Local lawmakers discuss priorities as Legislature returns

Gary B. Gray • Jan 13, 2014 at 9:23 PM

State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, was about an hour away from the State Capitol on Monday afternoon when the Press caught him on the way to the start of the 108th General Assembly.

“I’m headed to Nashville in a raging rainstorm,” he said. “It’s basically an organizational week. It’s a time when we get a good feel for what bills are coming that affect our constituents. There are about 15 or so pieces of legislation that I’ve been talking to my staff about.”

The Senate had only a Minor Political Parties Study Committee meeting scheduled for Monday, including representatives of the Green, Libertarian and Constitution parties. Today, both the House and Senate begin their work in earnest when they meet in session at noon. Several committees also are scheduled to meet.

Crowe rattled off a list of legislative duties and goals.

“Today I’m going to meet with a statewide business roundtable — sort of an offshoot of the state’s chamber of commerce,” he said as his phone crackled. “They’re trying to get a feel for how we can help grow business in Tennessee. (Today), I’ll be talking with my staff about legislation coming up.”

He said he liked the fact the state has set higher education standards, but he does not like the notion that test data may have to be given over to groups “beyond our control.”

“I think we should use our own universities to come up with a system for testing and grading,” he said. “I also think it’s wrong to link standardized testing with the taking of a teacher’s license. In any other profession, if you do something wrong — legally or ethically — that’s one thing.”

Crowe said he pushed hard last session to give tax relief to the people in the Dry Creek area affected by flooding. Homeowners in larger metropolitan areas such as Nashville did get relief. But he said the people in Dry Creek were devastated and suffered as much or more than anyone affected.

“There’s a threshold that must be met before tax relief can be given, and I’m going to try to put together legislation that creates a roughly $1 million disaster fund for our area,” he said.

He also plans to introduce a bill that would stiffen penalties for people evading capture by law enforcement, as well as legislation that increases penalties for people who abuse patients in nursing homes.

Crowe also said he wants to change the fact that in Tennessee, an employer can fire an employee “at will.” He cited the example of hospital workers who can be terminated for smoking tobacco in their homes.

He is also interested in the task force put together by Gov. Bill Haslam to crack down on human trafficking.

“We’ve learned that Washington and Carter counties both reported 50 cases each of human trafficking last year,” he said.

State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, also spoke on a hands-free phone while trudging westward through the rain on Interstate 40.

“I’ve got a stack of meetings coming up, and committees are beginning to crank up,” Hill said. “I serve on the House Finance Committee, and that will start right away. It’s a long process.”

Hill is also the House Local Government Committee chairman. He said annexation legislation, some of it generated by State Rep. Micah Van Huss R-Jonesborough, will come through that committee and has “huge ramifications.”

“I’ll be securing co-sponsors for my teacher state licensure bill,” he said. “The goal is to reverse the Tennessee Board of Education’s decision to base licensure on performance. The data they use are statistical estimates. It’s not right to take away a teacher’s credentials because of estimates.”

The wine in grocery stores bill also is on his radar.

Hill was heavily criticized by proponents of the bill in March for voting for an earlier version of the legislation in a subcommittee, only to cast the key vote against the measure when it reached the Local Government Committee.

His stance has not changed.

“As long as we can get a commitment from all sides there will be a full debate — that’s all I’ve asked for.”

If you thought Van Huss was going to somehow avoid the deluge, think again. He, too, was dodging the weather while en route to Nashville on Monday.

“I’ll be going in tomorrow, but I think all I’ve got are a couple light bulbs to put in,” he said.

Van Huss said he is looking forward to reintroducing three annexation bills. They each would make it mandatory that any annexation being pursued by municipalities that is not requested by property owners be decided in a public referendum during a regularly scheduled election cycle.

“I also am bringing back a bill (that) would ban United Nations officials from monitoring elections,” he said. “They have specifically said they came to the 2012 general election to monitor for human rights violations. They’re not coming to make something better, they’re coming to hold the Unites States accountable. That’s wrong.”

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