March 18, 2016

Senator Norris congratulating Ron Ramsey the moment his election as Lt. Governor was announced

Senator Norris congratulating Ron Ramsey the moment his election as Lt. Governor was announced

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey announces he will not seek re-election
Key bills advance in the State Senate as General Assembly works towards April adjournment

The announcement that Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey will not seek re-election after 24 years of service in the legislature headlined a busy week on Capitol Hill. Ramsey spent four years in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate, where he led the charge to gain a Republican majority, then super majority. He was elected as Lieutenant Governor / Speaker of the Senate in 2007 as the first Republican to serve in the position in 140 years.

During his tenure of conservative leadership, sweeping reforms have been passed by the legislature including record tax cuts, a constitutional amendment to prohibit a state income tax, legislation preparing students for the 21st century marketplace, job creation initiatives to ease unnecessary regulation and red tape on businesses, comprehensive tort reform, and fiscal responsibility measures to help restore the state’s AAA credit rating, to name a few.

Ramsey will continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor until a new one is elected by the Senate in January 2017.

In other action, Senate Committees wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government this week and gave approval to some of the most important bills of this legislative session. Two Senate committees, the Government Operations Committee and the Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, have closed for the year. The remaining committees are preparing to conclude their business within the next two to three weeks, as the General Assembly is working to adjourn the 2016 legislative session in mid-to late April.

Presenting the Public Safety Act of 2016 to the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon

Presenting the Public Safety Act of 2016 to the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon

Senate Judiciary Committee approved major public safety legislation

The Senate Judiciary approved major legislation this week sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) aiming to reduce crime and improve public safety. Senate Bill 2567 addresses the most serious offenses driving Tennessee’s violent crime rate by establishing mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of three or more charges of aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary, or drug trafficking.

“This legislation has four major areas of focus to be tougher on crime and smarter on sentencing, particularly for enhancing sentences for crimes that drive Tennessee’s violent crime rate,” said Senator Norris.

The act would set the mandatory minimum period of incarceration to 85 percent for third and subsequent convictions for aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary, and Class A, B, and C felonies for the sale, manufacture, and distribution of controlled substances. The legislation would also change the felony thresholds for property theft for a Class A misdemeanor from the $500 to $1,000, Class E felony from $500-$1,000 to a range of $1,000-$2,500 and a Class D felony from $1,000-10,000 to a range of $2,500-$10,000.

“Increasing the monetary threshold for theft offenses will make it more consistent with surrounding states,” added Norris. “No adjustments have been made to these fines in many years to help deter these crimes.”

On domestic violence, the legislation would allow a law enforcement officer to seek an order of protection on behalf of a domestic abuse victim. Additionally, if a law enforcement officer makes an arrest for a crime involving domestic abuse, then an automatic order of protection would be issued when there is probable cause to believe that the alleged assailant used or attempted to use deadly force against a domestic violence victim. A hearing would be held within 15 days of the automatic order of protection being issued.

A third and subsequent domestic violence conviction would become a Class E felony as under the legislation. Third and subsequent domestic violence convictions are currently a misdemeanor. This proposed change would maintain the current minimum 90-day sentence for a domestic violence conviction.

“Right now you can have multiple convictions for domestic violence and every one is a misdemeanor,” added Norris. “This legislation provides third and subsequent violations will be a felony to help protect victims.”

Tennessee is ranked among the most dangerous states for domestic violence.

In addition, the proposal retools community supervision to reduce the number of people returning to prison for probation and parole violations when their noncompliance does not rise to the level of a new criminal offense. The move is expected to save the state $80 million. Of the 12,588 people entering state prison last year, 5,061, or 40 percent, were probationers or parolees sent to prison because they violated supervision conditions. This legislation would authorize the department to utilize a robust, structured matrix of both sanctions and incentives to facilitate compliance with the conditions of supervision by the more than 71,000 state probationers and parolees.

The legislation comes from Governor Bill Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism, which included Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) as members. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of its fiscal impact before moving to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Speaking to members of Leadership Germantown & Leadership Collierville during their visit to the Capitol this week

Speaking to members of Leadership Germantown & Leadership Collierville
during their visit to the Capitol this week

Senate Education Committee approves BEP Enhancement Act

The Senate Education Committee approved the BEP (Basic Education Program) Enhancement Act on Wednesday to solidify and clarify the current funding formula for schools in Tennessee. The BEP is the funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee Schools. The formula has three major categories, instruction, classroom and non-classroom, with each made up of separate components related to basic needs of students, teachers, and administrators within a school system.

Senate Bill 2565 comes after an extensive study by Governor Bill Haslam and other key officials utilizing information provided by the state’s BEP Task Force and BEP Review Committee.

“The BEP enhancement plan reflects the largest investment in education, $223 million, in state history without a tax increase,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who is the sponsor of the act. “That includes $105 million for teacher salaries and $30 million to fund 12 months of insurance. It also endeavors to double the state investment in technology so students are prepared for 21st century challenges.”

“All systems will benefit from this plan,” Norris added. “Every single school system will receive additional money.”

The Basic Education Program (BEP) was enacted in 1992 in response to a successful legal challenge by many of the state’s small school systems, which argued the state’s existing funding mechanism did not provide equal educational opportunities to their students. In 2007, the General Assembly adopted revisions to the BEP. These revisions, known as BEP 2.0, established new funding goals and set the state on a new path of determining how the state divides available revenue among local school districts.

Much debate and discussion has occurred since the adoption of BEP 2.0, both around funding and the distribution of funds to local school districts. Due in part to ongoing debate, the BEP presently utilizes and equally weights two funding distribution models – the pre BEP-2.0 model and the post-BEP 2.0 model.

Since 2011, Governor Haslam and the General Assembly have partnered to improve the BEP by a half billion dollars. This includes more than $240 million in new money for teacher salaries from fiscal years 2012 to 2016 as Tennessee strives to be the fastest improving state in teacher salary growth. Other improvements in the enhancement plan in this year’s budget include almost $20 million to better serve high need student populations and $50 million to address enrollment growth and inflationary costs.

DHS Secretary’s Testimony “Another wake-up call.”

State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris today cited congressional testimony by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson as further support for legal action by the state of Tennessee to stop the federal government’s refugee resettlement program.

“This is yet another wake-up call,” said Norris. “We need prompt action to keep Tennessee safe both physically and fiscally.”

In his testimony before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, Johnson said, “In all candor, I do agree that the refugee flow coming out of Iraq and Syria represents a potential opportunity for terrorist organizations to move its members into other nations for potential attacks…So I agree that there is that potential…”.

Secretary Johnson makes the third Obama official to publically question the security of bringing additional Syrian refugees in just the past several weeks. Other similar warnings have come from NATO Commanding General Phillip Breedlove and FBI Director James Comey.

“This is why adoption of SJR467 is so important. It calls for legal action to help keep Tennessee safe; to declare our State’s right to consult with the federal government concerning placement of refugees within Tennessee without sufficient background information,” said Senate Majority Leader Norris.

Earlier this month General Breedlove testified, “Members of ISIS were hiding among the flood of refugees entering Europe, taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations and our own.”

During his testimony before legislative committees in December and last month, Tennessee Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security, Bill Gibbons, confirmed that the federal government continues to give Tennessee the silent treatment. “To my knowledge we have not received any specific response to that letter from Governor Haslam to Secretary Kerry,” said Gibbons.

The resolution is in the House State Government Committee on Tuesday.

Senate approves bill providing healthcare consumers with an affordable option to contract directly with their physicians for health services

The full Senate unanimously approved legislation on Monday to provide Tennesseans with an affordable free-market option to contract directly with their physician for primary healthcare services. The “Health Care Empowerment Act,” sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), removes roadblocks in state law to the growing Direct Primary Care (DPC) healthcare model by ensuring that it is not considered an HMO or insurance company for purposes of regulation in Tennessee.

Under the DPC model, patients pay their doctors a monthly fee in return for agreed-upon primary care services. In order to be Obamacare-compliant, a patient may supplement a DPC membership with a high-deductible “catastrophic” insurance policy. The combined cost of monthly membership fees and insurance premiums is anticipated to be substantially lower than a traditional health insurance plan with co-pays, deductibles, and premiums.

Presently, 14 states have passed enabling DPC legislation.

Senate Bill 2443 now awaits action in the House of Representatives where it is pending consideration in the House Health Committee on Wednesday.

In Brief

Aging Caregivers / Persons with Disabilities — State Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) guided passage of legislation through the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday to help aging caregivers who care for a child or ward with an intellectual disability. Senate Bill 2003 would allow eligible people having an intellectual disability (ID) who are on the waiting list for services from the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) with custodial parents or caregivers aged 75 and over to enroll into the Self-Determination or similarly capped waiver. In 2015 the original “aging caregiver” law, which was also sponsored by Ketron, was passed by the General Assembly requiring DIDD to enroll all eligible people whose caregivers are 80 and over into the Self-Determination Waiver. However, the average life expectancy in Tennessee is only 76.30 years of age. The bill aims to give aging caregivers who are facing their own healthcare challenges the peace of mind that their child or family member will be cared for after they pass away. At the same time, it provides individuals with disabilities with basic support prior to a “crisis” to help them adjust to being supported by people other than their primary caregiver.

VETS Campuses — Legislation passed the full Senate this week that will make the Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) program available to private, non-profit institutions of higher education throughout the state. The highly successful VETS program, authored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), was passed into law in 2014. It encourages colleges and universities to prioritize outreach to veterans and successfully deliver the services necessary to create a supportive environment where student veterans can prosper while pursuing their education. Currently, there are 13 public institutions that can claim VETS Campus Certification. The certification recognizes and promotes 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. Senate Bill 2598, which is also sponsored by Senator Norris, is now awaiting a signature from Governor Haslam before becoming law.

Pre-K Programs — The full Senate approved legislation this week sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville) to make improvements to the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten programs. Currently, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) may apply to the Tennessee Department of Education for funding and approval of one or more pre-kindergarten programs. Senate Bill 1899 would require an LEA to include as a part of its application: a plan for ensuring coordination between voluntary pre-kindergarten classrooms and elementary schools within the LEA, a plan for engaging parents and families of students throughout the school year and a plan for delivering relevant and meaningful professional development to teachers. The Voluntary Pre-K for Tennessee Initiative was implemented to close the achievement gap for at-risk four-year-olds by providing an opportunity to develop school readiness skills. Studies have shown, however, that gains made by enrollees in the program fade, with most students scoring at or below their peers by the third grade. The legislation seeks to see if improvements can be made to the program to benefit these students and ensure that best practices are replicated.

Constitutional Amendments — The Senate unanimously passed legislation on Monday that would make voting on state constitutional amendments less convoluted and confusing. Senate Bill 1605, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), was in reaction to a previous ballot which had four changes to the Tennessee Constitution for the public to vote upon, but did not print the sections which could be changed. The legislation states that, if a question of a state constitutional amendment is submitted to the vote of the people, then the ballot must list the proposed constitutional amendment and the full, current text of any section that would be deleted or altered by the proposed amendment.

Free Clinics / Physicians – The full Senate has passed a bill that allows charitable clinics to directly employ physicians, optometrists and ophthalmologists, dentists, and psychologists to continue to allow the organizations to provide access to comprehensive health care services to the most vulnerable citizens of the state. Currently, state law does not permit charitable organizations or clinics to hire physicians directly. Many clinics have to contract with the doctors as a means of de facto hiring. This has caused issues with charitable organizations and the IRS. Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), who is a physician, sponsored Senate Bill 2027, as a way to alleviate this issue.

Texting While Driving — The Senate Transportation and Safety Committee passed legislation this week to increase penalties for those who text while operating a moving vehicle. Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) sponsored Senate Bill 1589, which would redesignate the act to a moving violation, assess points on one’s driving record and require the driver to complete an education course. Cellphone use plays a role in more than 1 in 10 traffic fatalities in Tennessee – 10 times the national average, according to a recent report from the National Safety Council. The Tennessee Highway Patrol, the state Department of Safety and numerous local law enforcement agencies support the bill, as well as, the Tennessee Truckers Association. It will next be considered before the entire Senate.

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