March 24, 2011

On March 24, 2011, in News from Nashville 2011, by Mark Norris

Capitol Hill Week: Bill would enhance Tennessee’s status as a Right to Work state

(NASHVILLE, TN), March 24, 2011 — The pace quickened on Capitol Hill this week as state lawmakers debated a wide variety of issues pending before the 2011 legislative session, including a bill to strengthen Tennessee’s status as a Right to Work state.  Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee heard several reports updating lawmakers on educational efforts in the state, including the final report on the effectiveness of Tennessee’s Pre-Kindergarten program.

Legislation that strengthens Tennessee’s status as a Right to Work state was approved by the Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee this week.  Senate Bill 1031  amends the state’s Right to Work law to prohibit maintenance of membership clauses in collective bargaining agreements.

Tennessee is one of twenty-two Right to Work states across the nation which prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers making membership or payment of union dues or fees a condition of employment, either before or after hiring.  Recent studies from the Cato Institute and the National Institute for Labor Relations Research show Right-to-Work states enjoy higher job growth and more cost-of-living-adjusted disposable income for workers.  The studies reveal that not only is private-sector job growth faster in Right to Work states, but also that Right to work States’ lead in job growth is consistent over time.

Tennessee’s Right to Work law, however, currently does not ban maintenance of membership clauses within collective bargaining agreements.  These are clauses which sometimes are included in collective bargaining agreements which mandate that, once an employee joins a union, the employee cannot leave the union until the collective bargaining agreement expires. This means that for the duration of the collective bargaining agreement, the employee must continue to pay dues even if the employee no longer wants to be in the union or is dissatisfied with the union.  The bill would not apply retroactively.  It would only apply to bargaining agreements enacted after the legislation is becomes effective.

“Workers should be free both to join unions or refrain from joining unions at any time,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), sponsor of the bill.  “Our status as a Right to Work state is critical to our ability to draw new and better paying jobs to our state.  Any state or county economic development recruiter can attest to the importance of this fact.”

“For years, Tennessee has functioned as a right to work state, because we believe in the basic principle that Tennessee employees should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to join or financially support a union.  This bill simply affirms this principle as we strengthen our status as a Right to Work state,” he concluded.

The bill is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Pre-K study conducted by independent research group continues to show disappointing results

This week lawmakers received the final in a series of reports assessing the effectiveness of Tennessee’s Pre-Kindergarten, which continues to show disappointing results regarding the long term effects of the program.  The purpose of the study was to assess whether children who attended a Tennessee-funded Pre-K program perform better academically than a comparable group of peers who did not attend. 

The study, conducted by Strategic Research group, measured the progress of students from 2007 – 2011 to determine whether those students who attended state-funded Pre-K perform better academically in the short and long term than a comparable group of peers who did not attend Tennessee’s Pre-K program. 
The study continues to confirm earlier reports showing any gains made from Pre-K are short-term and do nothing after second grade to bridge the achievement gap between children who are at-risk from those with a higher socio-economic background.

As previous reports in this series have found, there are positive effects associated with participation in Pre-K in getting students ready for the kindergarten, first and second grades, meeting the of school readiness.  As noted in previous reports, however, the positive effects associated with Pre-K participation tend to diminish by third grade.  The report says that, by grades three to five, there were “no instances where Pre-K students scored higher than non-Pre-K students.”  Instead there were “a number of instances where Pre-K students scored lower.”

“When we look at these statistics about long term gains not being there from Pre-K, I think you can read that information in two directions,” said Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown). “On the one hand, you can say there is no real advantage to Pre-K, so why are we doing it?  But on the other hand, you can read it as something is going wrong in grades one, two and three.” 

“That is what really saddens me throughout this whole conversation,” he continued.  “The Pre-K program that we have instituted is doing some good work in getting students ready for school.  Unfortunately, our student performance is so low in this state that, by the time we get to grade three, the students who didn’t have the advantage of Pre-K were able to catch up because it was such a low bar to meet.  That is the real problem that is exposed from this study and one that leads me to the conclusion that we need to continue Pre-K and more importantly, we need to continue to work to reform the educational process in grades K-12.”

The State of Tennessee has been funding early childhood education since 1996 when a pilot program was established for economically disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds. In the 1998, Governor Don Sundquist pushed the creation of 30 Pilot Pre-K classrooms, serving approximately 600 students, and the program was expanded under Governor Phil Bredesen. 

Legislation closes loophole in state’s insanity defense law by calling for immediate evaluation after acquittal

The full Senate has voted to authorize a court to order defendants who are in custody and found not guilty by reason of insanity of a felony offense against the person, to remain in custody after the verdict to receive an outpatient mental health evaluation.  Senate Bill 1532, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), applies to such offenses as felony sex offenses, assaults, kidnappings, and robberies.

The bill follows an incident where a Bristol man was acquitted for the murder of his father by reason of insanity and released from jail without receiving a mental health evaluation.  This was due to recent changes in Tennessee law calling for the evaluations to be done on an outpatient basis.  Although an evaluation was ordered, it did not call for the person acquitted to remain in custody until it could be performed.  Upon going home after his release, the acquitted man became angry and headed for a closet where guns were located.

“In most states the decision of inpatient or outpatient evaluation is left to the court,” said Senator Overbey.  “Allowing the person to immediately go out into the community can be a very dangerous situation.  We need to close the loophole created when changes were made to our law in order to ensure immediate evaluation of the person acquitted under this defense.”

Tennessee courts are required to order outpatient evaluations for all individuals acquitted of a criminal offense when found not guilty by reason of insanity.  There is no mechanism, however, that allows the court to detain a potentially violent individual in the time period between the verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity and the outpatient evaluation.  The legislation would address this issue by requiring the court to immediately issue an order for an outpatient evaluation. 

“This is a protective bill to ensure appropriate safety measures are taken upon the acquittal of those found not guilty by reason of insanity,” added Senator Norris.  “I am very pleased the Senate voted unanimously to approve the bill.”

The bill is pending action in the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Subcommittee.

Telecommunications bill clears full Senate

The full Senate has passed legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), that would reduce the disparity between intrastate and interstate access fees currently paid by larger telecommunications companies to smaller cooperatives or companies that generally serve rural customers.  After an agreement was reached among all interested parties, the legislation would reduce the disparity between intrastate and interstate access fees by a rate of 20 percent each year for the next five years beginning April 1, 2012 and each subsequent April 1.

Senate Bill 598 establishes a requirement that all telephone companies in Tennessee charge other telephone companies the same rate for connecting calls into their network, whether the calls originate inside or outside the state.  It establishes a defined transition period during which intrastate access rates will be brought down in equal steps to the same level as interstate access rates. 

The bill also provides the ability for telephone companies to account for increases in interstate access rate changes, which are federally governed, and change their intrastate rates to mirror federal changes.  In addition, it requires all telephone companies to file and maintain a tariff price list with the Tennessee Regulatory Authority setting their access rates and structures.

“This is part of a long period of transition arising out of deregulation,” Senator Norris said.  “The future of all of these providers is very bright, with the dissemination and provision of other services that are now available.  This will put us in line with 22 other states that have dealt with this issue.”

In Brief…

Storm Damage / Federal Assistance —   Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has granted his request for a disaster declaration for Knox and eight contiguous counties in Tennessee following the severe storms and flooding in February.  An SBA disaster declaration makes homeowners and businesses affected by the disaster eligible for low interest loans. In this case, the rate for homeowners will be 2.56 percent or 5.12 percent, depending on whether they can get credit elsewhere, and business rates range from 4 to 6 percent. Those affected have until May 23, 2011, to apply for relief from physical damage and until Dec. 23, 2011, to apply for relief from economic injury caused by the Feb. 28, 2011, storms and flooding.   Applicants can contact the SBA’s Disaster Assistance Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955, email [email protected] or visit SBA’s website at www.sba.gov. Hearing impaired individuals may call (800) 877-8339.   Applicants may also apply online using the Electronic Loan Application (ELA) via SBA’s secure website at https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.

Patient Safety / Peer Review – The full Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) on Thursday to enact the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act of 2011.  Senate Bill 484, as introduced and passed by the Senate, reverses a Tennessee Supreme Court decision in Lee Medical, Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515 (Tenn. 2010), that overturned a major portion of the long-standing Tennessee peer review statute vital to health care providers in their efforts to improve patient safety and quality within their organizations.  This legislation rewrites the peer statute to put back into place the same protections that health providers have always considered available to them in their patient safety efforts.  The legislation maintains the same immunity provisions for participants in the quality improvement process as contained in the original peer review statute and explicitly defines which entities may create Quality Improvement Committees and claim the privilege that “peer review” documents are not subject to discovery. 

Post-Conviction Defender’s Oversight Commission — The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill to reconstitute Tennessee’s Post-Conviction Defender Commission and replace it with a “Post-Conviction Defender’s Oversight Commission.”  The Post-Conviction Defender Commission is an independent agency that was created to oversee the operating budget of the Post-Conviction Defender.  Senate Bill 827, sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson), spells out the new Oversight Commission’s duties would be administrative in nature, overseeing budget, staffing and caseload concerns, rather than assisting the post-conviction defender in providing legal representation. 

Mothers / Nursing — The Senate has approved Senate Bill 83, sponsored by State Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), to delete Tennessee’s current 12-month age limit in which nursing mothers can breast feed their babies in public.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAC), breastfeeding protects against a variety of diseases and conditions in the infant, such as bacterial meningitis, bacteremia, diarrhea, respiratory tract infections, necrotizing enterocolitis, ear infections, urinary tract infections and late-onset sepsis in preterm infants.  It can also protect the child against developing type 1 and type 2 diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, and Hodgkins disease, as well as childhood obesity. 

Road Funds / Advertising — Senate Bill 32 passed through the Transportation Committee this week to authorize the Department of Transportation to allow commercial advertising on the Tennessee 511 system, which provides current information on state-wide traffic conditions.  The bill, as amended, prohibits advertising of alcohol products, tobacco, campaign advertising or adult-oriented businesses.  Money gained from the advertising would be deposited into the highway fund to be used solely for transportation purposes. 

Solid Waste Recycling — Members of the Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee voted to approve a resolution urging additional measures be taken up step up efforts to recycle certain solid waste products.  Senate Joint Resolution 30, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), affirms that the General Assembly places a high priority on private business’s composting and recycling construction waste to eliminate polluted landfills and create jobs.

Purple Heart Plates / Widows – Legislation sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) to authorize the issuance of Purple Heart license plates to the spouse of a deceased recipient at no charge has passed through the Senate Transportation Committee.  Currently, the first two Purple Heart plates issued to a registrant are free of charge.  The widow or widower of a Purple Heart recipient will be substituted for the original recipient as eligible to receive the two free Purple Heart license plates in their own right under Senate Bill 1855.

Disclosure / Medical Professionals — State Senators gave final approval to Senate Bill 505 to require medical practitioners affirmatively to communicate their specific licensure by wearing photo identification or by providing their full name and licensure type in writing on the patient’s initial office visit.  The bill also requires practitioners who advertise on the Internet to display prominently their full name and licensure type.  Those practitioners who do not treat patients would not be affected by the legislation.  The proposal, which will be heard on final consideration in the House of Representatives next week, is sponsored by Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson).

Tiger Haven — The full Senate voted to authorize designated officials in Roane County to accompany Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) officers upon inspecting a facility in that county which houses tigers, lions, cougars and other large members of the cat family.  Senate Bill 1192, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), allows the Roane County Executive or his designee to inspect the Tiger Haven facility with TWRA inspectors, along with the county sheriff’s office or the county emergency management agency.  TWRA is responsible for overseeing operations of facilities holding exotic animals.

Obesity / Tennessee – The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee and other state lawmakers heard from members of the Tennessee’s Obesity Task Force regarding the state’s high obesity rate. Approximately 37 percent of adult Tennesseans are considered overweight and another 31 percent obese. The problem also impacts the state’s teens as 18 percent of the state’s ninth-12 grade students are overweight with another 17 percent being categorized as obese. At this same grade level, less than half of the youth (42 percent) are meeting current physical activity recommendations, 38 percent watch three or more hours of television each day, and almost half drink at least one non-diet soda daily.  The Task Force praised the General Assembly’s Comprehensive School Health Program instituted in state public schools aimed at getting children to make healthier choices. 

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