Bills to honor and assist Tennessee veterans approved in Senate Committees

Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as they wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government and moved a number of important bills to the Senate floor for final action. The committees are preparing to conclude their business within the next two to three weeks, as the General Assembly is working to adjourn the 2010 legislative session by the end of April.

Among legislation approved in committees this week were several bills to honor and provide assistance to Tennessee’s veterans. This includes legislation sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) and approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee that would develop and encourage relationships with veteran-owned businesses that have not always had access to state government contracts.

“Veteran-owned, or service disabled veteran-owned firms, have demonstrated time and time again the ability to foster new and innovative ideas and products,” said Senator Burchett. “Most of these are small business owners who need encouragement to participate fully in the process of contracting for services funded with state tax dollars.”

The bill, Senate Bill 2785, calls for state agencies actively to solicit bids and proposals for equipment, supplies, and services from veteran-owned businesses. These businesses are defined as those which are at least 51 percent-owned by a veteran who has served honorably on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are at least 548 veteran-owned businesses in the state.

In separate action, the Senate Government Operations Committee approved Senate Bill 2488, sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), that would create the Veterans’ Honor Medal program to recognize and honor distinguished service by Tennessee veterans. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs, under the bill, would commission the design of a medal for the program to which gold or silver stars will be added to indicate that an armed forces member was killed or wounded in action. The medal program would honor both active duty, National Guard and reserve component veterans based on criteria established by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Tennesseans have a long volunteer tradition of service in time of war,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey. “We should recognize their sacrifice and celebrate military men and women of every branch.”

Veterans as well as the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House would serve in an advisory role to the Commissioner of Veterans’ Affairs in the implementation of the medal program.

Similarly, the Senate Transportation Committee approved legislation to authorize a “wounded warrior” specialty license plate with proceeds going to help with the cost of rehabilitation, readjustment and treatment of veterans. The bill, Senate Bill 3416 sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), would give first priority to providing assistance to members of the Tennessee National Guard wounded in conflicts in federal service and then to all other disabled veterans in the Armed Services. Any remaining funds could be used for other honorably discharged veterans. The license plates would be designed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and, if approved, could be ready for sale as soon as this summer.

“This license plate not only provides assistance for our wounded veterans, it also expresses our appreciation for their service in protecting our freedoms,” said Senator Crowe. “These specialty plates will serve as a constant reminder to those who travel on our roads that we appreciate the service of those brave men and women wounded in service of our state and nation.”

The Senate Education Committee also approved two military-related bills. The first proposal ensures that military personnel who have taught as JROTC instructors for at least two years and are licensed to teach another subject are credited with their years of service in JROTC instruction for the purpose of salary rating. The legislation, Senate Bill 942, is sponsored by Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson).

The second measure, Senate Bill 3022, authorizes local education agencies to issue a diploma to a student who failed to receive one due to their service in the Vietnam War.

Tennessee law already allows for high school diplomas to be issued to veterans whose education was interrupted by service in World War I, World War II, or the Korean War. A surviving spouse or other immediate family member of a deceased veteran may also request the diploma.

Legislation requiring drunk drivers with a high blood alcohol level to install ignition interlock devices overcomes major hurdle with Judiciary Committee approval

Legislation designed to increase the use of ignition interlock devices to curb the number of alcohol-related car crashes overcame a major hurdle this week with approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, Senate Bill 2965 as amended, provides those convicted of drunk driving with the option to install an interlock device instead of being geographically restricted by the court.

Courts often restrict those convicted of drunk driving to traveling only to work and home. The restriction routes can be difficult for law enforcement officers to monitor. Officers would easily be able to see if a convicted offender has a court-ordered interlock device, which would be installed at the offender’s expense.

Interlock devices are small pieces of equipment attached to the steering wheel of a car with a tube that the driver must breathe into in order to allow ignition to start. The current alcohol ignition interlock technology makes it easier for courts to require drunk drivers to utilize the device.

“This bill represents a big step forward towards increasing the use of these devices to keep drunk drivers off our roads,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), who is sponsor of the bill. “The record is clear that ignition interlock devices save lives.”

As of January, 2,743 Tennessee driver’s license holders had an interlock restriction, while 580 license holders had an interlock device installed. Eight other states already have laws that require DUI offenders to install interlock devices if they register .15 or higher. The National Transportation Safety Board has urged Tennessee to pass a more uniform and mandatory system for installation of interlock devices for those convicted of drunk driving.

Senate Committees vote to send Congress message on highway transportation funding and proposed greenhouse gas emission regulations

The full Senate adopted two separate resolutions this week to send Congress a message on both highway transportation funding and proposed greenhouse gas emission regulations. The first resolution, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), asks Congress to repeal the current highway transportation funding formula and permit each state to retain all federal fuel taxes it collects from motorists within its borders. House Joint Resolution 752 also asks Washington to allow the states to have responsibility for their own transportation programs.

Tennessee is among two dozen “donor states” that pay far more fuel taxes into the federal Highway Trust Fund than they receive in return. Crowe said Congress utilizes a flawed formula, developed in 1956, to determine the amount of federal fuel tax revenues each state receives.

“Tennesseans know what our transportation needs are,” added Senator Crowe. “We don’t need Washington to dictate them to us. Hopefully this resolution will send them a strong message that Tennessee is tired of being shortchanged on our road funds.”

The second resolution, Senate Resolution 200, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), asks Congress to adopt legislation to postpone the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources until they pass a more balanced approach that does not cripple the economy. A stationary source, in air quality terminology, is any fixed emitter of air pollutants like manufacturing facilities, power plants, hospitals and commercial establishments.

Officials fear that the EPA’s plan to utilize authority provided under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and light trucks will trigger other onerous permitting regulations. This includes greenhouse gas emission regulations on businesses and other facilities that would deter investments and lead to job loss. It would also overwhelm state agencies, which are not equipped to handle the estimated six million requests that would be generated under the proposed federal action.

“The U.S. lost four million jobs in 2009, and the EPA’s proposed regulations have the potential to cause even further job losses,” said Senator Johnson. “Tennessee citizens and businesses are already suffering from the current economic climate. We do not need these regulations forced upon us by the federal government.”

Legislation would work to ensure that physicians who are
registered sex offenders are not granted medical license

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill to require the Board of Medical Examiners to deny the application for licensure or revoke the license of a physician convicted of an offense which requires registration as a sexual offender. The bill, Senate Bill 3362 sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin), provides for communications between the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s (TBI) Sex Offender Registry and the Board of Medical Examiners within 30 days to assure notification is given. It also requires the Medical Examiners to make sure that no existing physician is currently listed on the Registry.

The action comes after a mother in Middle Tennessee learned her child’s family practice physician was listed on the state’s Sex Offender Registry. The doctor had been convicted of first-degree rape and sexual abuse of a young girl in 1987 before moving to Tennessee. He obtained a medical license in Tennessee in 1992 after being turned down by two other states. The state later renewed his license, even after the TBI listed him as a violent sex offender.

“Child sex offenders have no business seeing children in the practice of medicine,” said Senator Black. “This legislation gives the Board direction to make sure this does not happen in Tennessee.”

In Brief…

Government efficiency – The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation urging state government departments and agencies to seek input and ideas from their employees and the general public on how Tennessee can be more efficient in its spending practices. The bill, Senate Bill 3013, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), calls for a portal to be installed on the state’s website to facilitate ideas regarding how Tennessee can improve efficiency and effectiveness in its services and spending.

Race to the Top – State officials, including Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) returned from Washington D.C. this week where they presented Tennessee’s proposal requesting Race to the Top funds. Education Commissioner Tim Webb told members of the Senate Education Committee that the group is confident that Tennessee has a strong chance to be a winner in the multi-state competition. Tennessee is one of 16 states that were chosen as first round finalists for “Race for the Top” funds. In January, the General Assembly passed legislation in a Special Session on Education designed to put Tennessee in position to be a leader in the Race to the Top competition. That action could help the state secure up to $500 million in federal funds for education in Tennessee.

Second Look Commission – The Senate Government Operations Committee has approved a bill to set up a Tennessee Second Look Commission to review cases and procedures related to severe child sexual abuse to determine if they were handled in a manner that provides adequate protection to the children. Only two percent of the 750,000 pedophiles identified by computer in the United States have been investigated according to expert testimony provided to the legislature last year. The bill, Senate Bill 2701, sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville), would be administratively attached to the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

Corridor K – The Corridor K Highway project should be completed according to House Joint Resolution 754, which was approved by members of the Senate Transportation Committee this week. The project was part of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s efforts which began in 1965 to combat poverty in the poorer mountainous regions of the Eastern United States. The Appalachian Commission’s efforts included 26 corridors in 13 states from New York to Mississippi, with Corridor K being the name given to the route through Bradley and Polk Counties that would open commerce between Chattanooga and eastern seaports. Corridor K is one of the few remaining projects that have not been completed.

Colorectal awareness month The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Services Committee heard from health experts this week regarding the high incidence of colorectal cancer in Tennessee. Colorectal cancer was the third leading cause of cancer deaths in Tennessee in 2008, claiming 1,237 lives. March has been designated as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in an effort to encourage all Tennesseans over the age of 50 to get screened for colorectal cancer. Studies indicate as many as 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented if those over the age of 50 years were screened routinely.

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