First Things First
The End Has Come
Surprisingly, I am not referring to the latest news out of Washington, though it may be warranted. Rather, I am proud to announce the successful conclusion of the first half of the 110th General Assembly. After passing a balanced budget, we wrapped up legislative business and adjourned on Wednesday, May 10th. As with years past, it was a year of significant successes and unfortunate setbacks.
Several major accomplishments from this year include: increased transportation infrastructure funding, including expanded local options; increased enforcement of mental health parity laws; establishment of a 4-year pilot program for eligible Tennessee National Guard members to receive a last-dollar tuition reimbursement toward a first-time bachelor’s degree; enhanced criminal penalties for desecration of houses of worship and cemeteries; tuition-free community college for all Tennessee adults without a degree; increased protections for seniors and vulnerable adults from financial exploitation; establishment of a Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder; relief for East Tennessee fire victims; facilitation of expanded broadband internet access across the state; and, progress on criminal justice reform.
I have done my best to outline some of the key issues below in my “Legislative Wrap-Up.”
As the final bell rang on the close of this legislative session, I could only think of all of you who were in the Capitol with us Monday after Monday to remind us that you were watching. I so appreciate you all and am so very proud to be your representative. Together, we are Tennessee.
Arts and Music Education
Congratulations to the children of Eakin Elementary and Ms. Rita Black on their wonderful production of The Jungle Book. Watching the Eagles’ latest take on Kipling’s classic was yet another reminder of the incredible value of music and arts education in our schools. District 55 is fortunate to have so many wonderful schools and dedicated teachers who enrich our children’s lives.
Earlier this year, District 55 resident Ann McGauran was unanimously selected by the State Building Commission to serve as Tennessee State Architect. Mrs. McGauran, a former employee of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is the first woman to serve our state in this capacity.
To I-440 and beyond!
After we got the IMPROVE Act over the goal line, we scored a major victory and got the badly needed I-440 resurfacing project in the budget and on the calendar. Planned work will include an entire resurfacing of the roadway, continuation of exit lanes under the West End and 21st Avenue overpasses, an additional lane on the bridge over I-65, and safety enhancements in the median.
TDOT will be advertising for bidder qualifications (RFQ) in July with the procurement process continuing through the Fall for the purpose of securing an early 2018 procurement for the Design Builder. Construction activities should commence in Spring/Summer 2018, and while a completion date is not yet available, the project will lean heavily on accelerated delivery to reduce the impact to the motorists, businesses and neighborhoods in our area.
Please visit this informative website for I-440-related information and the design build procurement method TDOT will be using. I will be sharing additional information and updates on this project, as well as the various bridge safety projects around Nashville, as I receive them.
Thanks to Councilman Russ Pulley and other District 55 councilmembers for passing a Council resolution that communicated the importance of specific District 55 transportation needs, including I-440. I shared this resolution with TDOT and used it to get three new Charlotte Pike projects added to TDOT’s projects list: (1) from White Bridge to American Rd; 2) from American Rd. to I-40; 3) from I-40 to Old Hickory Blvd). Funding and planning on these projects is a few years away, and we will be soliciting community input and feedback before they move forward.
Beginning work on the above projects and the many others that will be completed around town and across our state is only possible because we passed the IMPROVE Act this year. In passing this legislation, we achieved our goals of restoring and strengthening the state’s transportation fund, protecting the fiscal integrity of the general fund, and keeping our hard-won local option provisions intact. The expanded local option provisions were a big win for us. While the original legislation originated from the governor’s office, the final bill was ultimately shaped and passed by a bipartisan group of legislators who did what was necessary to begin addressing the major transportation infrastructure challenges facing our state.
Again, the IMPROVE Act is only a step in the right direction towards addressing the larger transportation issues facing our region. The dollars generated will help address backlogged projects, but they are wholly insufficient to match our current rate of growth and the needs of our thriving local economy. In short, our work is not done. Our bustling region requires a long-term investment by every level of government, a continued focus on comprehensive solutions, and most importantly, an unwavering commitment by leaders at every level of government. To this end, I remain committed and will continue my work and research new, creative ways to generate more funds to invest in regional mass transit projects, with the goal of attracting additional matching federal dollars. Meanwhile, I fully expect Metro and other surrounding counties to take the opportunity we created through new local options to generate new, dedicated transportation revenues and start building out the type of forward-thinking transit system we so badly need.
Health Care and Mental Health Parity
Ensuring that ALL Tennesseans have access to quality and affordable health care is priority one. As a member of the House Health Committee, I am uniquely positioned to lead on this issue and focused my efforts on mental health care and drug and substance abuse services this year. Every family has been or will be directly impacted by these issues, and they have a direct impact on a wide array of issues from education to criminal justice. For too long, our country’s health care system and insurers have treated mental health care and addiction treatment as a secondary class of health issues. To begin addressing this at the state level, we garnered bipartisan support this year for a slate of mental health parity bills that Sen. Briggs sponsored in the Senate, and I am proud to annonce that we successfully passed a key component of our package, HB480. Among other things, managed care organizations (MCO’s) participating in the TennCare program must now report and effectively demonstrate their compliance with parity laws to the state. We will continue to push this bipartisan legislative package next year.
Today, approximately 280,000 Tennesseans remain in the coverage gap, Congress appears determined to eliminate health care coverage for over 24 million Americans, and our state’s insurance market remains increasingly unstable. Not only have we inexplicably failed to expand Medicaid coverage in Tennessee, turning away billions in the process, the Haslam administration refused to attempt to make the ACA work for Tennessee families. Last Fall, Sen. Yarbro and I held hearings for the Department of Commerce & Insurance to come and explain the unprecedented premium rate hikes it approved, but the governor expressly forbid them from participating. Since that time, insurance companies have pulled out of major markets across the state without having to readjust their rate increases, and we still have no answers. Meanwhile, the jet-setting Department of Commerce & Insurance continues to breach its single-most important duty – the regulation of our state’s insurance industry.
While we successfully fought back multiple bills aimed at limiting women’s access to reproductive health care services, this year saw yet another “constitutionally suspect” piece of health care legislation pass the state legislature. Yet again, this unprincipled governor who has never met an unconstitutional, cruel, or discriminatory bill unworthy of his signature, knowingly and willingly signed HB1189 into law. This bill will undoubtedly cost our state thousands in legal fees to defend when it is rightfully challenged in court.
Protecting Houses of Worship and Places of Burial
Following the recent increase in intentional acts of desecration at Jewish cemeteries and houses of worship, Sen. Dickerson and I joined together to introduce and pass HB1402. This legislation enhances the criminal penalty for intentionally desecrating a place of worship or burial from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony.
Maintaining Local Control Over Our Neighborhoods
While several more attacks on Nashville and local control, in general, came forward this year, we were able to successfully hold back HB1020. This bill was a transparent attempt to circumvent the Metro Council by limiting Nashville’s ability to regulate short-term rental properties in a manner appropriate for Nashville’s neighborhoods and residents. Originally the bill applied to the entire state, but it was amended on the House floor to only include Davidson County. I then introduced an amendment to make it apply to only those counties of the sponsors and the cosponsors, none of whom were from Davidson County. Of course, my amendment was tabled.
Proponents of the overreaching legislation argued that it was a “property rights” issue, but I argued that it was a “quality of life” issue in the committee and on the House floor. While I fully understand the business plan and investments of many in short-term rental properties, I am also a former neighborhood association president who appreciates the valid concerns of our neighborhood’s full-time residents. Importantly, the last thing anyone on either side of this issue wants is for the state legislature to insert itself into our local planning issues, on this or any other issue. A statewide umbrella policy that does not account for different cities, much less all the different neighborhoods within our city, would be problematic. I strongly believe that it will benefit everyone to be able to deal directly with your respective councilmembers on this issue. Before next session, feel free to direct your late-night noise complaints and concerns to those members of the House who voted AYE on the bill.
Protecting Jobs at Our State Parks and Colleges & Universities
In the face of strong opposition, which I am proud to help lead with Sen. Harris, Governor Haslam continues to push forward on privatizing our state parks. Fortunately, for the second time, the state received no bidders on the Fall Creek Falls RFP. After this “stinging setback,” the Haslam administration began scrambling to make excuses and even spontaneously introduced asbestos into their argument for outsourcing for the first-time. While this was a major victory for employees and parks enthusiasts, we cannot expect the governor to read the writing on the wall and walk away from this ill-conceived idea. Please continue to share your opinions about privatizing our state parks with Governor Haslam at (615) 741-2001 and Commissioner Martineau and Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill at (888) 891-8332.
The reality of our state parks is that the state has irresponsibly neglected them for years, and deferred maintenance needs have continued to grow. If we truly value these Tennessee treasures, then we need to treat them accordingly and not allow them to get to the point where a governor can use that as an excuse to sell them off. To this end, I plan on continuing to travel the state and meet with park workers and management and members of the local community to better learn how the state can help them succeed for future generations. I am uniquely aware that our state’s monetary resources are precious and that we have many serious needs, including health care, public education and transportation, but we cannot continue to neglect our natural resources and affordable recreation options for Tennessee families.
The governor’s outsourcing contract to outsource thousands of jobs at our state colleges and universities is now also being questioned by the TN Comptroller Justin Wilson who is in receipt of the final contract valued at $1.9 billion over five years. Please call and share your opinions about outsourcing jobs at our state colleges and universities to profit an out-of-state company with recent financial ties to Governor Haslam at (615) 741-2001 and Commissioner Bob Oglesby at (615) 741-9263. Also, please call your local state college or university and encourage the president to opt-out if the contract is finalized.
Success as a Primary Cosponsor
As you know, successfully passing legislation is a team sport. This year I was proud to assist colleagues on both sides of the aisle pass substantive legislation as a primary cosponsor of their legislation. For a complete list of successful legislation that I cosponsored, visit our #TeamJRC website. We will be updating our Legislation page over the coming weeks to reflect all of our legislative achievements this year.
Honoring Members of Our Community
As a state legislator, I have the privilege of honoring individuals or groups who have made significant contributions to our community and/or reached significant milestones in their respective endeavors. Those I proudly honored this year with memorializing resolutions included: Jane G. Eskind; Howard Stringer; Mary Frances Hodges Lyle; Betty Nixon; Margaret Ann Robinson; Henry Hooker; Tracey McCartney; Rev. Bill Barnes; Marlene& Spencer Hayes; Tommy Lynch; Braden Martin; Alexandra David; Mallory Hobson; Ben Zobrist; James Lester Strode; Justin Scott Grimm; Jim McDowell; Vanderbilt Women’s Tennis; and, Vanderbilt Men’s Golf
In The News
5/16/2017: Top Tennessee Democrat says GOP backs outsourcing despite … – Chattanooga Times Free Press
5/16/2017: Despite $150M+ savings forecast, more questions re. outsourcing – The Nashville Post
5/15/2017: Privatization Opposition Renewed as No Bids Come in for Falls … – Memphis Daily News
5/3/2017: Gov. Haslam faced with decision after Tennessee House passes bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks – Chattanooga Times Free Press
5/3/2017: Controversial Abortion Bill Passes House Vote – News Channel 5
5/3/2017: Unworried about constitutionality, House passes 20-week abortion ban – The Ledger
2017, Vol. VIII