The following is a legislative update from State Senator Mae Beavers.
This week’s action on Capitol Hill was overshadowed by Tennessee’s “state of emergency” due to severe storms, tornadoes and flooding that resulted in one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history. There have been 21 confirmed fatalities in the weekend storms.
Prayers for those devastated by the storms were also lifted in the chamber of the State Senate on Thursday. Senators commended state and local emergency personnel who performed above the call of duty during the disaster. They also stopped to express appreciation for the heroic efforts of citizens who participated in the rescue and stopped to remember those who must rebuild in the aftermath of the storms.
The Coast Guard rescued 250 people, while the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) helped 351 persons to safety from the flood waters. Twenty-eight shelters opened their doors to assist those who needed a place to stay due to evacuations or destruction of their homes. The American Red Cross and other charitable organizations are working with federal and state partners in the relief effort. In addition, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) has activated the Tennessee Emergency Donations Hotline to accept contributions to support state flood victims. Volunteers will be answering calls at 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. CDT daily at the toll free number (866) 586-4483.
Federal officials are working with state and local emergency responders throughout the region. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) staff and resources have been dispatched to assess the damage and assist with the recovery.
On Monday, Governor Bredesen asked President Obama to declare 52 counties federal disaster areas. The President had declared 21 counties as disaster areas by Thursday. The state expects more counties to be added over the next several days. That designation enables local governments and individuals to access the critical federal grants and/or loans needed to help them recover from the damages sustained due to the high winds and floods. The aid also helps citizens and local and state governments with costs for damage to roads, bridges, emergency protective measures and debris removal. In addition, an expedited declaration has been requested that provides federal reimbursement for 100 percent of all eligible costs for 72 hours from the declaration.
Businesses located in a declared disaster area and that have incurred damage during the disaster may apply for funds to help repair or replace damaged property to its pre-disaster condition. The Small Business Administration makes physical disaster loans of up to $2 million to qualified businesses. Physical Disaster Loans are for permanent rebuilding and replacement of uninsured or underinsured disaster-damaged property. SBA’s physical disaster loans are available to businesses of all sizes and private, non-profit organizations. Businesses can learn more about these funds and apply by visiting the website https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela/ or by calling (800) 659-2955.
Additionally, there are federal funds available through the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program for workers who have lost work as a direct result of the storms and flooding. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development facilitates this program for the Federal Government, and those individuals eligible should call the Tennessee Unemployment Insurance Claims Center at (877) 813-0950 extension 7599.
Individuals are encouraged to call their county Emergency Management Agencies (EMAs) to report their damages so the agency can make the appropriate assessments. Citizens should contact FEMA by either Internet at www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800 621- FEMA (3362) to make application for grants or loan approval for loss of personal property if they do not have insurance.
Issues In Brief
Election Integrity/Citizenship – The full Senate debated legislation, Senate Bill 194, aiming to strengthen the integrity of elections in Tennessee. The bill requires that voter registration forms contain a disclaimer that clarifies giving false information to register to vote carries a criminal penalty and requires that the applicant affirm that they are lawfully in the United States. The U.S. Constitution already requires citizenship to vote. In addition, federal law makes it a crime to knowingly make a false statement or claim regarding citizenship upon registering to vote.
Grandparent visitation – The State Senate has approved Senate Bill 3036 to allow the courts to grant grandparent visitation in cases where one of the child’s parents has died and the surviving parent has terminated the relationship between the child and grandparent. Currently, Tennessee law provides court standing for grandparents to petition visitation rights in certain circumstances. However, the court must first determine whether cessation of visitation between a grandparent and grandchild constitutes a substantial threat of harm to the child.
Purple Heart Memorial Plate – The full Senate voted unanimously to approved Senate Bill 2382 authorizing widows and widowers of persons entitled to receive holders of Purple Heart memorial plate to obtain a plate upon such person's death.
Child abductions – Legislation that aims to reduce the risk of child abduction in Tennessee was signed by the governor this past week. Senate Bill 3065 provides courts with guidelines to follow regarding potential child abductions and to provide courts with appropriate measures to prevent these crimes. This includes information about abduction risk factors so that they can place appropriate restrictions to prevent abductions. Using these guidelines the court must determine that there is a credible risk of child abduction, and then the court may consider preventative measures.
Abortion / Federal health care bill – The governor returned without his signature legislation to prohibit taxpayer-funded coverage for abortion services in Tennessee associated with the federal healthcare bill passed by Congress in March. Senate Bill 2686, which now becomes law without his signature, prohibits any health care plan established pursuant to federal health care reform legislation enacted by the 111th United States Congress from offering coverage for abortion services.