April 8, 2011

On April 8, 2011, in News from Nashville 2011, by Mark Norris

Anti-crime bills move in State Senate

Legislation targets gang-related drive-by shootings 

Several anti-crime bills were approved by the State Senate this week, including a measure approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that strengthens penalties against those who discharge a firearm into an occupied habitation.  The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), aims to curb “drive-by shootings” which is a growing problem with gang-related violence in the state.

“Current penalties are far too weak to give law enforcement the tools they need to curb this crime,” said Leader Norris.  “This is an especially egregious crime because children are often the victims, like a five year-old boy who was shot in the back while at his home in Memphis last month.  The criminals then claim they did not know the home was occupied, meaning they can only be charged with at the most a Class E felony.  This bill puts some teeth in the law so that those who fire on a home will face much tougher penalties, including additional jail time.”

Presently, state law prescribes that offenders can only be charged with reckless endangerment, which is a Class A misdemeanor, even if it involves putting a person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, unless it is committed with a deadly weapon which would be a Class E felony.  Senate Bill 690 would create an additional section to the state’s “Reckless Endangerment” law to make discharging a weapon into a residence a Class C felony if it is occupied and a Class D felony if no one is present.

Norris has sponsored a series of bills over the past several years designed to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping these criminals behind bars longer to protect the public. 

Senate Education Committee approves bill promoting growth of quality public charter schools

Legislature marks first anniversary of Race to the Top win 

The Senate Education Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville),  Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), and Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to create an environment that promotes the growth of high quality public charter schools in Tennessee. The bill is one of three education reform measures proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to improve student achievement by giving students the resources and opportunities they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“Public charter schools are a critical tool to improve public education and provide every child in Tennessee the opportunity to receive a great education,” said Speaker Woodson.  “This bill creates an environment that promotes the growth of high quality charter schools, allows districts access to innovative tools to address their unique challenges, and gives many more parents the option of sending their child to a school that better suits his or her needs.” Key provisions of the Senate Bill 1523 include:

  • Removes the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state
  • Allows for open enrollment in charter schools (removes eligibility restrictions while maintaining current system that gives preference to certain applicants and provides for a lottery system when applications exceed the number of seats available in the school)
  • Gives preference in the application process to proposed charter schools that demonstrate a capability to support certain high-need populations
  • Provides the Achievement School District with the ability to authorize charter schools within the district
  • Allows for appeal of charter revocation or nonrenewal to State Board of Education except when those decisions are based on the current AYP accountability guidelines for charters (maintains high accountability standards)
  • Removes “automatic repeal” provision so that there is no automatic sunset date on the charter law

“High quality charter schools serve as laboratories of learning for struggling school districts,” added Leader Norris.  “We have attracted significant investments to help more quality charter schools get started in our state. However, we are missing the flexibility within our law to foster that growth.”

“The national spotlight is now on Tennessee’s education reform efforts,” added Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).  “This legislation makes commonsense changes which are a critical part of our strategy to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools.”

Recently, Tennessee was awarded $40 million in investments to support new charter schools in Tennessee.   The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of the measure’s financial impact.

Race to the Top — Action on the education reform bill came one day after the first anniversary of Tennessee’s Race to the Top win.  The Senate Education Committee heard testimony that, since being awarded upward of $501 million, school districts have begun executing a dramatic set of school reforms as a result of the bold initiatives passed last year.

The first year has been a combination of planning and successes.  The plan focuses on three main student performance goals: young students’ academic readiness, high school graduates’ readiness for college and careers, and higher rates of graduates enrolling and succeeding in post-secondary education.

Tennessee’s complete Race to the Top proposal and other First to the Top accomplishments are detailed on the Tennessee First to the Top website.   

New Career Coaches hit the road to raise employment opportunities 

Career Coaches — On the job growth front, Governor Haslam, Lt. Governor Ramsey and other Republican leaders unveiled three vehicles designed to improve outcomes for those looking for work. Three “Career Coaches” have been customized with 10 computer workstations with Internet access, printers, fax machines, and flat screen TV’s with SMART Board overlays to facilitate classroom instruction. The intent of these roving offices is to bring job matching and training to rural communities that have limited access to a Tennessee Career Center.

The vehicles will be based in Huntingdon, Nashville and Knoxville in order to cover all areas of the state. Each mobile unit will be staffed with specialists trained in career counseling. They will conduct frequent workshops in résumé preparation, job search skills, and interviewing skills. The department’s division of Adult Education will also utilize the vehicles for enrollment pre-and post-testing, orientation, administering the Official GED Practice Test, and offering GED Fast Track classes.

E-Verify bill overcomes first hurdle in Senate with approval of Senate Commerce Committee 

The Senate Commerce Committee has voted 8 to 1 to approve legislation calling for Tennessee employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that new hires are in the state legally.  The legislation, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), is the first in a three-pronged approach to combat illegal immigration in Tennessee.

“There are more than 140,000 illegal immigrants in Tennessee, with over 110,000 in the state’s workforce,” said Senator Tracy.  “This has far-reaching effects on our state, including an impact on employee wages, costs to schools, unpaid hospital expenses and the need for additional law enforcement resources, to name a few.  This bill asks businesses to take one simple step beyond the current I-9 requirements to verify a new hire is not in the state illegally by utilizing the E-Verify System’s Internet website or making a telephone call.”

E-Verify, an Internet-based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the Social Security Administration, allows participating employers to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their newly hired employees by entering their name and a social security number.  It is free to employers in all 50 states, including Tennessee where more than 4,000 businesses have voluntarily participated in the system.  The “E-Verify” system is 97.4 percent accurate.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1669, would penalize businesses for hiring illegal immigrants with escalating consequences for repeated offenses.  It also provides a mechanism for small businesses without Internet access to call by telephone for verification assistance.  Under the bill, businesses would keep verification records for three years after the hire or one year after termination of the person’s employment.  It does not apply to those employed before the January 1, 2012 enactment date.

“We have worked very hard on this legislation to accommodate business concerns,” Tracy added.  “The result is a common-sense approach that makes verification as simple as possible, but still focuses on identifying those who are here illegally,” Tracy added.

Federal contractors or subcontractors have been required to use E-verify since 2008 to determine employment eligibility of employees performing direct work.  Fifteen states, including five which are adjacent to Tennessee, require the use of E-Verify for public and/or private employers.  Another 25 states are considering similar legislation.

Comprehensive legislation approved by Senate Transportation Committee would provide statewide guidelines for unmanned traffic enforcement cameras 

The Senate Transportation Committee has approved comprehensive legislation to provide statewide guidelines to govern the use of unmanned traffic cameras.  The proposal comes after much legislative debate on the matter during the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions.   The use of automated systems for surveillance of intersections and roadways is growing as more communities across the state are utilizing the devices.   Opponents of the cameras have argued that the motivation behind the cameras is money instead of safety, while those who favor the cameras claim that the devices have made streets safer by reducing the number of crashes.

“The purpose of this bill is to give uniform standards across the state,” said Senator Jim Tracy, who is sponsor of the bill and Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.  “We have worked on this proposal for several years and have put together a very comprehensive bill.”

Senate Bill 1684, as amended, includes statewide provisions that:

  • Invalidate traffic camera citations issued for failure to make a complete stop before making a right hand turn at a red signal unless clearly marked signs are posted saying “No Turn on Red.”
  • Clarify that advance signage to inform drivers is required of at least 500 feet, but not more than 1000 feet, before the enforcement area of the unmanned traffic enforcement camera.
  • Require an independent traffic engineering study before any new camera can be set up to assure that the proposed camera meets certain criteria to ensure that the purpose is to improve traffic safety.
  • Prohibit speed trap cameras by banning the use of traffic enforcement cameras on any highway within one mile of a reduction of speed limits of 10 mph or greater.
  • Provide that no more than one citation shall be issued for each offense committed.
  • Vehicle registration information must be consistent with the evidence recorded by the enforcement camera or the citation is invalid.
  • Mandate that notice of violations be mailed to the alleged offender within 20 days and that all responses and payments be made to a Tennessee address.
  • Set the fine at $50 if the violator elects not to contest and provides that citation notices must list any additional late fees or court costs separately in the event they    should decide to go to court and are found guilty.
  • Amend current law to allow only POST certified or state-commissioned law enforcement officers to view evidence from a traffic enforcement camera and issue the citation.  Present law only requires an “employee” of the law enforcement agency.

“My goal is to protect the public from abuse of these camera systems by providing clear guidelines to ensure that the focus is on public safety,” added Tracy.  “I am very pleased with the bill’s progress and believe the chances of passage are excellent.”

The bill would not affect current unmanned traffic enforcement contracts in place.  If passed, the law would become effective July 1, 2011.

In Brief… 

Secretary of State / Electronic Library – Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told the Senate Finance Committee this week that the state’s Electronic Library (TEL) is averaging more than 30 million annual searches.  Hargett said TEL’s Learning Express Library provides Tennesseans with access to job and career resources, magazine and newspaper articles, and ACT practice tests and courses. Last year alone, Tennesseans used the service to access 59,000 practice tests and courses. Users of TEL include teachers, students of all ages and those who would otherwise lack access to public libraries and educational opportunities.  The Library can be accessed at:  http://tntel.tnsos.org/

Abortion / SJR 127Senate Joint Resolution 127, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) to restore the people’s voice on state’s abortion laws was heard by the full Senate on first and second reading.  The resolution must be read three times before a final vote can be taken on the measure.  The proposal would allow citizens to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to say that the right to an abortion is only protected under the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Military / Update on troops – Tennessee Adjutant General Max Haston appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week to talk about the budget for the Tennessee Military Department.  Haston said the Tennessee National Guard is over 100 percent strength with 14,332 soldiers and airmen.  Presently, 573 Army and Air National Guardsmen and women are deployed around the world.  There are 367 troops that have returned within the last three months, while 1,617 airmen and soldiers are on alert within the remainder of the calendar year. 

Consumers / Banks The State Senate has approved Senate Bill 1800, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), to help provide consumers notice regarding a solicitation that might appear that it is coming from their bank.  A problem has arisen where companies obtain mortgage information and contact the customer offering to refinance their mortgage but are not affiliated with the bank.  By using the bank’s logo when making contact with the customer, it becomes a misrepresentation because the customer thinks that their lending institution is offering the new financing.  The bill clarifies that it is unlawful for a person, “other than the lender or a person authorized by the lender” to use a loan number, loan amount, or other specific loan information that is not publicly available in a solicitation for the purchase of services or products unless it clearly states in bold face type the name, address and phone number of the solicitor.  It must also contain a statement that the person making the solicitation is not authorized or affiliated with the bank, nor does it contain loan information provided by them.

Military Parents / Child Custody — The State Senate has voted to approved legislation sponsored by Senator Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) to require a court to hold an expedited hearing, if appropriate, for a temporary modification to a decree for child custody or visitation when a parent, who is to be mobilized into military duty, requires immediate attention. With the substantially increased activity of our armed forces around the world today, Senate Bill 721recognizes the need to protect the rights of both service members and their children.  The legislation requires the court to allow testimony to be given by electronic means while the military parent is out of the state, if necessary.  It also authorizes the court to permanently modify a decree of child custody or visitation if a parent volunteers for successive or frequent duties that remove the parent from the state.

Teacher tenure reform bill goes to governor –   The full Senate approved a minor amendment to Senate Bill 1528 regarding teacher tenure reform and sent the bill to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), changes a teacher’s probationary period before becoming eligible for tenure from three to five years as well as links tenure status to performance evaluations, among other changes.  The legislation builds on the bold initiatives passed last year with Tennessee’s First to the Top program to give Tennessee students more opportunities to succeed.

Cost savings / uncontested primary elections – The full Senate voted this week to approve Senate Bill 922, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), designed to save Tennessee cities money spent on early voting when there is no opposition in a city election.  The bill would remove the requirement that an early voting period be held for any municipal election if there is no opposition for any of the offices involved, including any write-in candidate that has filed notice.  The legislation only applies in cases when the election is not held in conjunction with a primary election, the regular August or November general elections, or any special primary or special general election for state or federal offices.

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