Students and parents from Lakeland Elementary visited the Capitol building during PTA Storm the Hill Day

Students and parents from Lakeland Elementary visited the Capitol building during PTA Storm the Hill Day

Legislation Seeks Justice for Victims of Crime and their Families

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve two bills this week to help crime victims and their families from being further victimized by an unjust court process. The vote on Senate Bills 1796 and 1797, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), came after compelling testimony from the families of Knoxville residents Channon Christian and Chris Newsom, who were carjacked, brutally raped, tortured and murdered. Law enforcement authorities have said the murders were among the most heinous crimes in Tennessee history.

Christian and Newsom’s killers were tried in a court of law and found guilty by the jury of the brutal crimes five years later. However, due to the presiding judge being found guilty of illegally taking narcotics during the trial, a special judge ordered retrials for the defendants, putting the families through two additional years of painful courtroom testimony before they were convicted a second time. The presiding judge, who verbally accepted the verdict, had not signed a routine form accepting the jury’s decision before being removed from the bench. The successor judge decided he could not sign it, even though he found no errors in the trial.

“I don’t believe there has ever been a time that I have come before a committee or the legislature and expressed the personal importance of a bill,” said McNally, who has served in the legislature for 34 years. “I am doing that today because I am really ashamed and angry at how we, the state, and the criminal justice system have treated both the Christian and Newsom families, as well as the two victims of these horrible crimes.”

Senate Bill 1796 creates a presumption applicable to a successor judge that the presiding judge, who serves as the 13th juror, is presumed to have completed his duties once he or she accepts the verdict of the jury.

Senate Bill 1797 puts new restrictions on bringing into evidence presumptions or false information that are related to the victim that is totally unrelated to the crime. This measure would put Tennessee law into agreement with the constitutional amendment passed by Tennesseans in 1998 which states crime victims should be free from intimidation, harassment or abuse throughout the criminal justice system.

“The defense was based on nothing but lies,” said Deena Christian, Channon Christian’s mother. “You cannot bring up anything about their past acts, yet defense attorneys are allowed to bring up the victim’s past, even if they lie about it — and this needs to change.” Christian said the defense made numerous attempts to paint her daughter negatively in order to advance their case, including false accusations regarding illegal drug use despite a coroner report and numerous workplace blood tests which proved otherwise.

“I am appalled at what these victims and their families endured during these trials,” added McNally. “This legislation aims to make sure this never happens again.”

Presenting the VETS Bill to Senate Education Committee

Presenting the VETS Bill to Senate Education Committee

VETS Legislation Offers In-State Tuition Rates and Academic Support for Veterans

Legislation creating a statewide support structure that offers in-state tuition rates for veterans pursuing higher education in Tennessee overcame its first hurdle this week with a unanimous vote from the Senate Education Committee. The Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials.

“The VETS Act ensures that veterans have a clear, easy pathway to attend college in Tennessee,” Norris said. “As a state, we want to recognize and assist those soldiers who are coming home and exploring their education options.”

Currently, recently-discharged veterans relocating to Tennessee must pay out-of-state tuition rates until residency is formally established. Under Senate Bill 1433, veterans enrolling within 24 months of discharge immediately receive the in-state tuition rate when starting college classes, eliminating the issue of residency for those relying on GI Bill benefits. To maintain in-state status and rates, veterans have one year to present proof of established residency, such as a driver’s license, motor vehicle registration or proof of employment. Registering to vote also fulfills the requirement.

The Act also creates a “VETS Campus” designation to recognize and promote schools that make veteran enrollment a priority. Higher education institutions that satisfy veteran-friendly criteria, such as specialized orientation and the availability of mentoring programs, can receive the designation.

Norris said the VETS Act will attract a disciplined, technically-skilled student base, which is enticing to companies considering Tennessee as a potential destination.

“There is definitely an economic development component to the program,” Norris said. “As Tennessee competes for future corporate investment, having a pipeline of educated, skilled workers is a tremendous asset.”

Faithful Delegate Legislation Approved by State and Local Government Committee

The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation to help ensure that delegates to any future convention called to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be “faithful to” limits imposed by the Tennessee General Assembly. The “Faithful Delegate” bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), is similar in purpose to legislation in other states to ensure that Presidential Electors remain faithful to their pledged candidate for President when voting in the Electoral College.

“There are a number of proposals being put forth now from various states to call for constitutional conventions,” said Norris, who is Chairman of the Council of State Governments. “Our concern is that we don’t have adequate measures in place to protect our Constitution. This legislation puts down the foundation we think is needed to defend our Constitution in the event a constitutional convention should ever occur, and makes sure the delegates are adequately instructed and faithful to the call that the General Assembly gives them.”

Historically, it has been Congress that proposed constitutional amendments; however, Article V of the U.S. Constitution also lays out a mechanism by which two-thirds of the states can propose an amendment by sending Congress a petition. Under this method, the states define the convention’s agenda through their petitions. Twenty states of the 34 required under this procedure, have already called for a constitutional convention for the purpose of writing a balanced budget amendment for the federal government. Other proposals for constitutional conventions are also being considered.

“You were given the responsibility by the authors of our Constitution to protect it,” said Roman Buhler, a constitutional expert and former Counsel for House of Representatives who testified before the Committee. “Senator Norris’ bill is not one for those who are for a convention, or for those who oppose a convention. It is a bill for people who want to protect the constitution from the risk of a runaway convention.”

Senate Bill 1432 requires that in the event of a constitutional convention, the General Assembly would adopt a resolution and provide instructions to the delegates and alternates regarding the rules of procedure and any other instructions relating to the convention. The delegates would then be required to obey those limits or face immediate removal and a Class E felony offense for knowingly or intentionally voting outside the scope of the instructions.

“Our Constitution deserves every possible safeguard,” added Norris. “This would make sure a convention call is strictly limited to the very specific purpose set forth by the General Assembly in a way that is enforceable.”

In Brief

Student Health — The Senate Education Committee voted this week to prohibit schools from using the time provided to students to walk from one class to the next from being used as 90 minutes per week required under Coordinated School Health Law for students to receive physical activity. Senate Bill 1760, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), ensures that schools abide by the spirit of that law intended to help students make healthy choices through physical activity. Tennessee ranks among the highest in the nation in child obesity and diabetes.

Teachers / Classroom Supplies – Legislation to help ensure teachers receive their classroom supply allowance at an earlier date has been approved by the Senate Education Committee. The bill clarifies that at least $100 out of the $200 allotted for supplies under current law, be distributed by August 31. Senate Bill 2277, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), allows teachers to spend the allowance at any time during that school year on instructional supplies as determined necessary by the teacher. It also requires Local Education Agencies (LEA) to send a written explanation for any noncompliance.

Human Trafficking / Children — In similar action, another bill in the series of human trafficking measures which is aimed at attacking the “demand side” of human trafficking was approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Senate Bill 1815, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), toughens penalties against those who patronize prostitution from a child or a person with intellectual disabilities and removes certain defenses that violators have attempted to use. The bill increases the penalty from a Class E to either a Class A or Class B felony, depending on the circumstances surrounding the offense. It also prohibits as a defense to patronizing prostitution asserting that the subject of the offense was a consenting minor or a law enforcement officer. The General Assembly passed a series of bills addressing human trafficking after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders.

Opiate-Related Emergencies — The full Senate approved legislation on Monday to authorize a licensed healthcare practitioner to prescribe the drug Naloxone to a person at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose. Opiate overdoses have soared nationwide. Naloxone is specifically used to counteract life-threatening depression of the central nervous system and respiratory system and has been highly successful in reversing heroin overdoses with very few side effects. Senate Bill 1427, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would also allow the physician to prescribe the drug to a family member, friend or other person in a position to assist a person experiencing an opiate-related overdose, as long as the doctor provides written communication establishing a factual basis that a person is at risk. Finally, the bill provides a prescribing physician or person administering the drug immunity from civil liability.

January Revenue Report — Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin announced this week that overall January revenues were $1.1 billion, which is $51.6 million less than the state budgeted. January represents the fifth month of negative growth in corporate tax collections this year. The Commissioner said, however, that the January sales tax collections, which reflect consumer spending that occurred during the December holiday buying season, were the largest growth rate experienced in the past 13 months. Franchise and excise taxes combined were $48.9 million below the budgeted estimate of $188.6 million. Year-to-date collections for the past six months were $222.7 million less than the budgeted estimate. The general fund was under collected by $219.6 million and the four other funds were under collected by $3.1 million.

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