April 6, 2013

Budget moves front and center as legislature works toward adjournment

Lawmakers pass major workers’ compensation reform bill

Tennessee lawmakers continued to make progress on Capitol Hill this week acting on several key bills, including major workers ’ compensation reform legislation. However, the biggest legislative hurdle before adjournment later this month is the state’s budget.

Governor Bill Haslam sent additions to his proposed 2013-2014 budget to the Senate Finance Committee this week for consideration. The supplemental appropriations amendment is customarily introduced in the final weeks of the legislative session each year for consideration and approval by the General Assembly. It includes additional funding to the governor’s budget based on new revenue projections from the State Funding Board. Notable funding priorities in the governor’s budget amendment include:

  • $5.2 million in additional revenue from the tobacco settlement for a total of $43.1 million to support Healthy Tennessee;
  • $1.37 million restored for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Peer Support Centers;
  • $225,700 restored for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities for positions in West, Middle and East Tennessee;
  • $250,000 more to Family Violence Shelters;
  • $1 million grant for University of Tennessee, Martin Parsons Campus nursing program;
  • $44.6 million for the state’s Fast Track Job Training Assistance Program;
  • $1.26 million for infrastructure at Rocky Fork State Park;
  • $3 million for State Library and Archives and State Museum planning;
  • and $1 million for the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

Senate Bill 502 , which authorizes the budget, will continue to be the main focus during the remainder of the 2013 legislative session. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

On workers’ compensation reform, the State Senate approved final passage of legislation to make the state more attractive to job creation, while protecting injured employees. Senate Bill 200, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would cut costs to businesses, create more predictability, improve the efficiency of claims management, simplify the physician selection process for injured employees and reduce benefit delays to workers. The legislation comes as a result of two comprehensive studies tasked with identifying possible recommendations for improving the program.

“The primary gains for employees include fewer delays, better medical treatment, claims processing that is easier to follow and better support from the Workers’ Compensation Division when problems do arise,” said Senator Norris.

Highlights of the bill include:

  • employees would file their claims in a newly created Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims, rather than going to a trial court;
  • provides neutral application of the workers’ compensation law so that neither side has an unfair advantage;
  • gives a clearer standard for causation to require that the injury arose primarily out of employment rather than non-work related activities;
  • provides disability benefits for injured workers based on a maximum of 450 weeks instead of the current 400 weeks;
  • modifies requirements for medical panels through development of advisory medical treatment guidelines by January 1, 2016 that are based on best practices in medical care for work-related injuries and / or illnesses; and
  • creates a new Ombudsman program to help employees and employers who are unrepresented get the assistance they need.

“This bill would implement a system that is fair, efficient and better for both employees and employers,” said Senator Johnson. “Employees will receive benefits faster and in a manner that is easier to calculate, and they will be able to return to work sooner. Employers will have a fairer, more predictable environment in which to conduct business and create jobs.”

Currently, Tennessee is one of only two states in which workers’ compensation cases are settled primarily in the courts. In following, the state’s workers’ compensation premium costs are higher in Tennessee than in bordering states.

LEAP bill calling for “cooperative education” programs aims to attract jobs to Tennessee

A major jobs bill moved through the Senate Education Committee this week creating the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP). Senate Bill 1330, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), allows students at Tennessee’s technology centers and community colleges to combine occupational training in a high-skill or high-technology industry with academic credit and to apply that experience toward a degree. The legislation directs several state entities to work together in both establishing and carrying out the initiative.

“I am very excited about this jobs bill,” said Senator Norris. “We have learned that all too often employers in this state are not communicating with our Department of Economic and Community Development and our departments in higher education, or in some cases, Labor and Workforce Development and vice versa. Employers come to this state with certain job skills needed, certain number of employees that they need to be able to hire and all too often they find that when they come to Tennessee it is more difficult to find skilled workers than they anticipated. This bill addresses that need.”

The legislation is drafted so that wages or other compensation received by students will not impact eligibility for state need-based financial assistance or grants. Norris and his staff consulted with major employers in Tennessee and other southern states, as well as overseas, to study what are referred to as “cooperative education” programs. Students are paid to learn while applying what they learn at work for credit toward a degree.

“This program recognizes that an important outcome of a student’s education is job opportunity,” added Norris. “Having employers work closely with state agencies creates increased collaboration and focus across the board, giving students the opportunity to attain credentials.”

Legislation to help keep students safe at school is approved

Two proposals to help keep students safe at school won approval this week, including key legislation that will allow superintendents to hire retired law enforcement officers to provide security. The legislation comes in the wake of the shooting in Connecticut in December, which pointed to the need to increase school safety.

Governor Haslam has proposed $34 million in state funding to address ongoing capital needs in K-12 schools that can be used for school safety measures. The School Security Act of 2013 would give school superintendents the option to hire retired police officers, highway patrol officers, federal agents, game wardens and other personnel with extensive weapons or law enforcement training to serve as security at schools upon receiving 40 additional hours of specialized training.

“Many schools are looking to bring security into their buildings in a safe and affordable and safe manner,” said Senator Niceley, (R-Strawberry Plains) who sponsored the bill. This legislation gives them that ability.”

The 40-hour training would include education in crisis management and hostile situations in the school setting. The person would also have to complete an annual eight-hour Peace Officers Standards and Training certified firearm training program.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was also the impetus behind legislation requesting the state’s BEP Review Committee to make a recommendation in its annual report this year as to whether the state’s school funding formula should be modified to include a component regarding school safety and security. Senate Resolution 30, is sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).

Governor Bill Haslam, state law enforcement officials and homeland security experts met with education leaders from more than 120 school systems earlier this year to discuss school safety. Mental health specialists and emergency management officials also joined the group to think through additional measures that school districts can put into place to avoid a tragedy like the one which occurred in Newtown. The group reviewed best practices and new ideas on school safety, noting that the right plan would likely vary district by district. Both of these proposals fit into that plan.

In Brief….

Agriculture Spotlighted — Tennessee lawmakers celebrated Ag Day on the Hill at Legislative Plaza this week. The day highlighted the importance of farming and forestry to Tennessee and featured a wide variety of exhibits and activities. Tennessee has 77,300 farms representing 10.8 million acres in production. More than half of the state, 14 million acres, is in mostly privately owned hardwood forests. Tennessee’s top agricultural commodities include cattle, soybeans, poultry, corn, cotton, greenhouse and nursery products, timber, dairy products, wheat, tobacco and hay. Agriculture and forestry contribute more than $71 billion a year to the state’s economy and employs nearly 364,000 residents.

Rape / Child Custody — Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) carried Senate Bill 923 unanimously through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, moving the bill to the State Senate for a floor vote. The legislation allows a court to terminate the parental rights of a person convicted of rape, aggravated rape, or rape of a child. Moreover, the bill allows certified copy of the conviction of either three offenses as evidence enough to terminate parental rights, which is intended to protect rape victims from having to appear in court with the convicted rapist.

Rape / DNA Profile — The full Senate has approved legislation by a former emergency room doctor that will give Tennessee prosecutors a new weapon in rape cases where the Statute of Limitations is about to expire. Senate Bill 831, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), will allow a criminal prosecution to be commenced by issuing an arrest warrant that identifies the perpetrator based on the DNA profile. Under the measure, prosecutors will soon be able to obtain a “John Doe” arrest warrant based on the perpetrator’s DNA profile, saving the case from dismissal on grounds that too much time has passed.

Embryo / Legal Process — Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) moved Senate Bill 473 successfully through the full Senate this week, providing a legal process for embryo donors to transfer rights to an embryo to future parents. Upon passage of the bill, “legal embryo custodians,” those who hold the full legal rights to an embryo, will be able to contract the relinquishment of rights prior to the inception of an embryo into a female uterus to future parents. Written in accordance to guidelines from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, the bill will both protect donors from future liabilities or complication and clarify the legal rights of future parents who choose in vitro fertilization.

Jails / Work ProgramSenate Bill 524 won passage on final consideration by the Senate on Wednesday. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), requires any person convicted of a felony and sentenced to a local jail to be required to work in the jail’s work program. Currently, the inmates have the option of opting out of a jail’s work program. This legislation would incorporate participation in a work program into the violator’s sentencing. An inmate would be excluded from participating if the County Sheriff thanks he or she poses a security or escape risk, suffers from physical or mental health conditions, or if the county cannot afford to provide the security or transportation for the inmates sentenced to the work program.

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