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15 bills to watch as state legislature tries to wrap up 2014 session

By Richard Locker, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:20 PM

NASHVILLE (MCT) – The Tennessee General Assembly is working to end its 2014 session Tuesday or Wednesday, plowing through scores of bills in the process.

The House of Representatives convened at 1 p.m. Monday and the Senate followed at 4 p.m.

So buckle your seat belts – or strap on your gun belts – here are 15 things to watch:

1. Open carrying of guns without a permit, background check or training: Without question, it's the surprise gun bill of the year. The Senate unexpectedly and overwhelmingly passed a bill two weeks ago that removes the requirement for a handgun-carry permit to carry a gun in plain view as long as the carrier can legally possess a gun and it's in a place where guns are not prohibited. Tennessee's handgun-carry permits allow a permit-holder to carry both concealed and openly. The bill would still require a permit to carry concealed but not openly. And without a permit, there's no requirement for a training session with a certified instructor nor a background check.

STATUS: The bill is stuck in the House Finance subcommittee but its House sponsor has filed notice he plans to take the rarely used step of calling Senate Bill 2424 directly to the floor. The Tennessee Firearms Association is blazing away at anyone its executive director thinks might be standing in the way.

2. Guns in parks: The Senate has approved a bill that would remove the authority of towns, cities and counties to ban guns from their own local parks. But this bill may be moot, since lawmakers approved and sent to the governor a bill last week that would remove all authority of local governments to regulate guns in any way except where they may be fired. If guns-in-parks doesn't pass, it will likely be up to the courts whether the no-local-regulation bill supersedes the state law that allows locals to ban guns in their parks.

STATUS: Guns-in-parks, SB 1496, is awaiting House approval.

3. Guns in cars: Yep, another gun bill. The Senate last week approved a bill allowing anyone who can legally possess a gun to carry their guns in their cars or any other vehicle they are "in lawful possession of" (ie., a rental car or a borrowed car).

STATUS: SB1774 is awaiting House approval

4. School vouchers: The Senate has approved the controversial bill introducing school vouchers into Tennessee, enabling students to take the per-pupil taxpayer funding for public schools with them to pay private school tuition. The bill limits vouchers to students who qualify for free or discounted school lunches and who are attending schools in the bottom 5 percent in terms of academic achievement, starting with 5,000 vouchers this fall and increasing to 20,000 four years later.

STATUS: SB196 is awaiting House approval.

5. For-profit charter schools: At the request of House Speaker Beth Harwell, the House Calendar Committee declined to schedule a floor vote on the bill allowing for-profit companies to operate charter schools in Tennessee. Upon hearing the news, the bill's Senate sponsor, Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, held the Senate version in the Senate Calendar Committee. The bill is on life support and likely dead for the year but bills have come back from near death.

STATUS: SB1684/HB163 is in the calendar committees in both chambers.

6. Tennessee Promise of free community college: Gov. Bill Haslam's signature initiative of the year still hasn't passed, out of lingering concerns about its impact on the Hope Scholarship program. Rather than raise taxes to pay for the free community college (which isn't that costly because Tennessee Promise only pays for what other grants, including Pell Grants, doesn't pay), the governor wants to raid the Hope Scholarship program's reserve fund to the tune of $300 million and lock the transferred money into an "irrevocable trust" exclusively for the community college program. Critics say that could lead to reductions in Hope Scholarship benefits later if the program needs to dip into its own reserves, as it did briefly two years ago. The proposal also reduces the $4,000 per year Hope grant to $3,500 for college freshmen and sophomores starting with the high school class of 2015, but increases it to $4,500 per year in the junior and senior years -- both to fund free community college and to incentivize more students to attend two-year schools initially.

STATUS: SB2471/HB2491 is awaiting floor votes in both chambers.

7. "Hall Tax" elimination: Although the conservative Tax Foundation says Tennessee has the 3rd lowest overall tax burden among the states, although the state budget is $267 million below revenue estimates and although the state has recently eliminated its inheritance, estate and gift taxes, two Washington-based anti-tax organizations are pushing to eliminate the state's limited income tax on certain interest and dividend income.

STATUS: HB1367/SB1427 is awaiting review in the finance committees of both chambers.

8. Medicaid expansion: No, the chances of this happening by the end of the week are between zero and one-tenth of one percent. But with Democrats, hope springs eternal.

STATUS: Numerous Democrat-filed bills would enable the way for Tennessee to participate in the Medicaid expansion provisions of the Affordable Care Act to extend health insurance to the uninsured working poor but because the ACA is also known as "Obamacare," the Republican supermajorities of both chambers have bottled up the bills.

9. Common Core State Standards: The far-right has labeled the Common Core State Standards for K-12 education alternatively as a federal takeover of education and a Communist plot (a campaign-style mailer distributed at the start of the legislative session actually called it "Commie Core," complete with a hammer and sickle and photos of uniformed North Korean school children). Even the moderate-left is fearful of Common Core's testing regime.

STATUS: Several bills to block Common Core's further implementation have failed but there could be last-ditch efforts to resurrect them. Various bills to delay the testing program past its scheduled start in the spring of 2015 may have a better chance of passing.

10. Charter school state authorizer: Current law allows the State Board of Education to order local school boards to approve charter school applications that the locals have previously rejected. But the Metro Nashville school board refused in 2012 to approve a charter after the state board ordered it to after the charter operator appealed. The bill would remove a step and simply allow the State Board of Education to approve a charter itself, when a charter operator appeals a local school board's denial.

STATUS: HB702/SB830 passed the House 62-30 and the Senate 20-13 but the Senate attached an amendment making the bill applicable only to charter operators applying for charter schools proposing to open in the 2015-16 school year and later. The bill is up in the House Monday for concurrence with the Senate amendment and is virtually certain to pass. UPDATE: The House gave final legislative approval to the bill Monday. It now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who backs the bill and will sign it into law.

11. Union activities bill: A bill tightening restrictions on what unions can do in picketing and trying to organize workers.

STATUS: SB1662 is scheduled for a Senate floor vote Monday and is in the House Calendar Committee for scheduling a House floor vote.

12. Campaign loans by wealthy candidates: Under this bill, candidates for elective office remain free to spend as much of their own money as they want on their campaigns but would be limited to lending their campaigns only $100,000 -- either from their own money or from a bank loan. Or more accurately, the bill would prevent them from repaying themselves any more than $100,000 and from collecting any interest on the money they lend their campaigns. Currently, candidates can lend their campaigns any amount of money and repay themselves after campaign contributions from others pours in.

STATUS: SB1965/HB1553 has passed the House is set for a Senate floor vote Monday, but with an amendment that raises the amount the candidate can lend to his campaign at $250,000. If it passes the Senate that way, the House will have to concur – or some agreement will have to be reached or else the bill doesn't become law.

13. Ag-gag 2: Last year, lawmakers approved a bill that would have punished whistleblowers who expose animal cruelty in farming operations. The governor vetoed that bill. This bill wouldn't go as far as last year's bill but would expand the definition of what it means to "disrupt" the operations of an animal facility, which is subject to criminal prosecution.

STATUS: SB2406/HB2258 has passed the Senate and has a House floor vote scheduled Monday. UPDATE: The bill won House approval Monday afternoon on a 64-26 vote and now goes to the governor. In addition, the House also passed and sent to the governor another bill sought by the Tennessee Farm Bureau that prevents taking video or still photography of anyone else's property "for the purposes of surveillance," from an unmanned aerial vehicle, or "drone."

14. "High gravity beer": The bill allows beer with alcohol content of not more than 8 percent "by weight" – I guess that's where the gravity comes in – to be sold in grocery stores, up from the current 5 percent.

STATUS: SB289/HB47 won Senate approval last week and is awaiting a House floor vote.

15. Veto override session: Yeah, this is process but it's important process. If the legislature sets a veto-override session, it will come back into session sometime this spring with the express purpose of considering overriding any bills that Gov. Haslam might veto. In Tennessee, it only takes a simple majority of the House (50 votes) and Senate (17 votes) to override a gubernatorial veto, rather than the two-thirds votes required in most states. That's the same majority required to pass legislation in the first place. It puts the governor on notice that anything he might veto (like, for example, No. 1 on this list), might be overridden. It's unprecedented, at least in my admittedly feeble memory, for a legislature under the control of the same political party as the governor to schedule a veto override session; that's usually done when the governor is of a different party.

STATUS: Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said the legislature ought to routinely have veto override sessions. House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, has been less receptive. If this happens, it will be one of the last items on the agenda before the legislature adjourns.

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