Norris News – April 20, 2018

On April 20, 2018, in News from Nashville 2018, by Mark Norris
The Sons of the American Revolution were the color guard for the opening of session on Patriots Day, April 16.

The Color Guard of the Tennessee Sons of the American Revolution opened session in recognition of the 243rd Anniversary of the American Revolution this week.”

State budget emphasizes four E’s – Education, Employment, Economic Opportunity and Enforcement of the Law

The Tennessee Senate passed several key bills this week, including the state budget and major legislation to curb opioid abuse, as the 2018 session of the Tennessee General Assembly draws to a close. The $37.5 billion “no growth” budget proposes state government spending for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, 2018 and extends to June 30, 2019.

The balanced budget, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), addresses opioid abuse, school safety, teacher funding, rural economic development and job growth, while allocating additional funds for the care of Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens. Norris said the bill focuses on the four “e’s” of Tennessee: employment, education, economic opportunity and enforcement of the law.

“We are increasing our commitment to children, to the elderly, the disabled, and to the future of this state,” said Norris. “This appropriations act will keep Tennessee safe and strong into the future.”

Fiscal Responsibility – The budget assumes a 3.2 percent rate of growth, well within the growth of Tennessee’s economy. During the past eight years under Republican leadership, the state spending on average has grown no more than two percent, compared to an average of seven percent in prior administrations. The bill also maintains Tennessee’s sound fiscal practices by increasing the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account for emergencies, to the highest level in state history at $861 million. Adequate savings, along with Tennessee having the third best funded pension plan in the nation, have resulted in the state receiving a triple-A bond rating from the three major credit rating agencies and being ranked among the best financially managed states in the nation.

Tax Relief — On tax relief, the appropriations bill continues the General Assembly’s ongoing efforts to provide widespread tax relief to Tennesseans. Over the past eight years, the legislature has cut $400 million in taxes, with those reductions amounting to $572 million in the 2018-19 budget year. Tennessee has reduced the sales tax on food by nearly 30 percent; implemented a complete phase out of the Hall tax; eliminated the gift tax; cut business taxes on manufacturing; and phased out the inheritance tax. Tennessee has the lowest taxes in the nation as a percentage of personal income.

In order to help provide for tax reductions and spending priorities, the budget includes reductions in appropriations of $216.6 million, including the elimination of 335 positions. Over the past 8 years, the state has realized base budget reductions of $846.9 million, including the elimination of 2,759 positions.

“This is how we live within our means,” Sen. Norris said. “This is how we reallocate revenues to meet contemporary priorities to make sure that our constituents, the Tennessee taxpayers, get a fair return on their investment. Because, it is their money, not ours; it is the taxpayers’.”

Protecting Tennessee’s Most Vulnerable Citizens — On protecting Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens, the budget as amended by the Senate provides $11 million to raise the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) hourly rate of reimbursement paid by the state for professionals providing care to Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens. DIDD professionals provide care for those who have intellectual, developmental and age-related disabilities.

“If you want to know about what our priorities are, you look at where we spend our money,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson (R-Hixson). “This budget invests more in people, and less in programs. It also sets the stage on how the legislature engages in conversation about how to take care of Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens moving forward, especially when the burden of caregiving falls on aged caregivers.”

Similarly, the bill provides $136 million in additional funds for TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program. This includes $7.3 million for the state’s CHOICES program, which serves developmentally and intellectually disabled Tennesseans.

In addition, the Senate-amended budget restores $1.4 million for the state’s early child in-home visitation program for a total $5 million. The evidence-based program has proven to be a very effective early-intervention strategy to improve the health and well-being of at-risk children in the state. The bill also provides additional funds for the federally qualified health centers and certain dental services and vision screening for some of Tennessee’s most needy citizens.

Improving healthcare services is also the impetus behind a pilot program funded in the budget to help struggling rural hospitals develop economic plans to ensure they are financially viable and continue to provide needed services. The program uses their economic standing in the community as a way of providing consulting assistance to distressed hospitals which need to change their operational models so they can be financially successful in an ever-evolving healthcare marketplace.

“The Senate’s signature is on this budget more than any of which I have been a part,” Watson continued. “It will have a positive impact on the lives of many citizens for years to come.”

Dedication of the new Plaza next to the Cordell Hull Building, the new home of the General Assembly.

Dedication of the new Plaza next to the Cordell Hull Building, the new home of the General Assembly.

State budget emphasizes four E’s – Education, Employment, Economic Opportunity, and Enforcement of the Law

The four “e’s,” education, employment, economic opportunity, and enforcement of the law, are the underlying drivers of Tennessee’s 2018-2019 state budget adopted by the General Assembly this week. The budget continues Tennessee’s strong commitment to education by providing an additional $247 million to fund K-12 education in Tennessee, including $105 million for teachers and $66.8 million for enrollment growth. It also provides $30.2 million for school safety and $13.3 million for the Response for Intervention Program which identifies the needs of struggling students to get them the help they need to succeed. The General Assembly has provided $1.5 billion in new funding over the last eight years for K-12 education, including $500 million more for increased teacher salaries.

As a result of these efforts, Tennessee students are posting the largest gains in the country and the highest high school graduation rates the state has ever seen. The state’s average ACT score reached 20.1, which is the highest recorded for Tennessee.

The budget also continues several important higher education initiatives. The bill provides $119 million in additional funding for higher education, including $10 million for Student Assistance Awards Financial Aid, $9 million for new equipment at Tennessee’s Colleges of Applied Technology, $1.5 million for a Mechatronics Program, $3 million for the engineering program at Tennessee Tech and $7.1 million for the Drive to 55 Initiative. The Drive to 55 Initiative challenges the state with the mission of getting 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. Presently, the state is on pace to meet the Drive to 55 goal two years early.

On employment and economic opportunity, the budget adds $133 million to aid job growth. This includes $71 million in infrastructure and job training assistance, $14.5 million for rural development initiatives, and $15 million to expand broadband access. Tennessee has seen strong rural job growth with a 31.7 percent increase in new job commitments over that of five years ago, as unemployment statewide is at record lows.

On enforcement of the law, the budget includes $2.4 million for law enforcement to fight Tennessee’s opioid epidemic. Crimes like robbery, theft, fraud and murder are committed in large part due to the influence of drugs. The act provides a total of $16.5 million to address opioid addiction which includes money for prevention, research, treatment and recovery. In addition, $91,500 is included to address the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft which has been heavily linked to the purchase of opiates.

Additional money is expended, under the bill, for safeguarding the rule of law. This includes increased funding for elder abuse and $4.5 million for juvenile justice reforms. It also provides $1 million for courtroom security grants.

Other notable budget highlights in Senate Bill 2552 include:

  • $460 million for capital maintenance and construction;
  • $27.6 million for corrections;
  • $20 million for the Aeronautics Economic Development Fund;
  • $4 million for tourism;
  • $213 million to address state employee compensation;
  • $57.6 million for the Tennessee Library and Archives;
  • $899,400 for new trial courts in the 16th, 19th and 21st judicial districts;
  • $100,000 for the Safe at Home Address Confidentiality Program to help domestic violence victims; and
  • $1 million for an innovative pilot program to provide grants to local sheriffs or probation departments that are successful in reducing recidivism.
Negotiations with House members on Thursday regarding the TN Ready testing amendments.

Negotiations with House members on Thursday regarding the TN Ready testing amendments.

Senate approves major legislation to address Tennessee’s Opioid Crisis

Major legislation addressing Tennessee’s opioid crisis was approved by the full Senate this week. Senate Bill 2258, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), and Senate Bill 2257, sponsored by Norris and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), would implement the TN Together Plan which employs a three-legged stool of enforcement, treatment and prevention to stop the flow of opiates in the state, help those who are addicted, and prevent citizens from becoming drug-dependent.

Tennessee Department of Health data shows 1,631 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses in 2016, while there were 13,034 nonfatal overdoses reported. Since 1999, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths nationwide, including prescription opioids and heroin, have quadrupled. This is despite the fact that over the last several years Tennessee has passed legislation to help prevent abuse by “pill mills” and to strengthen the state’s drug monitoring database.

The first bill addresses the law enforcement and treatment components of the three-pronged plan by revising various provisions of the law regarding the scheduling of controlled substances and their analogues and derivatives, including updated identifications of drugs categorized in Schedules I-V. The updated schedule of controlled substances would allow law enforcement to better track, monitor and penalize the use and unlawful distribution of dangerous and addictive drugs, including substances that mimic the effects of fentanyl, a drug that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and is linked to an alarming number of overdose deaths. The legislation, as amended, also makes it an offense to knowingly produce, manufacture, sell or possess any capsule, pill, or other product composed of or containing any amount of Kratom.

“Fentanyl has come into this state and has become a very serious drug,” said Senator Yager. “It has contributed to many deaths. Sometimes it is used to cut other drugs and is mixed with them, which has led to the deaths of users who are not aware of its potency.”

The legislation provides incentives for offenders in correctional facilities to complete an intensive substance use treatment program while incarcerated. An increasing number of offenders suffer from substance use disorders. These evidence-based programs are proven to reduce recidivism and improve lives while saving taxpayer dollars.

The second bill aims to prevent opioid addiction and ultimately, misuse and abuse by limiting the supply and dosage of opioid prescriptions with emphasis on new patients. The legislation is meant to address higher dosages of opioids which have been associated with increased risk of overdose and death, while including exceptions for individuals undergoing extreme pain for illnesses like cancer or sickle cell anemia, or patients with severe burns.

“The purpose behind the prevention legislation is to place more speed bumps on the road that leads to addiction between healthcare practitioners and patients to prevent Tennesseans from misusing or abusing prescription pain medicine,” said Senator Haile, a pharmacist who served on Governor Bill Haslam’s Opioid Abuse Task Force. “We must slow or stop the pipeline, especially on opioid naïve patients to prevent addiction.”

As of 2016, 318,000 individuals in Tennessee were either using opioids in a risky way or diagnosed as having opioid use disorder.

In other action to prevent opioid abuse this week, the Senate approved key legislation to cut off the flow of funds used in the purchase of illegal drugs. 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 estimates the loss at $12 to $15 billion nationwide, with almost all being related to illicit drug trade.

Finally, the Senate gave final approval to Senate Bill 1227, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), which directs TennCare to promulgate permanent rules to promote safe and responsible coverage for enrollees of the program. The rules, at a minimum, must address prior authorization requirements to reduce the development of opioid dependency and addiction.

“This legislation is part of our overall effort to reduce dependency on opioids,” said Senator Massey. “Some of the TennCare rules could impact chronic opioid users. The more basic purpose is to curb opiate abuse among women of child-bearing age by making sure there is prior criteria supporting screening for pregnancy and contraception use and counseling on the effects of opioids should they become pregnant.”

Ninety-two percent of all Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) babies are born to mothers who are TennCare recipients.

Bidding our colleague, Senator Bill Ketron, farewell upon his retirement from the Senate this year.

Bidding our colleague, Senator Bill Ketron, farewell upon his retirement from the Senate this year.

Legislation holding teachers and students harmless in TNReady Assessments approved by General Assembly

The State Senate passed legislation this week to hold teachers and students harmless in the TNReady testing assessments conducted for the 2017-2018 school year. The measure was adopted in an amendment and as part of a Senate/House Conference Committee Report to Senate Bill 1623, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).

“This bill acknowledges student achievement and protects teachers from untoward personnel actions as a result of recent events in testing,” said Senator Gresham.

Presently, state law requires the test to count within the range of 15 to 25 percent of a student’s grade. The legislation gives local boards of education the option to choose not to count the test at all, or to count it up to 15 percent of a student’s grade for this spring semester. The bill stipulates that no TNReady test scores from this school year can be used for teacher employment termination or compensation decisions.

The bill also prevents student performance and student growth data from the TNReady assessments from being used to identify a school as a priority school or to assign a school to an Achievement School District (ASD). It further provides that the assessments administered this school year cannot be used to assign a letter grade to a school.

The legislation comes after students in many Tennessee counties experienced problems with TNReady online testing this week, including a suspected cyber attack on Tuesday. Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced on Wednesday that she has asked the Davidson County District Attorney General to formally engage the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the State Office of Homeland Security in an investigation of the cyber attack. She also announced that she has engaged a third party with cyber security expertise to analyze Questar’s response to the attack.

Commissioner McQueen has stated that there continues to be no evidence that any student information or data was compromised in the incident.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1806, sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), placing a two-year moratorium on any additional statewide testing in Tennessee’s K-12 schools. This legislation prevents any additional assessments from being implemented until the current system is operating correctly. That new law became effective on April 12.

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