Senator Mark Norris
9A Legislative Plaza,
Nashville, Tennessee 37243-0232
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©2017 Mark Norris
A Welcoming Place for Warriors
Last Friday, Lipscomb University became the 19th “VETS” campus. This is made possible through legislation sponsored by Senator Mark Norris in 2014. Below are his remarks from the ceremony marking the occasion.
“History in the making is sometimes hard to see when you’re in the midst of making it.
But you’re making history here today.
Lipscomb University is well known as a place of academic rigor and spiritual growth. It is also already known as one of the top military-friendly universities in the United States. Today, it adds to that distinction as Tennessee’s 19th official VETS campus. The first private college VETS Campus in middle Tennessee and one of only 3 such private schools statewide.
More importantly, Lipscomb adds to its distinction as an important place along a hard-earned pathway to prosperity for our veterans.
A VETS Campus is recognized as a special place. A place readily identifiable by veterans not only for in-state tuition and other benefits but for priority placement. A place that appreciates veterans’ experience and accommodates their skills. A welcoming place for warriors.
The number of veterans in private and public institutions in Tennessee has increased dramatically since 2013, but we have found that too many schools were not fully equipped to help in the transition. They found that veterans were enrolling but not graduating at the rate that they should.
We have worked hard to increase educational opportunities to help veterans return to the workplace. Four years ago, Tennessee had one of the highest veteran unemployment rates in the country at 9.7%. Today, Tennessee veterans unemployment rate is 3.6%, below the national average of 4.3%.
So, while history is made here today, it is not the past but the future to which we look.
For those who helped us keep the peace, we work to keep the promise that your future holds. Today, Lipscomb officially becomes the State of Tennessee’s partner in this important work. We welcome it. And we welcome you.”
Law and Order Legislation Headline Capitol Hill Week
Law and order legislation dominated debate in the State Senate this week as several key bills advanced, including legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) to enact tougher sentences for violent felons in possession of firearms. The legislation continues Norris’ series of anti-crime laws dubbed “Crooks with Guns” passed over the last decade to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping violent criminals behind bars longer to protect the public.
Senate Bill 1241, which is supported by the District Attorneys General Conference, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, and the City of Memphis, follows recent reports that convicted felons illegally in possession of firearms have increased from 13 to 17 percent over the past three years.
The proliferation of crimes involving firearms points to the need for a more effective hammer to deter felons from going armed,” said Senator Norris. “This legislation continues our efforts to give law enforcement authorities stronger tools to curb violent crime in Tennessee.”
Currently, possession of a firearm by a felon previously convicted for an offense involving the use or attempted use of force is punishable as a Class C felony, with sentences averaging 3.51 years. The legislation would increase the offense to a Class B felony, almost doubling the average time spent in jail to 6.31 years. Likewise, the legislation enhances penalties for possession of a firearm by a person with a prior felony drug conviction. The proposal elevates the crime from a Class D to a Class C felony, adding 1.28 years to the current average sentence of 2.23 years.
The bill also prohibits probation for possession of a firearm by a person with a prior felony conviction involving the use or attempted use of force.
The penalties are more in line with sentences imposed at the federal level involving gun possession by convicted felons.
This enables the state system to do a better job of holding these individuals with prior violent crime and drug trafficking convictions more accountable under state law,” said Bill Gibbons, Executive Director of the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis and President of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission. “But, also, it will help change behavior and maybe get some of these people to pause and think a little bit about their behavior and start making some good choices instead of bad choices.”
Gibbons was joined by Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and District Attorney General Mike Dunavant who also testified in support of the bill.
The legislation now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of the proposal’s fiscal impact.
Convicted Criminals Unlawfully in the U.S. — The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved legislation on Tuesday that would allow courts in Tennessee to enhance the sentence of a convicted criminal who is unlawfully in the U.S. Senate Bill 1260, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), creates a new enhancement factor that a judge can consider in sentencing if the defendant was illegally or unlawfully in the U.S. at the time the offense was committed.
Juvenile Justice Reform Bills Advance in State Senate
The Senate Education Committee approved legislation this week that is designed to take a creative and innovative approach to addressing truancy in Tennessee. Truancy is the most frequent reason given for schools referring juveniles to court. The legislation emphasizes the need for a shift toward a therapeutic rather than a correctional approach as the most effective means to reduce the rate of delinquency and to provide positive outcomes for students.
Senate Bill 196, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), establishes a progressive truancy intervention program for students in K-12 schools. The goal of the program is to create mentorship-type relationship between a designated school representative and child and parent in an opportunity to focus on attendance prior to it becoming a juvenile court issue.
The legislation requires 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 and to implement the first tier of the progressive truancy intervention. An agreement is then signed by the student, parent and school representative, including the school’s attendance expectations for the child and penalties for additional absences.
Two additional tiers of interventions would be applied if the student accumulates additional unexcused absences in violation of the attendance contract. At least one tier must include an individualized assessment regarding the reasons for the absence, and if necessary, referral to the child to counseling, community-based services or other services aimed at addressing the student’s attendance problems.
The bill is also designed to ensure that the intervention program is tracked to monitor its success.
Likewise, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved four bills, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) addressing juvenile justice reform. The legislation reconstructs the state’s current system to provide a more hopeful future for adolescents who come through the juvenile justice system, while balancing the need for public safety.
Senate Bill 1243 lowers the age of eligibility for expungement of non-violent offenders from 18 to 17 in order to allow adolescents the ability to start the process sooner. Through this legislation these children would be prepared to enter post-secondary education and the workforce with a clean record.
To further enhance education and provide information to juveniles, Senate Bill 1244 addresses the issue of courts notifying juveniles of the need to file a motion to begin the process of expungement. Through this bill, the administrative office of the courts will create a form that can be used by the children themselves.
“If you rehabilitate these nonviolent offenders at an early age, and they want to get right with life and get back on the right track, then expungement is really the key to success for them,” said Senator Norris.
The current cost that accompanies filing a petition for expungement is $350. “We’ve learned anecdotally that this is a heavy lift for some people to exceed,” Norris continued. Through Senate Bill 1245, the cost of expungement would be reduced to $180 to provide a more affordable fee.
Finally, Senate Bill 1253 outlines scenarios that are taken into consideration when an adolescent files for expungement. In addition, this measure would create a process to expunge cases that are disposed by pretrial or judicial diversion after successfully completing one year of the court’s expungement conditions. However, a motion could be made prior to the one year period but would still require the court to find a successful completion so long as conditions are still met, and the court believes expungement serves the best interest of the child and the community.
Legislation Approved by the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee Increases Penalties for Texting While Driving
The full Senate approved legislation, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), this week which increases the penalties for texting while driving. In Tennessee, cell phone use while driving has caused 10 times the amount of fatalities than the national average. Despite educating the public regarding the dangers, 77 percent of young adults are confident that they can safely text while driving, and 55 percent of young adults claim that it is a relatively easy task.
Presently, the law states that the charge for transmitting or reading text messages while driving is a Class C misdemeanor with fines not to exceed $50.00 and court costs not to exceed $10.00. In addition, first offense drivers must attend and complete a driver education course.
Senate bill 658 would increase the criminal classification of the offense of texting while driving to a Class B misdemeanor if the accident directly results in a serious bodily injury and would make it a Class A misdemeanor if the accident directly results in a fatality.
“This bill increases the criminal classification for an accident resulting in serious injury or death where the act of texting and driving at the time of the incident is provable,” said Speaker Tracy. “We are taking a small step forward in transforming the safety of Tennessee roadways and saving the lives of our citizens.”
STRONG ACT – The Senate Finance Committee approved and sent to the Senate floor for final consideration the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act. Senate Bill 1216 creates a pilot program to provide eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard funding toward a first time bachelor’s degree through a tuition reimbursement program. All but four states nationwide, and all states adjacent to Tennessee, already offer 100% state tuition assistance for those who are serving in the Guard. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
Broadband – The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act to expand broadband services in Tennessee is headed to the Senate floor for a final vote after receiving approval by Senate Finance Committee. Senate Bill 1215 calls for a three-year investment of $45 million in grants and tax credits that focus on the state’s unserved areas. This includes a $30 million “Broadband Accessibility Grant Program” and $15 million in tax credits to private service providers based on the purchase of broadband equipment used to provide access in the most economically challenged counties. On deregulation, the proposal permits the state’s private, nonprofit electric co-operatives to provide broadband and cable video services. The co-ops are currently restricted from providing retail broadband services. To protect co-op ratepayers, the legislation prevents the use of electric system assets to subsidize broadband services. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville).