Norris News – February 22, 2018

On February 22, 2018, in News from Nashville 2018, by Mark Norris
I was honored to join with Governor Haslam, Senator Alexander, Commissioner Triplett at the National Civil Rights Museum for the dedication of the Civil Rights Trail. Mr. Elmore Nickleberry, one of the striking sanitation workers from 1968 was with us. Mr. Nickleberry, aged 86, still works for the city of Memphis.

I was honored to join with Governor Haslam, Senator Alexander, Commissioner Triplett at the National Civil Rights Museum for the dedication of the Civil Rights Trail. Mr. Elmore Nickleberry, one of the striking sanitation workers from 1968 was with us. Mr. Nickleberry, aged 86, still works for the city of Memphis.

Legislation addresses retail theft and its strong link to Tennessee’s opioid crisis

A major bill which aims to cut off the flow of funds used in the purchase of illegal drugs was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week as legislation addressing Tennessee’s opioid crisis moves front and center in the Tennessee General Assembly. Senate Bill 1717, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), addresses the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft which has been heavily linked to the purchase of opiates.

The proposal follows a new law passed by the General Assembly last year defining organized retail crime and creating two new theft offenses for the purpose of prosecuting individuals who return stolen merchandise to receive gift cards, money or store credit.

“You have one team that will go into a store and shoplift the goods,” said Sen. Briggs. “A second team will take them back without a receipt and get the value of the goods on a store gift card, with the sales tax that was never collected added. The cards are then taken to various pawn shops or gift card retailers where they can be sold at a discount. The money is then used to buy drugs illegally.”

It is estimated that Tennessee loses over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lose over $200 million each year related to return fraud. The National Retail Federation has estimates the loss at $12 to $15 billion nationwide, with almost all being related to illicit drug trade.

From April to June of last year, 98 overdose cases resulting in death or hospitalization were linked to individuals involved in retail theft. Investigative reports, like one done by CNBC entitled Gift Card Crime Fueling Opioid Addiction across the U.S., continue to lend validity to the strong connection of the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft and illegal drugs. In addition to an interview with Briggs, the report took a firsthand look at the problem with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Area Law Enforcement and Retailers Team (A.L.E.R.T).

The bill proposed this year would give local law enforcement the tools they need to make sure businesses comply with the law passed in 2017 by:

  • enhancing penalties for those convicted of Organized Retail Crime;
  • establishing penalties for businesses that do not report;
  • clearly stating what information is to be collected; and,
  • making all identifying information confidential, to be used only by the state and law enforcement.

Local law enforcement would decide how to notify businesses affected and what method they should use to report the data.

“The database is the key,” added Briggs. “Retailers can cancel cards as soon as alerted and it allows us to identify stolen sales tax dollars. It also sends real time notifications to law enforcement to investigate suspicious transactions. This will help us link suspects to organized crime rings so we can stop this destructive and deadly cycle of retail theft and opioid abuse.”

Committee members also discussed Senate Bill 2258 which addresses two components of the three-pronged TN Together legislation proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to attack the state’s opioid epidemic. TN Together is a multi-faceted plan comprised of legislation, $30 million in state and federal funds proposed in Governor Haslam’s 2018-19 budget and other executive actions to attack the state’s opioid epidemic through three major components: 1) Prevention, 2) Treatment and 3) Law Enforcement. The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), will be considered again next week.

With friends at the annual Firefighters' Fish Fry

With friends at the annual Firefighters’ Fish Fry

Senate approves Tuition Transparency and Accountability Act

Legislation providing more transparency and accountability when it comes to tuition and fee hikes at the state’s colleges and universities has passed the State Senate on final consideration. Senate Bill 1665, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), seeks to slow down tuition increases, which have risen by 125 percent over the past decade, by putting constant pressure on the process.

“Education is the roadway to the American dream, and one of our solemn responsibilities is to make sure that Tennessee students graduate from college prepared to take on the world and do so with as little debt as possible,” said Senator Dickerson.

Approximately 50 percent of graduates from colleges in Tennessee have debt that averages around $25,000.

Under the bill, governing boards must give public notice 15 days prior to a meeting to adopt an increase in tuition and mandatory fees in order to allow for public comment and awareness. Any tuition increase must be substantiated by stating the amount of increase, the reason for the increase, and any steps that may have been taken to control it.

The legislation also requires each university to provide in a student’s acceptance letter a “predictive cost estimate,” projecting how much tuition and fees will costs for a four-year period.

Finally, the proposal calls for the governing boards of each university to submit a report to be distributed to the General Assembly with information on how the tuition increases where spent during the previous year.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration where it is scheduled to be heard on February 27.

Five bills addressing sexual misconduct by teachers with their students are approved by the Senate Education Committee

The Senate Education Committee approved five bills this week to prevent sexual misconduct by teachers with their students. The legislative package follows a comprehensive report from Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson which revealed deficiencies in hiring practices for school personnel that could allow predators to slip through the cracks.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) explained there were two specific catalytic events that prompted the series of bills to be sponsored. One of them was a USA Today report which surveyed states nationwide to measure how children are protected from sexual misconduct in K-12 schools. In that report, Tennessee received a failing grade. That is when Gresham asked the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to do a thorough study regarding the matter.

The second catalytic event noted by Gresham was a case that came before the State Board of Education regarding a teacher who had been convicted of statutory rape and who wanted his professional license back. The State Board of Education denied the licensure, but was overturned by a Chancery Court in Davidson County based on ambiguity in the board’s rules.

The bills approved by the committee include:

  • Senate Bill 2014 which ensures that background checks are conducted to identify sexual predators before a teacher license is issued and that reports are done on an ongoing basis for those who work with children. Presently, school districts require an initial background check before hiring.
  • Senate Bill 2015 which prohibits a Local Education Agency (LEA) from entering into a non-disclosure agreement with a teacher that would prevent other school districts from knowing about sexual misconduct. It also allows districts to access information about the previous employment of a teacher with another school district.
  • Senate Bill 2013 which updates the state’s Teacher Code of Ethics regarding inappropriate teacher-student relationships, including engaging in sexual behavior with students or furnishing them alcohol or drugs.
  • Senate Bill 2011 which grants the State Board of Education authority to reprimand school directors for not reporting instances of misconduct and clarifies the board’s authority to reprimand educators for violating the Teacher Code of Ethics.
  • Senate Bill 2012 which calls for the State Board of Education to post all final teacher’s disciplinary action on its website to allow school districts, as well as out-of-state entities responsible for the licensing and hiring of Tennessee educators, to access information regarding the final disciplinary action of an individual’s license case. It also requires final licensure action be reported to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) database for the same purpose.

The bills are sponsored by all nine members of the Senate Education Committee, which includes Chairman Gresham, 1st Vice-Chairman Reggie Tate (D-Memphis), 2nd Vice-Chairman Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), and Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol).

Leadership Tipton County visited the Capitol this week.

Leadership Tipton County visited the Capitol this week.

Issues in Brief

Heart Attack / STEMI System of Care — Final approval was given to legislation on Thursday establishing a statewide ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction (STEMI) system of care in Tennessee. A STEMI is a very serious type of heart attack during which one of the heart’s major arteries (one of the arteries that supplies oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the heart muscle) is blocked. In order to treat a STEMI, it is vital that the patient get to the hospital quickly and have a stent placed so blood flow can be restored. Senate Bill 2071, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) requires the Department of Health to recognize hospitals that meet certain criteria as Accredited Receiving Centers and Accredited Referring Centers. Then, the emergency services and ambulances at hospitals shall develop pre-hospital protocols for transporting STEMI patients to the nearest receiving or referring hospital based on nationally recognized clinical practice guidelines. “The goal is to get the patient transported to an appropriate center as rapidly as possible to save the heart muscle to save lives,” said Briggs, who is a thoracic and cardiac surgeon.

Court Costs / Indigent Defendants – The full Senate approved legislation on Thursday that allows other counties in Tennessee to opt in to a successful Knox County program which gives indigent defendants an alternate method of paying back their court costs and litigation taxes in favor of community service. Under Senate Bill 1504, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), the defendant must apply to be a participant of the program, prove that they are indigent and be approved by the judge. If the defendant completes the program, the clerk submits documentation to the judge who can then clear the fees. If at any point in the program they have failed the requirements, the judge may rescind the defendant’s participation in the program. The number of applicants accepted and the duration and continuation of the program will be at the discretion of the clerks. “This program has been very successful in Knox County,” said Briggs. “It has required the indigent defendant who otherwise wouldn’t pay, to go out and perform community service which has been very helpful to the county. What we have also noticed is that when there did appear to be a work requirement, sometimes they did elect to find the money to pay the fees.” The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

Out-of-State Teachers / Licensing — The full Senate approved a bill this week that would address regulatory hurdles faced by high performing teachers licensed in other states who want to teach here. Although Tennessee has reciprocity with numerous states, out-of-state licensees face additional administrative burdens which can be discouraging to many of these qualified educators. Senate Bill 1804, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), removes an assessment requirement for those who hold a license in a reciprocal state as long as they have received evaluations of above expectations or significantly above expectations in each of their first two years in Tennessee. The bill aims to address teacher shortages and encourage the recruitment of high quality teachers.

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