Senator Mark Norris
9A Legislative Plaza,
Nashville, Tennessee 37243-0232
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©2017 Mark Norris
February 13, 2016
Refugee Resettlement and State Sovereignty
On Tuesday, Feb. 16, I will present SJR 467 in the Senate Finance Committee requesting the Tennessee Attorney General or, in the alternative, outside counsel to seek declaratory relief concerning federally mandated appropriations of state revenues to pay for the refugee resettlement program from which the Bredesen Administration withdrew the State of Tennessee in 2007.
At issue is whether the federal government may constitutionally compel the state indirectly to do that which it cannot do directly — appropriate funds for a federal program from which the state has properly withdrawn. As the Senate sponsor of the State Appropriations Act, a declaratory judgment will clarify our rights as a state under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and our responsibilities under Article II, Section 24 of the Tennessee Constitution.
Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act
The full Senate has approved a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which sets the framework for how provisions can be made by persons while living for alternative access to digital assets such as Facebook, Linked-in and email accounts. The Uniformed Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act makes such access after death of the account holder consistent with other existing Tennessee statutes on estates and related matters. Senate Bill 326 follows cases where heirs were unable to terminate or access digital accounts after the death of a family member or loved one.
The bill clarifies that if done in accordance with the proposed law, access to digital assets is not a violation of Tennessee’s Personal and Commercial Computer Act. It also provides a new section to the Uniform Durable Power of Attorney Act adding the authority to access any catalog of electronic communications and any other assets by power of attorney. In addition it provides that heirs can use online tools or a power of attorney to override the terms of agreement that does not require the deceased account holder to act affirmatively.
Senate Education Committee approves Tennessee Tuition Stability Act
The Senate Education Committee approved major legislation this week to control the exponential growth in tuition at Tennessee’s state colleges and universities. The Tennessee Tuition Stability Act, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), limits tuition growth to increases in the consumer price index (CPI) and locks-in tuition for entering freshmen for four years.
Senator Gresham pointed out that over the past 20 years, in-state tuition and required fees have increased 456 percent at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville from $2,236 in 1996 to $12,436 in 2016. Comparatively, $2,236 invested in the stock market in 1996 would be expected to yield $7,259 today, which is $5,177 less than tuition would have risen during the same period.
“So is it any wonder that the State Treasurer was forced to end the state’s pre-paid college tuition plan last year that helped thousands of families save for college,” said Senator Gresham. “What’s to blame here are tuition increases which outpace inflation and our ability to invest and grow our money. It also outpaces Tennessee families’ ability to pay, which amounts to a clear tax on the American dream. This is why student loan debt has grown to record levels and working your way through school has become a thing of the past.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, UT Knoxville’s tuition and fees, which took 7 percent of the state’s median household income in 1996, has now reached 28 percent. The tuition increase means an average Tennessean works three and one half months to pay tuition for one child to attend UT Knoxville, not including books, room and board.
“The statistics also show neither a large increase in enrollment, nor decreases in state funding, are to blame for the problem,” Gresham added. “When higher education can’t get the money they need out of the state, instead of making tough choices to cut their budget and live within their means, they have been balancing their budgets on the backs of Tennessee’s students and working families.”
Despite being increased three times by the General Assembly since its enactment, Tennessee’s HOPE scholarship now covers only 50 percent of tuition and fees at most four-year universities in the state, except UT Knoxville where it covers only 32 percent.
“Tuition increases have completely consumed the benefit of the lottery scholarship and are a direct impediment to the Drive to 55,” she continued, referring to the state’s initiative to graduate 55 percent of Tennesseans with post-secondary degrees by 2055. “What we are doing is driving our students out of the market. Maybe they can go for a couple a years and then they can’t pay for it anymore.”
Under Senate Bill 2306, the Tennessee Board of Regents or the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees would be prohibited from increasing in-state undergraduate tuition or fees at a four-year institution above the increase in the CPI without a vote of the full board. If a proposed increase is less than the most recent annual percentage change in the CPI plus two percent, it would require a supermajority of the board voting in favor. An increase greater than two percent of CPI would require a unanimous vote.
“This bill incentivizes students through the tuition freeze program to finish college in a four-year time period. At the same time, it incentivizes higher education to cut costs, to streamline and to be far more efficient than they are now,” Gresham concluded.
Here’s what one newspaper had to say: “A Tennessee foster care program has done something never before documented by researchers: made life better, at least a little bit, for a group of foster children who turned 18 and left state care. The non-profit’s services helped “aged out” former foster children transition into adult lives — a notoriously challenging time for kids who grew up abused or in legal trouble and who often end up unemployed, homeless or jailed at rates high above their peers.” Tennessean, May 12, 2015
Youth Villages was a featured presenter at the national Council of State Governments convention hosted by Senator Norris in Nashville.
Legislation works to prevent conservators from isolating their ward from visitation with family members
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), to restrict the ability of a conservator to isolate their ward from visitation by family members or loved ones without just cause. A conservator is a legally appointed guardian of a disabled person. Under current law, a conservator can restrict visitation and communication with the ward in Tennessee without going to court, even when it involves communication or visits by a family member. Crowe said that, due to the growing number of divorces, this has become a problem when there is conflict between children of an incapacitated adult whose spouse has been named the conservator.
“We are seeing a growing number of cases of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other disabilities which call for a conservator to be appointed,” said Sen. Crowe, who is Chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. “This gets very difficult when there are strained family relationships between the conservator and the ward’s family members and it involves the decision that no communication should occur.”
“Presently, the conservator has power over the ward to control many things, including who can visit them, even when they are in a long term care facility,” he added. “What we are trying to accomplish with this legislation is to balance the rights of the ward to continue strong family relationships after they are incapacitated, while providing ample protection through the court when it is not in their best interest and the conservator objects.”
Catherine Falk, daughter of actor Peter Falk, most notably of the Columbo television series, and Marcia Southwick with “Boomers Against Elder Abuse” testified during the committee meeting. Falk talked about her own personal suffering as she was denied contact with her ailing father during his last days, saying she was left with virtually no recourse because his second wife obtained conservatorship of him. Falk told committee members that wards and their families suffer horribly by cruel acts of isolation from loved ones, which can constitute illegal retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Civil Rights Act of 1964. Falk and Southwick are working with legislatures across the U.S. in promoting the bill nationwide.
Senate Bill 2091 provides the ward has a right to visit, communicate or interact with family and loved ones and that a conservator shall not restrict it unless specifically authorized by a court order. It also provides a process by which the conservator can petition the court to place restrictions upon communication or interaction by showing good cause. Some of the factors the court can consider are previous protective orders, whether the ward expresses the wish to visit and past preferences.
The legislation allows interested persons, including the ward, to petition the court if they reasonably believe a court order has been violated. If the order is knowingly violated, the proposal gives the court the authority to modify the conservator’s duties or to discharge or displace them. Finally, the bill sets out the process for courts to hear motions and stipulates that hearings will be scheduled no later than 60 days after being filed. If the ward’s health is in significant decline, that would require a 10-day notice.
“Unfortunately, you don’t always have a conservator who is as accommodating and reasonable as they should be,” added Crowe. “And some family situations are more difficult than others. It is heartbreaking to hear sons and daughters who cannot spend quality time with their parent after they are incapacitated and their health is in decline. We believe this bill strikes the right balance so that it protects the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens, while at the same time giving the conservator a fair process to follow in protecting the ward.”
National Guard Force Protection Act — The Senate State and Local Government Committee passed the “National Guard Force Protection Act of 2016” on Tuesday which enhances protection at Tennessee National Guard facilities and military installations. The bill follows hearings regarding the safety of military installations by the State and Local Government Committee after the Chattanooga terrorist attack that killed five soldiers on Tennessee soil. The governor’s budget includes $1.6 million for an emergency phone system, window film, magnetic locks, a security camera system, privacy screens and bollards to protect soldiers at state military installations to fund the bill. Senate Bill 1553, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), now moves to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.
EpiPens / Restaurants — Legislation to allow heath care prescribers to prescribe epinephrine auto-injectors to a wide variety of entities, including restaurants, has passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. The purpose of the bill is to make the injectors, more commonly referred to as EpiPens, readily available in locations where an emergency is most likely to occur. Restaurants are among them as food is generally the most common cause of anaphylaxis, a condition which can be deadly if not treated immediately. Wasp or bee stings are also common causes of anaphylaxis. Senate Bill 1989, sponsored by Senator Mark Green, M.D. (R-Clarksville), defines the entities that voluntarily agree to receive the prescription as including but not limited to recreation camps, colleges, universities, places of worship, youth sports leagues, amusement parks, restaurants, places of employment, and sports arenas. The bill calls for one or more employees to be trained in how to properly use and store the injectors. The entity or person who uses the injector in response to an emergency would be given immunity from liability when it is used in compliance with the proposed law. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.
TDOT / Priority Projects — Commissioner John C. Schroer and Chief Engineer Paul Deggs of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) discussed their system of prioritization for road projects before the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week. TDOT uses seven guiding principles when formulating their annual three-year plan: roadway safety, traffic operations, regions and legislation, economic development, funding, roadway classification and environmental impact. Of these, safety and traffic are weighted at 52.1 percent in the ranking process. TDOT also takes strides to balance projects between the four departmental regions, urban and rural areas and schedules. Schroer said he is very proud that the department has utilized transparency and objectiveness in their prioritization during his tenure as commissioner.
Consumer Protection – Deceptive Advertising — This week, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee unanimously passed a bill to investigate and fine companies and individuals who use deceptive advertising methods. Senate Bill 1928, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), prohibits advertisements that look like a summons or a judicial process notification. It also prohibits advertising that looks like a government document, whether it is through the use of language, seals and logos or if it implies an unauthorized endorsement by a government entity. The bill prescribes a fine of up to $100 per advertisement for violation of the proposed law. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.
Autism — The Senate Government Operations Committee unanimously passed legislation this week to create the Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The Autism Society estimates that about one percent of the world population has ASD, effecting over 3.5 million Americans and that it is the fastest growing developmental disability. Under Senate Bill 1390, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), the council would develop plans for a statewide, comprehensive mechanism for inter-agency coordination of treatment for the disorder, also focusing on issues of health care, education and other adult and adolescent services. It would serve under the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. The bill moves forward to the Health and Welfare Committee.
Second Amendment Rights – The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed legislation requiring public post-secondary institutions to conform with the law passed by the General Assembly in 2013 allowing for the storage of handguns by permit holders in their vehicle as long as it locked and out of sight. Senate Bill 1991, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), prohibits public colleges or universities from taking any adverse actions against an employee or student who store their permitted gun in accordance with the proposed law.
Consumer Protection / Motorcycles – Consumer protection legislation passed the Senate Transportation Committee this week to ensure that persons purchasing a motorcycle will be informed on the certificate of title if it has been depreciated by 75 percent or more due to being wrecked, damaged, dismantled or rebuilt. Currently, anytime a vehicle depreciated by 75 percent or more is transferred to a new owner, disclosure is given that the vehicle is wrecked, damaged, dismantled or rebuilt and that it will be labeled as such on the next certificate of title. The law, however, does not apply to motorcycles, allowing sellers to take advantage of an unintended loophole not to disclose the information. Senate Bill 1994, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) puts motorcycles under the same salvage law requirements as other vehicles.