March 13, 2015

Edward Norman, Anita Norman, Senator Norris, Anne Pope and James Wells  Anita Norman of Arlington was the national winner of the Poetry Out Loud competition beating out over  300,000 competitors.  She performed for the Senate at Thursday’s session. She was accompanied by her father, Edward and  her teacher, James Wells and Anne Pope, Executive Director of the Tennessee Arts Commission.  She will be attending Yale University next fall.

Edward Norman, Anita Norman, Senator Norris, Anne Pope and James Wells
Anita Norman of Arlington was the national winner of the Poetry Out Loud competition beating out over
300,000 competitors. She performed for the Senate at Thursday’s session. She was accompanied by her father, Edward and
her teacher, James Wells and Anne Pope, Executive Director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. She will be attending Yale University next fall.

Education Headlines Action as State Senators Advance Bill Launching Pilot Program to Help Adult Learners Complete their Degree

Education headlined this week’s action on Capitol Hill as State Senators approved two key bills in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, including legislation to launch a pilot program to help adults complete their degree in Tennessee’s community colleges. Senate Bill 605, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), establishes a Community College Reconnect Grant which is a last-dollar scholarship to adults who want to return to community college and complete their associate’s degree in applied science.

“In Tennessee, adults currently make up roughly 30 percent of enrolled public undergraduate students, which equates to 65,000 adult learners,” said Senator Green. “The prospective adult student pool of Tennesseans with some college but no degree is over 900,000. We know that to be successful on our ‘Drive to 55,’ we must bolster our focus on the recruitment, retention, and completion of adults in higher education.” Drive to 55 is an initiative which aims to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025.

Adults who meet all of the qualifications will be expected to enroll in a Tennessee public community college in the 2016-2017 academic year. Key qualifications to receive the grant include Tennessee residency for at least one year preceding the date of application for the grant; completion of at least 30 hours towards completing an associates of applied science degree; and, an adjusted gross income of less than $36,000. Grant recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA and enroll in at least 9 semester hours in the fall and spring semesters.

In order to fund this program, there will be a one-time expense to the lottery fund of $1.5 million, which will cover roughly 800 recipients. Green hopes that the pilot project will be the first step to a larger program that serves adults who want to complete their education.

“In most cases, and with the right support, adult learners perform as well as or better than traditional age students,” he added. “At every public higher education institution in Tennessee, adults earn a higher share of credentials compared to their enrollment.”

Teacher Protection Act — Similarly, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee approved legislation proposed by Governor Bill Haslam that would automatically provide teachers and student teachers with professional liability insurance. “The Educator Protection Act of 2015,” sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), would provide insurance coverage to about 78,000 full- and/or part-time teachers and 9,000 student teachers at no cost to the educators so they do not have to worry about the liability of lawsuits during the course of their employment.

“Our teachers and student teachers deserve protection from lawsuits that might result from performing the work they were assigned to do,” said Leader Norris. “With a conservative and responsible investment, Tennessee can provide this added assurance to those whose careers are dedicated to serving the children of this state.”

Currently, teachers must find their own coverage if they are not protected by professional liability insurance provided by their local school system. Senate Bill 604 creates a special account within Tennessee Department of Treasury that would be invested by the Treasurer and administered by the state’s Board of Claims to provide liability coverage. Governor Haslam has provided $5 million in the state’s budget proposal to pay for the program.

Truancy — In other action this week, Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) won approval of legislation in the Senate Education Committee that is designed to take a creative and innovative approach to addressing truancy in Tennessee. According to a report issued by the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in 2013, 44.70 percent of cases in their courts were for truancy.

“Tennessee needs to address the causes of truancy in a preventative manner before the child is referred to juvenile court for further proceedings,” said Sen. Overbey. “Students are truant for a wide range of reasons. This legislation follows policies recommended by the Tennessee Commission of Children and Youth which emphasized the need for a shift toward a therapeutic rather than a correctional approach to juvenile justice as the most effective means to reduce the rate of recidivism and provide positive outcomes for students.”

A recent study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice found that the common causes of absenteeism include homelessness, lack of transportation, poverty issues, mental and physical health issues of the parent or the child, teen pregnancy, adolescent behavior issues and a range of educational issues.

Senate Bill 448 creates a mentorship-type relationship between a designated school representative and child and parent in an opportunity to focus on attendance prior to it becoming an issue. It would require that the schools notify parents at the beginning of the school year in writing regarding their attendance policy. After three unexcused absences, the student and parent are pulled into a conference with a school representative to address the absences. An agreement is then signed by the student, parent and school representative which includes the school’s attendance expectations for the child and penalties for additional absences.

“The key is that regularly scheduled follow-up meetings are set to discuss the student’s progress,” added Overbey. “This bill makes sure that the rate of success of the intervention program is tracked to ensure that changes to its implementation can be administered on a year-to-year basis to ensure that the students and program succeeds.”

Shelby County Commissioners Willie Brooks, Terry Roland and  Chairman Justin Ford in Nashville for County Officials Day

Shelby County Commissioners Willie Brooks, Terry Roland and
Chairman Justin Ford in Nashville for County Officials Day

Resolution Calls on Congress to Oppose Reductions of Troops at Fort Campbell

The Tennessee Senate adopted a resolution sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) on Thursday urging Congress to oppose any measure that would reduce current troop levels at Fort Campbell. Senate Joint Resolution 23 comes after a recent U.S. Army Environmental Command report showed that a reduction of 140,000 troops, plus associated civilian reductions, would be needed in order to achieve the savings required by the Budget Control Act if sequester cuts to the defense budget are reinstated. That action would affect approximately 7,000 troops at Fort Campbell, representing a 22 percent reduction, with a possible decrease of more than 15,000 active duty troops by 2020.

“The United States military’s consideration of cutting force structure at Fort Campbell makes no strategic sense for the safety of this nation,” said Senator Green, a former Army Special Operation Flight Surgeon. “Currently, the United States Army is at its Pre-Gulf War levels of 490,000 troops at a time when we are decisively engaged in combat in Afghanistan and have soldiers in Iraq that are engaged in combatting ISIS. This resolution expresses Tennessee’s strong opposition to further reductions in our troop strength.”

Fort Campbell sustained cuts last year, with the reductions made in the 159th Aviation Brigade.

“These cuts would skeletonize units in order to maintain some infrastructure,” he continued. “We’re basically just dismantling the United States Army in order to save money.”

The resolution reiterates the economic impact of troop reduction on the Fort Campbell region with the yearly income expected to fall by 7.7 percent or $986.6 million and an estimated population loss of over 58,000. Fort Campbell is the region’s biggest economic driver with an overall annual impact of $4.4 billion. Other effects of the reduction listed by the resolution include the possible closure of ten schools, as private sector jobs would be lost in construction, real estate, and education. This is “in addition to the military and civilian post-based job losses that could force individuals and their families to relocate to find employment,” the resolution states.

Green added, “If you took every single automotive company in the state of Tennessee and added them together, their economic impact would not be as large as Fort Campbell’s. Any loss of soldiers is devastating to the economic well-being of our community.”

“But there’s a more important reason for this resolution,” he continued. “It is the strategic impact on our nation. We’re cutting our force structure at a time when we’re decisively engaged; the world is far more complex and violent than it was pre-Gulf War. These cuts are devastating to our national security. That is why our General Assembly, as a body, is asking Congress to intervene on behalf of the citizens of Tennessee, and the citizens of this great nation.”

The resolution now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Phillip Mosely IV with Senator Norris

Phillip Mosely IV with Senator Norris

Legislation Aims to Curb Teen Abuse of Dextromethorphan

The full Senate has approved a bill which aims to prevent teenagers from abusing the drug dextromethorphan (DM) (DXM). Senate Bill 45, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), calls for those selling the product to verify proof of age. Customers under age 18 would be directed to the pharmacist, who could either write a prescription or refuse the sale.

Dextromethorphan is an ingredient found in cough and cold medicines. Although the product is quite safe when taken as recommended, large doses can cause hallucinogenic trips and pose serious risks. According to a study cited by WebMD, one in 10 American teenagers has abused products with DXM to get high, making it more popular in that age group than cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and meth.

“We have too many teenagers that are getting high on this drug, buying several products at a time and consuming that,” said Senator Haile, who is a pharmacist. “This legislation avoids a more severe solution, like making it prescription only or putting it behind the counter. Under this bill, it would remain on the shelves for those who need the medication, but also provides for oversight by the pharmacist when the customer is a minor to ensure it is not abused.”

In Brief

Veterans / Charitable Gaming — Final approval was given this week on legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), to allow 501 (c) (19) veterans organizations to raise funds for charitable purposes. Senate Bill 325 is the final step in ensuring that Amendment 4 to the State Constitution, which won approval by voters in November, is enacted. The amendment gives veterans groups the same opportunity as 501 (c) (3) organizations to conduct an annual fundraising event like duck races, cake walks, raffles, and other games of chance. Amendment 4 received 69.6 percent of the vote, outpacing all other constitutional amendments on the ballot. Any funds raised by the games under the amendment must go to purposes that benefit the community, veterans, or retired veterans.

SARA / Higher Education – The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 299 , sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), which authorizes the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) to enter into the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), to establish national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education courses and programs. Once institutions join SARA, they are authorized to offer online courses in each state that is part of the agreement without having to get approval from each state individually. Nineteen states have passed legislation and 24 more states are considering the agreement. SARA is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by postsecondary institutions based in another state.

Department of Children’s Services — Tennessee has reduced the number of children in state custody by almost 700 since October 2013, according to Tennessee Commissioner of Children’s Services Jim Henry, who presented his department’s budget to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. There have been 1158 finalized adoptions in 2014, making Tennessee first in the nation in timeliness to adoption. Similarly, the department is the first in the nation to offer youth transitional living program for every youth exiting state custody. The department is also exceeding national standards for its Child Abuse hotline. The hotline is a call center accepting all reports of suspected child abuse and neglect for the state of Tennessee. It is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Callers can reach the toll-free hotline at 1-877-237-0004.

Substance Abuse and Treatment — Substance abuse treatment providers for Tennessee’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services served approximately 15,361 Tennesseans last year who were struggling with addiction and abuse issues, according to Commissioner Doug Varney. The Commissioner appeared before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee to present his department’s budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. The patients received help through community detox, residential treatment, outpatient, and intensive outpatient services. The department also provided approximately 11,900 individuals with early intervention services which aim to avoid more costly substance abuse treatment. In addition, the Department’s substance abuse prevention providers served over 7,500 youth through prevention activities for high risk individuals and groups. .

Second Amendment Rights — Several bills that would give gun owners the right to self-defense began their journey through the legislature with approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among legislation passed by the committee was Senate Bill 1171, sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), that would allow a law-abiding Tennessean with a handgun carry permits to carry a firearm into a state, city, county and/or municipal park. Current law allows a municipality or county to prohibit the possession of handguns, and therefore one’s right to self-defense, while within a public park, natural area, historic park, nature trail, campground, forest, greenway, waterway or other similar public place in which they operate. Stevens said this poses a trap for unwary handgun permit holders by creating a patchwork of laws across the state with regard to which localities have prohibited firearms in their parks. The bill now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.

Palcohol – The full Senate voted to approve legislation that would ban the sale of powdered or crystalline alcohol in Tennessee. Senate Bill 374, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), would make it a Class A misdemeanor offense to sale the product, which is currently pending approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Palcohol is the brand name for the new product whose label was approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau this week. When mixed with water the powdered alcohol becomes a cocktail. The product is creating concern nationwide that it would be an easy and accessible target for abuse by underage drinkers. There is also concern that the product could be misused by adults if it is sprinkled onto someone’s food or in their drink without the other person’s knowledge. Powdered alcohol products would not be defined as an alcoholic beverage under current Tennessee law because it is not a liquid and would be free from regulation by the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission. This means it could be sold directly to minors in grocery stores, over the Internet, or in any other location. Thirteen states have enacted similar legislation banning powdered alcohol. The bill now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.

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