Thursday, May 12, 2011

TN Legislature Pushes Forward on Bills Changing Public Record Laws, Foreclosures, Teachers Unions

As mentioned previously, a wide range of bills creating many changes to the state's laws on

-- Citizen requests for public records
-- Shorten the number of public notices for foreclosures
-- Eliminating collective bargaining for Teachers Unions

and many others remain under consideration, with some hearings to be held today. UPDATE: the House version of the foreclosure law (
HB1920) was passed today on a vote of 72 Yes and 19 No.

There was some lengthy and often contradictory debate this week on a proposal being pushed by the Tennessee Bankers Association to reduce the number of public notices of foreclosures currently required. This bill not only affects homeowners, but all commercial property mortgages as well.

The bill (SB 1299) was approved on a vote of 5 to 4. However, it is most notable that the Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jack Johnson, and two members of the Senate committee considering the bill, Sen. Doug Overbey and Sen. Brian Kelsey, all invoked what's called Rule 13. Rule 13 requires that voting members must state if they have a potential "personal interest" in the legislation being considered.

Rule 13 does not require them to not vote, just to state out loud: "... it may be considered that I have a degree of personal interest in the subject matter of this bill, but I declare that my argument and my ultimate vote answer only to my conscience and to my obligation to my constituents and the citizens of the State of Tennessee."

If such personal interests did require them to abstain from voting, the measure would have died.

During the debate, one aspect of the bill received wide approval, that of defining specifically what information describing the property to be foreclosed. Current law simply says "a brief description" and over the years, that has turned into an often very lengthy legal description, which is costly to create and to publish.

But it's the issue of reducing the number of times the notice would be published from 3 to 2 (the original bill would have made only 1 publication mandatory) which has the biggest impact. The cost of the publication also is disputed. TBA officials claim the notices serve little function, as most mortgage holders already know if they are behind in payments and facing foreclosure. But mortgage attorney Steve Baker refuted that, saying more notices means more people will and do attend public auctions of foreclosed property, and further, that since the state does not require any court oversight of foreclosures, public notices insure the most possible exposure to attract buyers and creates a more robust market for sales.

"There's no compelling reason to shorten the time for public notice," he said, adding "Tennessee already has one of the fastest and least expensive foreclosure processes in the country."

The TBA also claims the cost of publication is around $3000, though they offered no average cost figures. Newspaper publisher Eric Barnes testified the cost was only $212 per notice, currently making the cost just over $600, and added that in his area of West TN, banks will often publish notices in publications which charge the banks more. Further, the shorter descriptions being considered will also drop the costs of public notice publication by 30 to 40 percent.

Senators Overbey, Kelsey, Campfield, Bell and Yager voted in favor of the bill, while committee chair Sen. Beavers voted no, along with Senators Barnes, Ford, and Marrero.

Other bills which continue to get legislative approval include:

SB0326: Opts out of Medicare and Medicaid and establishes state program funded by federal funds formerly spent on Medicare and Medicaid.

SB0932 Weakens wage and hour and workers' compensation laws, makes it easier for employers to deny future medical claims for workers' compensation settlements, establishes presumption of natural/aging cause for workplace injury unless proven otherwise by injured worker, with additional special requirements for proving work related hearing loss and carpal tunnel syndrome.

SB 1915: Increases campaign contribution limits, allows corporations to contribute to candidates; allows members of the general assembly and the governor to fundraise as candidates for other elective offices during session.

SB0940: Makes it more difficult for whistleblowers and victims of discrimination to prove their cases against employers.

*HB1875: Allows state officials to charge a fee for viewing or producing public records. (NOTE: The bill will create a new cost for public records requests based on the hourly wages of any and all employees who work to fill that request and for all the time they claim they require to locate, preview, redact, and copy the records being requested.)

HB 0130: Abolishes teachers' unions ability to negotiate terms and conditions of professional service with local boards of education. NOTE: has already passed Senate, this is a special committee hearing in House. (NOTE 2: House Speaker Beth Harwell decided to cast a vote on this bill in order to break a tie vote, which would have killed this legislation.)

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