in the top half of state TCAP or ACT scores.

Paper Terrorism

You may remember the "Moorish American National Republic" that was proclaimed in March by a squatter in a 9,000-square-foot, multimillion dollar home on Shady Grove. This is but the latest of many crimes committed by certain members of the so-called Sovereign Citizen Movement. Like the squatter on Shady Grove, many file illegal deeds of ownership on public and private property that cause major financial burdens and substantial legal obstacles for innocent owners. My legislation this year to crack down on this "paper terrorism" increased the penalty for filing these illegal documents with the Trustee from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Education

Public School Choice

I was thrilled to pass a bill this year to require public school choice. Parental choice is absolutely necessary to bring about better-performing schools for our children. Choice leads to competition among schools, which leads to accountability to parents for results. The legislation I passed requires local school boards to develop a policy for an open enrollment period, during which parents or guardians may choose from a list of public schools with available space and request a transfer for their children. Parents are responsible for transportation to the new school. The policy must be in place for the 2014-2015 school year.

Opportunity Scholarships

By far the biggest disappointment this year was Gov. Haslam's decision to withdraw his opportunity scholarship bill from consideration. Opportunity scholarships allow our neediest children to take a portion of the funds we spend on them to whatever private schools they choose. In Washington D.C. over 90% of students who use the scholarships during Kindergarten through 12th grade end up graduating high school and enrolling in two or four year colleges. The program is a godsend to many low-income parents in Wisconsin, Ohio, D.C., Florida, Louisiana, Indiana, and now Alabama and North Carolina. Why a governor would choose to actively oppose allowing such opportunities to low-income children throughout the state is beyond my comprehension. Gov. Haslam's bill, as introduced, would have been limited to an estimated few hundred children only in Memphis. When suggestions came from myself and others in the Legislature to allow more low-income children access to opportunity scholarships, the governor abruptly scuttled the bill without discussion or a vote. I will continue my overtures for compromise on the issue, and I hope they will be met with an open mind next year.

Statewide Charter School Authorizer

Another big disappointment this year was the failure of a bill to create a statewide board to authorize charter schools. We have some really good charter school operators and some really bad ones applying to open new charter schools in Tennessee. We need a state board of charter school experts to analyze these applications and decide which ones should open. Under current law, the fox is guarding the henhouse. Local school boards, who often see charter schools as competition for money and jobs in the district, get the first attempt to approve or deny charter schools. Denied charter applicants can appeal to the state Board of Education, which can override the local decision...or so we thought. Nashville last year simply decided to ignore the state board decision and was penalized $3 million by Commissioner Huffman as a result. This situation needs to be resolved next year.

Federalism

Electing U.S. Senators

I was proud to help stop passage of a bill this year to take away your right to vote for U.S. Senate nominees. I was shocked the bill passed the State and Local Committee and was the only Senator to speak against the bill on the floor. A vote was ultimately postponed to 2014, and I hope it never comes up again. The bill proposed to give the Legislature the power to choose the Democratic and Republican nominees for U.S. Senate. This idea is not only anti-democratic, it also smells of elitism and cronyism. It would open up a system that was in the past--and could be in the future--rife for corruption. It is entirely self-interested for the Legislature to take from the people the power to pick nominees for the U.S. Senate, and I hope the Legislature will never do so.

Nullification

I am a constitutionalist first, so I was happy to kill an unconstitutional bill this year proposing nullification. Nullification leads to secession because it declares that certain federal laws will not be recognized within the state and that that decision will be enforced with armed resistance. The question of secession was settled by the Civil War.

Senate Bill 250 was unique in American history because it proposed to nullify not an actual federal law but a hypothetical one. It incorrectly assumed that a bill to take away gun ownership would pass the U.S. Senate and the House and be upheld by the Supreme Court. Not even a ban on assault rifles could pass the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate this year. Certainly no gun confiscation bill would ever pass the Republican-controlled House or be upheld by the current Supreme Court, which is more supportive of Second Amendment rights than any other in U.S. history.

The bill would have allowed individual sheriffs to decide on their own what they think is or is not constitutional. There's a reason the word "sheriff" does not appear in the U.S. constitution. That is not his role. The bill would have forced sheriffs deputies, against their wills, to shoot and kill federal authorities who were enforcing U.S. Supreme Court decisions. It would have done so by declaring such federal enforcement to be a state crime. Resisting arrest, even for a misdemeanor, allows the use of deadly force under Tennessee law.

As the Sheriffs Association, Chiefs of Police, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation stated in their letter of opposition to the bill, "Not all federal authorities are from Washington, D.C. Many federal employees are our neighbors. ... To be required to arrest and prosecute federal, state or local officers for doing their job is incomprehensible."

The correct way to oppose potential federal government overreach of Second Amendment rights is to do so through my Senate Resolution 17, which passed unanimously this year. It declares that Tennessee will fight back against any future unconstitutional federal encroachments of Second Amendment rights by marshalling the legal resources of the state to judicially challenge and overturn any such effort. What makes America great is that we are a nation based on the rule of law. When Americans have disputes, we do not resort to violence or warfare. We resort to the law. We will successfully challenge unconstitutional Second Amendment laws the same we successfully challenged the federal effort to force us to expand Medicaid: by filing a lawsuit.

Conclusion

Thank you to Lt. Gov. Ramsey for naming me Chairman of the Judiciary Committee this year. It was quite an honor to serve in such a prestigious position. I look forward to continuing to reform the judiciary next year, starting with how we pick the Attorney General.

Thank you to the people of Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown for allowing me to serve you in Nashville. I look forward to 2014 and the vote on the Income Tax Prohibition and the Founding Fathers Plus Plan. Those two constitutional amendments will join the pro-life amendment, which passed last year, on the November 2014 ballot. Here's hoping for a "Yes, Yes, Yes" campaign! .