A bill that prohibited certain local entities from requiring nutritional labeling on menus has now become law. The law was passed last year by both the House and Senate, but was then vetoed by the governor. Both the Senate and the House easily overrode the veto in February. The legislation was filed in 2009 as several states, municipalities and cities began considering laws that mandated chain restaurants to put calories and other nutritional information on menus.
Specifically, the law prohibits non-elected bodies from making the decision to require nutritional information on menus, such as a local Board of Health. The law does still allow elected county commissions and city councils to pass such regulation requirements, but some members felt the measure was a step in the right direction. The law also specifies that if the federal government passes legislation requiring menu labeling and the federal action specifically authorizes state departments to enforce such action, then the Tennessee Department of Health will be the department that is primarily responsible for the implementation and supervision of the new requirements.
Members who argued in favor of the bill say that mandating restaurants to put certain nutritional information on menus places an unnecessary burden on small business restaurant owners in an already struggling economy and creates an atmosphere that is unfriendly to business owners. In addition, if every city enacted something different, large- or even medium-sized companies would have difficulty in following the laws properly. In a year when the economy has seen sharp downturns, small businesses should not be burdened by overregulation.
Secret Ballot Protection Act
The “Secret Ballot Protection Act,” a measure some hoped would see passage, was killed this year in the Employee Affairs subcommittee. The proposal defined the denial of secret-ballot elections with regard to unions as an unfair labor practice. It also establishes penalties (Class C misdemeanor) and civil remedies for violation.
The bill was a remedy for “card check,” which has been proposed by Congress. Card check would require unionization ballots to be public so that unions could see if a worker voted for or against unionization. Currently, the vote on whether to unionize is a secret ballot which protects workers from undue harassment by union leaders. The Secret Ballot Protection Act would declare that those votes remain private in order to protect workers.
The sponsor argued that voting is sacred whether it is in the voting booth or the workplace, and that the bill is consistent with the state's Constitution in guaranteeing ballot secrecy. Ultimately, however, the bill failed along party lines.
Small Business Advocate
The Comptroller of the Treasury's Office will create a “Small Business Advocate” within government to assist small businesses in navigating red tape due to legislation passed this year. Some members pushed for the measure, arguing that government often creates a burden on small business owners and entrepreneurs through overregulation. The Small Business Advocate will guide business owners through various processes to apply for licensure, fill out necessary paperwork and ensure compliance with the law.
In addition, legislation passed this year to increase efficiency in state government departments. The new law encourages departments within state government to take comments and suggestions from both the public and employees on how to improve efficiency and report back to the Tennessee General Assembly with their results.
Crime and safety
The legislature was successful this year in securing passage of several bills that aim to decrease crime and keep Tennesseans safe despite budgetary restrictions. The Ignition Interlock Program was passed after lengthy discussions in committee and on the House floor. The new law will require certain DUI offenders to use an Ignition Interlock System in which users must “blow” below a certain Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level to turn on their vehicle. Members have carried some form of the legislation for several years and worked particularly hard this year in securing passage.
Lawmakers contend that the law is needed to curb the number of repeat drunk drivers on Tennessee roads. Forty-eight other states have some form of ignition interlock, but Tennessee is only the 14th to impose mandatory use of the device on first-time offenders.
Specifically, the bill requires anyone convicted of a DUI with a BAC level of .15 or higher to use the Ignition Interlock Device (IID).
Sexual offender laws;
The State House unanimously passed legislation this year that prohibits the Board of Medical Examiners from issuing a license to practice medicine in Tennessee to anyone convicted of and registered as a violent sexual offender.
In addition to prohibiting violent sexual offenders from practicing any kind of medicine, the bill also requires the board to hold a hearing regarding any application to practice medicine from a non-violent sexual offender. During the hearing, the medical board is directed to consider the extent to which the applicant poses a risk to patients before determining whether or not to grant a medical license.
A bill that adds aggravated rape of a child to the list of offenses for which a juvenile may be transferred from juvenile to adult court also passed this year. The initiative won bi-partisan support in both committee and on the floor, and proponents believe the measure can significantly deter the crime.
Finally, a resolution urging 911 call centers to accept text messages was approved this year. House Joint Resolution 746 was drafted after other states began implementing technology within their 911 call centers to accept text messages. Idaho was the first state to begin accepting the text messages and say the result has been very positive, especially for those who are hearing impaired. Although the resolution simply urged call centers to accept text messages but did not require them to do so, the legislature discussed the issue at length and may act with definitive legislation in the future.
(Editor’s Note: Rep. Kevin Brooks serves the 24th Legislative District in Cleveland and Bradley County. He and his wife, Kim, are actively involved in their community and local schools with their two children, Zach who is attending Lee University, and Elizabeth, who attends Cleveland High School).