Norris News from Nashville – March 28, 2014

On March 28, 2014, in News 2014, News from Nashville 2014, by Mark Norris

March 28, 2014 Lawmakers for Tennessee Nutrition Caucus to address Nutrition, Food Insecurity and Hunger Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), on Ag Day on the Hill this week, and other legislators launched the Tennessee Nutrition Caucus. “This is a bi-partisan team of state legislators who understand that one’s quality of life depends on the […]

March 28, 2014

Lawmakers for Tennessee Nutrition Caucus to address Nutrition, Food Insecurity and Hunger

Press conference announcing formation of Nutrition Caucus

Press conference announcing formation of Nutrition Caucus

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), on Ag Day on the Hill this week, and other legislators launched the Tennessee Nutrition Caucus. “This is a bi-partisan team of state legislators who understand that one’s quality of life depends on the necessities of life.” Currently, according to Feeding America, 25.1% of Tennessee’s children and 17.6% of Tennessee’s general population do not know where their next meal will come from.

Norris was joined by Senators Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville) and Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Representatives Curtis Halford (R-Dyer), Jason Powell (D-Nashville), and Joe Towns (D-Memphis) at the announcement.

At the event Senator Dickerson said, “As one of the three practicing physicians in the Senate, I have a unique opportunity to see the ravaging effect of poor nutrition on a daily basis, and I am excited to work toward implementing good public policy based on my experience. There’s much to be done.”

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Members of the Caucus were joined by several community organizations engaged in the fight against hunger and malnutrition: the Tennessee Farm Bureau, YMCA, Beverage Association of Tennessee, Tennessee Wildlife Federation, Feeding America, Tennessee Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and University of Tennessee Center for Health Science Center.

“Our long-term goal is to provide an appropriate forum to find solutions to malnutrition – legislative, public, private and volunteer – and put them to work like reducing unemployment through healthier lifestyles, eliminating food deserts, encouraging urban gardening, harvests for the hungry and community education events. These are just a few examples of what we can do together to make a meaningful difference in the lives of all Tennesseans,” said Norris.

This Day in Tennessee History

We, the people of the territory of the United States, south of the river Ohio, having the right of admission into the general government as a member state thereof, consistent with the Constitution of the United States, and the act of cession of the state of North Carolina, recognizing the ordinance for the government of the territory of the United States, north west of the river Ohio, do ordain and establish the following Constitution or form of government; and do mutually agree with each other to form ourselves into a free and independent state, by the name of “The State of Tennessee.”

“The first session of the general assembly shall commence on the last Monday of March…” – Article I, Section VI, Constitution of 1796.

Tennessee’s first Constitution, “done in Convention … on the sixth day of February” 1796, provided for the election of the members of the General Assembly on the second Thursday and Friday of March; those members would then meet in Knoxville on the last Monday in March.

Eleven Senators (one from each county) and twenty-two Representatives (two from each county) formed the First General Assembly of the State of Tennessee; it convened on this date, March 28, in the year 1796.

Tennessee would then become a state on June 1, 1796; making the General Assembly two months older than the state itself.

The Second General Assembly of the State of Tennessee convened on the third Monday of September, 1797; every other year since then (other than 1861 and 1863) a new General Assembly has convened in the capitol city.

The General Assembly began today, March 28, 218 years ago.

Passage of Key Education Bills Highlight Capitol Hill Week

Choice and Opportunity Scholarships — Among key education bills passed this week was the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act.” This legislation, proposed by Governor Bill Haslam and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), provides opportunity scholarships for up to 5,000 students on free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent in academic achievement.

In 2012, a Task Force recommended the scholarships, which are similar to vouchers, be offered to low income students, especially those who are assigned to low-performing public schools. These scholarships can be used in private or religious schools which meet academic requirements set by the state’s Department of Education. The bill stalled last year regarding whether the scholarships should be limited to the lowest five percent of the state’s schools or there should be broader distribution.

As amended, Senate Bill 196 gives priority to students deemed eligible under the original bill proposed last year, with the same accountability measures in place. The schools are required to administer a nationally-normed, end-of-year test to scholarship students. If caps are not met by the priority groups, students on free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent would be eligible for a scholarship to fill the remaining slots. The number of slots would be expanded to 7,500 in the second year and 10,000 in the third, until it reaches a maximum of 20,000 in year four and thereafter.

“This legislation gives students in low performing schools an equal opportunity to receive a quality education,” said Leader Norris. “It will boost academic performance and help us reach our goal of graduating more students from Tennessee’s K-12 schools who are prepared to meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive workplace.”

Waivers / Traditional Public Schools — State Senators gave final approval to legislation on Monday that would provide traditional public schools with the same flexibility as charter schools with regard to requesting waivers from the commissioner of the state’s Department of Education. Senate Bill 2392, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), provides the commissioner can grant a waiver as long as it does not interfere with teachers’ due process rights, salaries, benefits or licensure.

“In 2002, with the enactment of Tennessee’s Public Charter Schools Act, one of the talking points was that the legislation would create laboratories of learning whereby best practices or new techniques could be replicated throughout the state,” said Sen. Overbey. “However, under current law traditional schools are limited in duplicating these best practices. This bill will give our traditional public schools the same opportunities to ask for waivers and employ some of the practices that have been proven to work in charters and those schools which have waivers or less restrictive environments.”

Currently, local education agencies (LEA) may apply for a waiver from the State Board of Education’s rules and regulations; however, the commissioner cannot waive certain regulatory or statutory requirements. Senate Bill 2392 authorizes the commissioner to waive any state statute that inhibits the LEA’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission to improve student outcomes. The legislation follows passage of the Performing School Districts Flexibility Act in 2013, which gives leeway to school districts who qualify as “high performing school districts.” To qualify, however, districts must meet a majority of requirements that include a 90 percent or above graduation rate, 21 or higher average ACT score, and high or seriously improved TCAP performance. This bill applies the same flexibility to schools across the board as long as the commissioner agrees.

Religious Viewpoints and Anti-Discrimination Act — The Senate gave final approval and sent to the Governor the “Religious Viewpoints and Anti-Discrimination Act” to help ensure our students have the right to voluntarily express a religious viewpoint while attending a K-12 public school. Senate Bill 1793, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), provides much needed guidance for school officials who have sometimes felt compelled to squash a student’s voluntary religious expression for fear of lawsuits on subjects that are otherwise deemed permissible by the school.

Earlier this year, Tennessee made national news when a 10-year-old student was asked to write about whom she idolized and she chose to write about God. The teacher rejected the student’s chosen subject matter and asked her to redo the assignment. The girl then chose to write about pop singer Michael Jackson, which was then approved by the teacher.

“This bill puts a student’s faith-based expressions on a level playing field with secular or other viewpoints in accordance with the First Amendment, which is protected by U.S. Supreme Court rulings,” said Senator Haile. “The legislation helps to guarantee that students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.”

School officials would be prohibited from discriminating against the voluntary expression of religious viewpoints at “limited public forum” functions in which students are given an opportunity to speak, as long as they can maintain order and it is not disrupting scheduled instructional time. In addition, students may participate in prayer groups, religious clubs, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after the school day “to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular activities.” This includes the annual “meet you at the pole” prayer event which is popular in many Tennessee schools.

Legislation would help ensure citizens’ privacy when using electronic devices

Legislation advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to prohibit state and local police agencies from accessing or retrieving the location data of residents by surveillance of an electronic device without a court warrant. Senate Bill 2087, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), would help ensure government does not take advantage of technological advances in cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices to spy without appropriate judicial oversight.

“Government and law enforcement agencies should not be able to tap into your cell phone location or gain access to electronically stored data without a warrant approved by a judge,” said Senator Beavers. “We cannot let technological advances sidestep the Fourth Amendment. This protection is a very important part of the checks and balances put into place by our forefathers to keep government from overstepping its boundaries.”

Law enforcement made 1.1 million requests to wireless carriers for cellphone data information in 2012 according to a report delivered to Congress in December. The three largest wireless companies, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon reported they have received 56,400 “emergency” requests from police departments which did not have a warrant or court order. One company reported their requests from police have doubled in the past five years.

In addition, public records obtained by USA Today and Gannett reveal that about one in four law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have used “tower dumps.” This is a surveillance tactic which covers multiple towers and wireless providers to give police a multitude of electronic data about a targeted cell phone user. The digital dragnets also capture information on other persons using wireless devices in the area who are not suspected of wrongdoing.

The electronic privacy bill is modeled after one passed in Montana which allows exceptions only in order to respond to a possible life-threatening situation, an emergency call by the user or when a device is reported as stolen, unless there is informed consent by the owner. The legislation prescribes a Class C misdemeanor for violation.

In addition, the Committee passed Senate Bill 1757 sponsored by Beavers, which would classify cellular telephones as sealed containers and prohibit the search and seizure during a routine traffic stop. The officer could not retrieve data contained in the mobile devices unless there is a search warrant, the owner gives informed consent, it is abandoned, or exigent circumstances exists to suspect criminal activity at the time of the seizure.

“Citizens must be protected from unreasonable government intrusion,” added Beavers. “This legislation is a big step forward in securing our Constitutional freedoms.”

Legislation aids Senior Citizens Participating in the Property Tax Freeze Program

The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation to help senior citizens who participate in Tennessee’s property tax freeze program. Senate Bill 1128, sponsored by State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), requires the base tax for property tax freeze programs to be recalculated in any year in which the actual tax due is less than the previously established base tax for the property.

“Simply put, this legislation will re-freeze their tax bill when the tax amount due becomes lower,” said Senator Yager. “It provides a helpful correction for our needy senior citizens who are on the property tax freeze program.”

Yager said, under the current law, it is very difficult for seniors to re-freeze their base tax amount. This legislation makes the calculation automatic.

In November 2006, Tennessee voters approved an amendment to Article II, Section 28 of the Tennessee Constitution giving the General Assembly the authority by general law to authorize counties and/or municipalities to implement a local option property tax freeze for taxpayers 65 years of age or older. The Property Tax Freeze Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), was passed in 2007 putting the program into place. Twenty-seven cities and 23 counties participate in the program.

In Brief

Annexation – The full Senate voted 27 to 1 on Thursday in favor of major legislation which repeals annexation in Tennessee by municipal ordinance. Tennessee is one of only three states which allow annexation by ordinance. Senate Bill 2464, sponsored by Senators Bo Watson (R-Hixson), Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Mark Norris (R-Collierville), eliminates a city’s right to annex by ordinance and leaves the only method of annexation to be consent by the land owner or referendum. The bill also prohibits annexations of land used primarily for agricultural purposes without the consent of the owner. In addition, the bill continues the current annexation moratorium until May 15, 2015 and specifically directs the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to study the collateral effects of the repeal. This includes the rights of businesses and property owners not residing in the area who would not be qualified to vote in a referendum and how to deal with situations where utilities have already been extended in anticipation of annexation.

Ag Day on the Hill – Members of the General Assembly joined with farmers and agriculture groups from across the state this week to celebrate Tennessee’s annual “Ag Day on the Hill” event at the Legislative Plaza. Governor Bill Haslam has also proclaimed the date “Agriculture Day” as part of the annual national observance to recognize the important contributions of farmers and forestland owners to the state and nation. Ag Day on the Hill activities included the popular milking contest between Senate and House members, a cattle-weighing contest, farm animals, crops and equipment, and new this year, a silent auction to benefit Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee and Tennessee’s Ag in the Classroom educational program.

911 Funding Reform – Legislation advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week updating the existing statutory model for funding Tennessee’s 911 emergency communications network to account for changes in telecommunications technology and consumer choices. Senate Bill 2407, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), is the product of yearlong discussions and collaboration among state legislative leaders, local emergency communications districts, the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, public safety officials and telecommunications carriers. The compromise bill establishes a stable, reliable future-proof funding source for maintaining and improving the state’s emergency communications network services.

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