April 2, 2016

Senate State and Local Government Committee hearings on de-annexation legislation.

Senate State and Local Government Committee hearings on de-annexation legislation.

New Budget amendment proposes additional funds for variety of programs, including local transportation needs

Action on Capitol Hill continued to shift from committees to the floor of the Senate this week as members of the Senate’s Transportation and Safety, State and Local Government and Judiciary Committees worked diligently towards completing their business for the 2016 legislative session. The Finance, Ways and Means Committee also continued their work this week, considering bills which have a fiscal impact on the state budget. The state budget will be the central focus of attention during the final weeks before adjournment.

Budget — Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin briefed members of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday regarding Governor Bill Haslam’s proposed additions to Senate Bill 2653, the appropriations bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). The supplemental appropriations amendment recognizes $60 million in savings from departments of state government. Gov. Haslam is asking lawmakers to reinvest these funds in a variety of programs, including state aid to counties for transportation needs.

The appropriations amendment, also sponsored by Norris, follows closely the governor’s original budget proposal presented to the legislature on February 1. It takes advantage of a strengthening economy combined with the discipline of departments of state government, and the conservative strategy employed by the General Assembly, the state’s constitutional officers and the Haslam administration.

“Balancing the budget is the most important work we do every year,” said Senator Norris. “Assuring our taxpayers the best return on their investment is critical. This budget accomplishes these objectives.”

In the amendment, which was presented to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, the governor proposes adding $12 million to the $130 million originally presented to repay the state’s Highway Fund. If the budget is approved as amended, $42 million of the total $142 million would go toward local governments’ transportation needs as part of the state aid program.

Other notable funding priorities in the governor’s budget amendment include:

  • $18.2 million to restore a 1 percent provider rate reduction in TennCare;
  • $9 million to fund additional K-12 student enrollment growth during the current year;
  • $2.43 million for a 1 percent provider rate increase with the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD);
  • $2.07 million in additional funding for non-formula units in public higher education;
  • $1.3 million to increase the work being done with adverse childhood experiences (ACE);
  • $1.04 million to leverage Tennessee State University’s land grant status;
  • $1 million to support growth in the state’s captive insurance program; and
  • $147,400 for an additional position in the state’s Office of Open Records Counsel.

In other action on the budget this week, the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson), began the tedious process of reviewing 265 amendments which have been filed to the budget bill. The amendments cover a wide variety of subjects from local community needs to the funding of legislation which is pending action this year in the General Assembly. The Subcommittee will continue their work next week as they recommend any changes to the budget proposed by the governor to the full Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Legislation calling for more transparency in student testing advances in State Senate

Legislation which aims to bring more transparency to student testing is headed to the Senate floor for final approval after advancing in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee this week. Based upon recommendations from a taskforce of educators, legislators and parents that worked for six months to study and identify best practices in the testing of Tennessee students, Senate Bill 2540, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), offers key solutions to help students reach their academic goals.

The legislation would allow teachers, parents and students the ability to obtain 70 percent or more of the questions and answers from standardized tests annually, allowing them to review the areas of opportunity. The bill would also eliminate two of the standardized tests for grades 8 and 10 and allow all 11th grade students to retake the ACT or SAT free of charge, in order to give them the opportunity to increase their scores and options for postsecondary education.

The bill, which has already passed the House of Representatives, could be considered on the Senate floor as early as next week.

Similarly, Governor Bill Haslam recently signed into law legislation passed by the General Assembly that provides greater transparency to Tennessee families regarding information about the performance of their local schools.

David Crocket's first rifle. A "hog rifle" he named "Old Betsy.” Circa 1800. Courtesy of Rep. Art Swann.

David Crocket’s first rifle. A “hog rifle” he named “Old Betsy.” Circa 1800. Courtesy of Rep. Art Swann.

The Senate has unanimously approved SJR505 by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris to commission a bust of Crockett – with artists competing for the contract – and arrange for its display inside the state Capitol building.

The bust should be unveiled late this year.

Legislation aims to stop the growing problem of elder abuse and exploitation in Tennessee

Three bills advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to tackle the growing problem of elder abuse in Tennessee, including two measures stemming from recommendations of the legislature’s Elder Abuse Task Force. The task force was formed two years ago to study Tennessee’s current system for protecting, preventing and prosecuting crimes of abuse for its older and more vulnerable adults. The full Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 2588, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), to create Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigation Teams (VAPIT) in each judicial district in Tennessee. The purpose of the bill is to coordinate the investigation of suspected instances of abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult. The information generated by the multi-disciplinary adult protective services team can then be reviewed to determine what further action can be taken to protect these citizens.

Senate Bill 1848, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), contains key recommendations from that group to keep the state’s elderly safe by setting up checks on the people who are working in direct contact with vulnerable adults in home healthcare and hospice.

The legislation lays out requirements that must be met before an employee may be hired. Applicants must supply fingerprint samples, submit to a background check and provide past references. These requirements would also apply to third party vendors that have direct contact with the patients.

Finally, Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) guided the passage of a resolution to address financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. Senate Joint Resolution 678 resolves that the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability will work with the Tennessee Bankers Association, the Tennessee Credit Union League and other appropriate organizations to develop a list of recommended changes to current law that would assist financial institutions in protecting vulnerable adults from fraudulent and other questionable transactions.

One study estimated that only 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse ever come to the attention of authorities.

In Brief

220th Anniversary of Tennessee General Assembly — Monday, March 28th marked the 220th anniversary of the first meeting of the Tennessee General Assembly. The first session in 1796 took place in a small Knoxville courthouse and consisted of 11 senators and 22 representatives. One of the first operations of the legislative bodies was to officially announce John Sevier as Tennessee’s first governor and affirm Andrew Jackson to represent the state in Congress. The members of the first General Assembly included future Governor Joseph McMinn and Representative John Cocke.

Juvenile Justice / Department — The Senate passed legislation this week that would create a task force to study the feasibility of creating a Tennessee Department of Juvenile Justice. The task force will include legislators and members of the public who have experience or interest in children’s issues, as well as ex officio members from different state departments. Creating a group to study this issue will allow the state to make the most well informed decision possible and to spend the state’s money in the most effective way to deter juvenile crime. Senate Bill 2586, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), will next be heard on the Senate floor on final consideration.

Juvenile Justice / Reporting – The full Senate has approved legislation requiring the Commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services to report information regarding juvenile recidivism and what services are working to rehabilitate these young offenders. Senate Bill 2584 sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), requires the Commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services to report to the Governor and Chief Clerks of the Senate and House of Representatives information regarding juvenile probation, custodial information, recidivism and system penetration information, and evidence-based services information. The report is due on January 31st of each year for the previous fiscal year. The legislation gives the department direction in collecting information required under a 2007 law so that adequate data can shed more light how to keep young offenders from moving into a cycle of crime as an adult.

Sexual Assault / Stalking Victims — This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would help provide victims of sexual assault and/or stalking with opportunities for housing relief. In current statute, petitioners can be granted possession of residence or be provided other housing options, but victims of sexual assault and/or stalking are specifically excluded. Senate Bill 2343, sponsored by Senator Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville), would allow judges to be more consistent in permitting protective allowances as with victims of similar crimes. The bill passed the committee unanimously and will next be considered before the full Senate.

Slow Pokes / Interstate Highways — Legislation restricting slow drivers from continuously driving in the far left lane and impeding the normal flow of traffic on Tennessee’s interstate highways won approval this week in the Senate Transportation Committee. As adopted, the legislation requires cars to stay out of the left lane of interstate highways with at least three lanes except in the case of passing other vehicles. Senate Bill 2143, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), creates a $50 fine for driving slow in the fast lane on major highways in Tennessee. Currently, 29 other states have similar legislation on the books, with evidence showing such laws do increase the flow of traffic, help increase safety on busy roads, and cut down on the occurrence of traffic jams on major highways and interstates.

Grandparent Visitation Rights — This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation concerning grandparent visitation rights. Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) presented Senate Bill 1670 which expands the authority of a court to order grandparent visitation when the child is not in the custody of the parent and when the grandparent’s relationship has been significantly reduced, rather than severed. Under the current statute, if custody of a child is awarded to a set of grandparents, the judge can recommend, but not mandate, visitation for the other set of grandparents. This legislation will allow a judge to grant those visitation rights. The bill passed the committee unanimously and will now be considered by the full Senate.

Fraud / Sham Cancer Charities — This week, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery, III along with the Federal Trade Commission and agencies from all 50 states announced a massive settlement involving four sham cancer charities. It’s the largest joint enforcement action ever undertaken by the FTC, the Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming and other state charity regulators. Cancer Fund of America Inc. (CFA), Cancer Support Services Inc. (CSS) and their leader, James Reynolds, Sr., agreed to settle charges that CFA and CSS claimed to help cancer patients, but spent the overwhelming majority of donations on their operators, families, friends and fundraisers. Reynolds and his family members allegedly bilked more than $187 million from donors. CFA and CSS were responsible for more than $75 million of that amount. The other two sham charities settled in May 2015. The settlement is the result of more than a year of hard work and should send a strong message that charity fraud will not be tolerated in Tennessee or any other state.

Student Privacy — The State Senate passed legislation this week to better protect student privacy. Senate Bill 1900, sponsored by Senator Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville), requires that vendors of education software and internet services maintain responsibility for protecting K-12 students’ privacy while handling their data. The bill also prohibits the vendors from using, selling, renting or disclosing the students’ data or personal information for the purpose of targeted advertisement. The contractors must take reasonable precautions to enable security procedures and delete information in a timely manner. This bill has already passed the House of Representatives and now awaits the Governor’s signature.

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