The Tennessee General Assembly adjusted schedules at the start of the week for Tuesday to address only those procedures and bills deemed necessary to fulfill the constitutional requirement of passing a balanced budget for fiscal year 2021, which runs July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021.
As such, the House cancelled all committee meetings and held only a brief floor session of about 15 minutes, in keeping with recommendations to keep time in close proximity limited.
State House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) advised of a “somewhat unprecedented procedure” to add items to committee calendars for Wednesday, and then listed in rapid-fire fashion the bills that are to be heard and the designated committee.
Lamberth also reviewed the specific rules that would be suspended in order to facilitate the “flow motion” of bills, without the usual advance notice and wait periods or limits on the number of bills to be heard on the House floor. The flow motion rule suspension is temporary and very limited, being in effect only until specific bills get to the House floor and will not affect bills when the session continues at some later date.
Fifteen House committees will meet on Wednesday, and all other committees are cancelled for the week.
The House stands in recess until Wednesday at 9 a.m.
Meanwhile, the state Senate had several committee meetings, beginning with Finance, Ways & Means having 10 items on the calendar, two of which increase taxes on Tennesseans.
Chairman Bo Watson (R-Hixson) said the first four bills on the calendar would be taken up at a later date, as they would be considering only those bills that are considered critical, mandatory or obligatory.
Items 5, 6 and 7 on the agenda, SB 2022, SB 2123 and SB 2078, respectively, were of a relatively routine nature and fell into the categories that Watson described. All three bills passed unanimously.
Item 8, SB 2182, is a bill that came from the state’s Department of Revenue and requires marketplace facilitators to collect sales tax based on the address where an item is shipped or a service is performed.
Senator Jack Johnson (F-Franklin), as senate Majority leader sponsors all bills coming from the administration, said that some marketplace facilitators are collecting sales tax now, but this would make it a requirement for all with sales of at least $500,000.
Johnson advised that the fiscal note for the next year, a partial year with collections beginning on October 1, 2020, is $84 million and $113 million in subsequent years.
However, those estimates reflect only the increases to state revenues.
Local revenues would also increase by an estimated $28 million in the first partial year and $38 million in subsequent years.
The total recurring increase in sales tax revenues for state and local governments as a result of the proposed marketplace facilitator legislation is estimated to be $151 million, and the governor’s proposed budget already includes an increase to the General Fund of $45 million.
The bill, which passed unanimously, was placed on the Senate regular calendar for Wednesday.
Item 9, SB 2492, Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) presented on behalf of Senator Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville), saying that it was an omnibus premiere resort type bill which will help the businesses recoup when recovery from the pandemic begins.
However, Watson admitted that it is a positive revenue bill for both state and local government, “at a time when revenue will be important.”
The legislation applies to a total of 18 premiere type resorts and will institute an application fee to the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission, a local privilege tax, state and local sales taxes as well as a 15 percent liquor-by-the-drink tax, estimated to generate an increase of about $300,000 in annual state revenues and $221,200 in annual local revenues.
The last item on the calendar was rolled to Wednesday’s calendar.
A discussion took place, initiated by Senator Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) about the expansion of Medicaid in order to address the 400,000 Tennesseans without insurance who may be reluctant to seek medical care even if they have symptoms of the coronavirus, because they just can’t pay for it.
Out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, the $1.18 billion budget for Tennessee’s Department of Corrections (DOC) was moved on, after Dickerson gave an update that DOC’s Commissioner felt well positioned to deal with any known or suspected cases of CoVid-19.
Senator Ed Jackson’s SB 2299 seeks to increase penalties for tampering, interfering or attempting to interfere with a voting machine, official voter registration database, election website or election results.
There was discussion, largely generated by Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville), regarding the ability to determine the intent of the offender.
The bill went on to pass unanimously and will be heard on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Senator Todd Gardenhire’s (R-Chattanooga) SB 2297 had four amendments that made wide ranging changes to election laws to deal with some longstanding issues as well as ones that arose out of tornado that occurred on March 3, Super Tuesday primary day.
Amendment one deals with print-on-demand ballots to avoid the costs and logistics of pre-printed ballots, for those election commissions that use certain types of voting machines.
Amendment two seeks to increase the number of people who could serve as election officials, by removing that restriction on federal, county and city employees.
There was good discussion with Yarbro questioning the impact to trust levels by having polls manned by local officials as well as the employees getting paid for a day off and acting as an election official.
Dickerson questioned how much the pool of workers would actually be increased.
The committee agreed to put an amendment on the amendment which will sunset that specific provision on July 1, 2021.
Amendment three allows the movement of polling locations in the recently encountered emergency situation.
Yarbro questioned whether the provisions should be looked at in light of the coronavirus and if the absentee ballot provision should be expanded.
The fourth amendment lowers the poll worker age requirement from 17 to 16.
All four amendments passed in voice votes and will be rolled into one.
Debate continued on the final amended bill, with Yarbro expressing concern that the provisions were being considered in an empty building and without input from county election officers or the League of Women Voters.
The committee agreed to roll the bill to the heel of the current calendar, which will be addressed in a final meeting on Wednesday.
Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) had some issues with Senator Kerry Roberts’ (R-Springfield) SB 2453, which they discussed as the meeting carried on.
Roberts said the bill codified what was already in practice relative to real property assessments that are under appeal.
Kelsey argued that there was a constitutional question related to the “equal and uniform” requirement.
The bill went on to pass out of committee, with only Kelsey voting no.
The committee then went back to the third agenda item, Senator Ed Jackson’s (R-Jackson) SB 2298, which removes all provisions related to voter registration drives passed last year and have since been enjoined by a federal court, and establishes new provisions, prohibitions and penalties.
While discussion went on for some time, it abruptly stopped when the committee had to adjourn after about two hours to accommodate the next committee meeting.
The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee over the course of a six-minute meeting, unanimously passed SB 1892 sponsored by Senator Art Swann (R-Maryville), which expands telemedicine by requiring a health insurance entity to reimburse an originating site fee in an amount established by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) prior to July 1, 2021; requires a health insurance entity to provide coverage for telemedicine services while allowing the health insurance entity the ability to negotiate the cost with healthcare providers; and gives a health insurance entity the ability to decide if they want to consider remote patient monitoring as a covered medical service.
Senator Watson commented that there has probably never been a more appropriate time for this legislation than now, alluding to President Trump and others who have been talking about how this new technology is one of the key tools in helping to contain and combat the spread of COVID-19.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed SR 141 by Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), ratifying and approving amendments and revisions to the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure as promulgated by the Supreme Court.
In the Senate Government Operations Committee, Bell moved that SB 1700, which extends the State Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission to June 30, 2024, be referred to the General Subcommittee.
He said there is a lot of conversation going on about this particular commission and that his motion was made after consultation with the Chair of the Education Committee, Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), to keep it in the forefront as to what can be done to improve the commission.
A Senate floor session wrapped up the day, much like the House floor session, with rules suspended so that bills could be assigned to committees that will meet on Wednesday.
Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson said that Finance and Administration will bring the budget changes to the meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning and will begin the final stages of passing the budget in the Senate.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.