February 27, 2009

Legislation protecting children from child sexual predators advances in Senate

(NASHVILLE, TN), February 26, 2009 — Several bills aimed at protecting children advanced in the State Senate this week, including legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would prohibit sex offenders from loitering within 1,000 feet of certain places where children are likely to gather. The bill, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), would apply to schools, licensed day care centers, child care facilities, public parks, playgrounds, recreation centers or athletic fields when children under age 18 are present.

“This legislation greatly strengthens our laws to protect Tennessee children,” said Woodson. “Parents deserve to know that their children are safe, and this bill will keep sexual offenders away from these areas where children are commonly present.”

Current law sets a parameter of 500 feet as the distance sex offenders are prohibited from going near school property. The legislation, SB 511, would expand that distance to 1,000 feet, adds other places where children are likely to gather, and spells out that offenders are prohibited from “loitering” within those bounds. It also removes an exception currently in place that allows sex offenders to be present on school property during school hours if they are making deliveries.

The Judiciary Committee also approved legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to enter information into the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) database within two hours of receipt of a report of a missing child. The bill, SB 110 sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin), would bring Tennessee into compliance with the Adam Walsh Act which was signed into law in 2006.

The sweeping federal law, named after the murdered 6-year-old son of “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh, required states to adopt strict new standards for registering sex offenders and providing public information about their crimes and whereabouts. This included publishing photos and addresses of sex offenders online and toughening criminal penalties for those who fail to register, among other provisions. Tennessee made several changes to comply with the law last year. The states must comply with provisions of the act by 2009 or risk facing a 10 percent cut to their share of funds in a congressional grant program used to fight crime.

“This legislation makes sure that we are acting quickly to enter the needed information to alert law enforcement of a missing child,” said Senator Black. “Hopefully, this will help us to bring these children safely home quicker.”

Jerri Powell, a specialist for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation who coordinates the state’s Amber Alert Program, told legislators that Tennessee has between 600 and 1,200 missing children per month. A report to the NCIC system does not automatically trigger an Amber Alert, which has a much higher standard of urgency before it is broadcast.

Finally, the Judiciary Committee approved a measure, SB 284 sponsored by Senator Black, to establish venue for a violation of supervision of a sex offender in the county where they were being supervised. The bill makes sure that if a sex offender violates the conditions of their parole, that valuable time and money are not spent by sending law enforcement to another locality where the violation took place and that the violator can be returned back to where they were being supervised for further court action.

In other action protecting children this week, the full Senate approved legislation to strengthen Tennessee’s “anti-bullying law” by requiring each local school board to adopt a policy that prohibits harassment, intimidation, or bullying. The bill, SB 283 by Senator Black, makes the varying policies implemented by local education agencies across the state under the 2005 bullying law more consistent by requiring 13 standards that must be included in each system’s anti-bullying policy.

“Bullying is a widespread problem among students nationwide,” said Senator Black. “Research indicates that approximately 160,000 students avoid school every day for fear of being bullied.”

Lawmakers hear update on Property Tax Freeze Program for Seniors

More than 16,400 senior citizens across Tennessee are enrolled in the state’s property tax freeze program according to Tom Fleming, Assistant to the Comptroller, who testified before members of the State and Local Government Committee this week. Fleming said Smyrna and Spring Hill are the latest of 20 counties and 19 cities who participate in the program, while a growing number of communities are considering adopting it to give seniors some relief.

“It is time for counties and municipalities across Tennessee to realize that making home ownership more affordable for senior citizens is fiscally responsible,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). It increases their prospects of aging with grace and dignity in familiar surroundings which is better for everyone.”

The mechanism for the Property Tax Freeze Program was added to the state’s constitution by voters in a referendum in 2006, after a resolution was sponsored by Sen. Norris. That action was followed by passage of a law to implement the program in 2007. The resolution, however, must be adopted by the governing body of the city and county before seniors can participate.

Once the local government opts into the program, the law allows qualified property owners to keep their property tax bill at a fixed amount, even if the tax rate or the appraised value of their home increases. In order to qualify, the home owner’s combined income cannot exceed a predetermined amount set by a state formula, which uses the median income and population in the homeowner’s county. That amount can vary from $44,570 in Williamson County to the minimum income level of $24,790 that is in place for 52 Tennessee counties.

For more information and to review a list of participating localities, visit the Comptroller’s website at http://www.tn.gov/comptroller/pa/taxfreeze.htm or www.Tennesseniors.com.

Secret Ballot Protection Act would preserve the right to vote by secret ballot

Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) joined members of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) in a press conference this week to promote legislation he has filed to protect the rights of employees to vote on whether or not they want to unionize by a secret ballot. The “Secret Ballot Protection Act” is a counter measure to dangerous federal card check legislation, which would subject employees to intimidation by allowing unions to organize simply by persuading a majority of employees to sign a union representation card. This petitioning would take place outside the workplace, in front of union organizers and other employees who support the union.

The federal card-check bill was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate last year, and labor representatives believe the 2008 elections will greatly enhance the possibility for passage in 2009. The Tennessee legislation, SB 1674, defines the denial of secret-ballot elections as an unfair labor practice. It also establishes penalties and civil remedies for violation. The legislation does not apply to collective bargaining relationships already in existence before July 1, 2009.

“The right to a secret ballot is sacred whether it is in the voting booth or in the workplace,” added Johnson. “This bill is consistent with our state’s Constitution and court decisions that provide that all elections in Tennessee shall be by a method guaranteeing ballot secrecy.”

“We are working diligently against the tide of a weakening economy to bring jobs to Tennessee by maintaining a business-friendly environment,” he continued. “The card check system is not only un-democratic and un-American, but could hamper our ability to attract new business — or drive those who are already here out of the state.”

Conservative approach to investing state fund is best says Treasurer Lillard

Tennessee’s conservative approach to investing state funds has served the state well according to David Lillard, the state’s Treasurer. Lillard presented legislators on the Senate Finance Committee with information about how Tennessee has performed in an increasingly challenging economic market.

Lillard said Tennessee is dealing with the second worst market in the last 107 years based on the Dow Jones Industrial average. The state, however, has out-performed 93 percent of its peer funds last year, and 80 percent when looking back at a three-year average.

Lillard, who became Treasurer on January 15 after Republicans nominated him for the post, said he has moved the state’s portfolio to an even more defensive position since taking office based on the most recent market information and outlook.

“The challenge is to determine how conservative or defensive you go to not sacrifice some of the upside in the event the market turns,” he said. Lillard also said his staff is monitoring the situation “by the minute.”

In speaking of Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS), which funds payments to state and local government retirees and teachers, Lillard said “The TCRS is one of the most conservative funds, in terms of investments, in the country. The outflow from the plan is about $.14 billion per year. Our cash flow into the fund is well in excess of that. We have well-covered ourselves from the standpoint of sources of income versus use of income. We do not have a liquidity issue in respect to this plan in paying retiree benefits.”

Senate approves legislation to allow state to issue bonds to pay for infrastructure commitments to Volkswagen and Hemlock

Legislation that would allow the state to issue up to $262 million in bonds to pay for economic development infrastructure commitments was approved by the full Senate this week. The bill, SB 315, provides state officials flexibility to sell the bonds to cover money needed to build infrastructure for the Volkswagen and Hemlock Semiconductor plants that have agreed to locate in the state.

Volkswagen is planning to make an initial $1 billion investment in Chattanooga, while Hemlock plans to invest $1.2 billion in Clarksville. State finance officials told lawmakers that the debt service on the bonds would be covered by the more than $28 million in revenues per year that is expected to come into the state as a result of the Volkswagen plant alone.

The new Volkswagen plant means more than 2,000 new jobs in Tennessee, just in the plant itself. It is also expected to create more jobs in the region due to vendor businesses that will also locate here as a result of the plant. Hemlock is expected to create 500 new jobs, with the potential of employing up to 900 people within five to seven years.

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