State Senate Passes Key Crime, Immigration Bills

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NASHVILLE – The State Senate passed several key immigration and crime bills this week; however, the budget still remained the top priority.

After the Governor presented his budget changes, Republicans presented an alternative proposal designed to offset the governor’s tax increases, including tax increases that would impact small businesses by raising the single article cap on sales tax, increase taxes on cable television customers, and raise the fee for Tennessee driver’s licenses. The Republican plan addresses those tax hikes by cutting state government spending by $133 million instead.

Both budget plans acknowledge $78 million less in revenues from the revision presented earlier this year for the current fiscal year and $76 million less than the 2010-2011 budget year which will go into effect on July 1, for a shortfall of about $150 million in the governor’s original budget proposal. The new budget amendment comes after the State Funding Board adjusted downward its previous estimates for total state taxes due to a more dramatic decline in revenue collections than previously anticipated.

The budget is typically among the last bills passed by the legislature before adjournment. The General Assembly will carefully review language in both amendments in the Senate Finance Committee next week and make any needed changes before the bill goes to the full body for final consideration.

Disaster Relief / Property taxes – Disaster relief legislation was also approved in the Tennessee Senate this week to authorize local governing bodies, by a two-thirds vote, to prorate a homeowner’s or business owner’s property tax assessment when the structure cannot be occupied for more than 30 days as a result of a disaster certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The proposal was added as an amendment to Senate Bill 3687 to provide tax relief on properties that are not inhabitable during the time it takes to rebuild. Those severely impacted by the recent storms would need to apply for property tax relief prior to September 1, 2010 under the bill.

Lawmakers continue to work with state and federal officials in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history.

Revenues improving – In good news this week regarding the state’s finances, Tennessee’s revenue collections improved in April with a net positive growth of 2.23 percent over April collections one year ago. April revenues were $1.243 billion, which is $43.4 million more than the state budgeted for the month, representing the first positive sales tax growth month in almost two years. Sales tax collections started their downward spiral starting in January 2008 and have continued to decline for an unprecedented 22 consecutive months.

State Senate debates immigration, voter registration, and driver’s license bills

ICE / Prisoners – In action on immigration legislation, the Senate debated a measure calling for Tennessee jails to send information to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office (ICE) regarding prisoners who do not have documentation that they are in the U.S. legally. The bill, Senate Bill 1141, requires the jail keeper to fax, email or send a copy of the booking information within three business days of the person’s arrest.

The bill does not apply to any county or municipality that enters into a memorandum of understanding with the United States Department of Homeland Security concerning enforcement of federal immigration laws. Davidson and Shelby Counties already have programs which share information. Knox County is also currently negotiating with federal authorities regarding a memorandum of understanding.

Debate will continue on the bill in the next floor session of the Senate scheduled for May 24.

Drivers License / English – Similarly, the full Senate gave approval to legislation to require that Tennessee drivers’ license exams are given in English. The bill, however, was defeated in the House Budget Subcommittee on the following day. The measure sought to make sure that immigrants know how to read the road signs and can drive safely in Tennessee. Senate Bill 63 would not have applied to persons whose presence in the United States has been authorized by Homeland Security for work in companies located in Tennessee through the efforts of Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development in order to accommodate those nationalities with manufacturing facilities in the state.

A similar measure has passed the Senate for the last two years, but did not gain passage in the House of Representatives. Nine other states have “English only” laws.

State Senate continues efforts to wage war on crime

Armed Robbers – The legislature approved numerous anti-crime bills this week, including a measure approved by the Senate Finance Committee to strengthen penalties against armed robbers. The legislation would more than double the minimum amount of time served for aggravated robbery.

Presently, armed robbers convicted on a first offense can receive up to eight years in prison, but the 30 percent requirement places the actual sentence at less than three years. This legislation would increase the percentage of prison time for these armed offenders from 30 percent to 74 percent.

To ensure there is prison space, the bill would sentence non-violent property to community corrections, with more intensive supervision, instead of incarceration. The legislation, Senate Bill 3431, now goes to the Senate floor for a final vote.

Crime / Domestic Violence / Orders of Protection – The Senate acted on two separate measures to address domestic violence this week. One proposal, which was approved on final consideration, prohibits a respondent of an order of protection from telephoning, contacting, or otherwise communicating directly or indirectly with the petitioner. The bill makes it clear that the person to whom the order is directed cannot contact the victim “for any purpose.” The action would prevent excuses from being used in violation of the order. The measure, Senate Bill 2708, now goes to the governor for his signature.

Crime / Domestic Violence / Counseling – The second domestic violence proposal acted on this week would allow the court to order domestic abuse perpetrators to attend counseling programs. The bill, which was approved by the Senate Finance Committee, prescribes a list of counseling programs the judges can order if they choose, including, intervention programs that are certified by Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council. Senate Bill 2709 increases the maximum penalty for those convicted of the crime from $200 to $225, with the proceeds going to grants for domestic violence shelter programs.

Terrorism / Resolution – Finally, the State Senate voted to approve Senate Joint Resolution 860, which encourages the President and the U.S. Attorney General to take steps necessary to try foreign terrorists by a military commission. The resolution states the sense of the General Assembly is that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and all other enemy combatants or “alien unprivileged belligerents” should be tried by a military commission. The measure directs copies of the resolution to be transmitted to the President, Attorney General, and each member of the Tennessee Congressional delegation.

Issues In Brief

Highways / federal funds – Legislation that calls for Tennessee to keep its own road money rather than participate in the Federal-Aid Highway Program was approved by the full Senate this week. Senate Bill 3678 provides for Tennessee to opt out of the federal program subject to enabling action by Congress. The state could then choose to retain the state’s contributions to the federal Highway Trust Fund for transportation purposes. Tennessee is a donor state as far as the Federal-Aid Highway Program is concerned, meaning that it pays in more money than it receives back from the federal government. The legislature’s financial analyst reported passage of the bill would result in an increase in the state’s highway fund of over $67 million upon implementation.

Citizen’s constitutional rights in foreign judgments / Uniform Unsworn Declarations Act – Legislation addressing how Tennessee courts should be required to deal with foreign judgments was approved on final consideration this week. The bill deals with the application of foreign laws, if and when they violate a citizen’s protections under the state and federal Constitutions. Senate Bill 3740 calls on Tennessee courts to consider that the primary factor in decisions regarding whether to enforce decisions from foreign countries should be the protection of constitutional liberties and protections afforded to individuals under the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions.
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