Bill gives abused and neglected youth in state custody more opportunities to succeed

(NASHVILLE, TN), February 23, 2012 —  The Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved legislation this week to help ensure that abused and neglected youth in state custody get the chance they deserve to become healthy and productive adults.  Senate Bill 2199, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would bridge the gap for those in foster care from the teenage years to adulthood by assuring the Transitioning Youth Act continues to remain in effect for years to come.  This critical program, which was set to expire, provides assistance to youth in foster care between the ages of 18-21 – after they age out of the foster care system.

“Young people who age out of foster care face significant challenges transitioning to adulthood on their own,” said Senator Overbey.  “Most importantly, this bill would give youth in foster care a better opportunity to live successful and fulfilling lives by continuing this program until age 21.  In addition, it has a positive secondary effect on our bottom line in terms of societal costs, including the impact it has on early pregnancy, earnings potential and incarceration costs.”

The vote to approve the proposal came after lawmakers heard compelling testimony from country music star Jimmy Wayne about his experience in the foster care system and his efforts to help these often forgotten youth.  Radio talk show host Michael Reagan, adopted son of the late President Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, also expressed his support of the bill in a letter asking Tennessee lawmakers to approve the legislation.

Wayne told Committee members that he was homeless at age 13 after being abandoned by his mother.  After moving in and out of the foster care system, he became homeless again at age 16 until he was taken into the home of an elderly couple where he lived for the next six years.  Wayne said that couple’s support allowed him to go back to high school, graduate from college and pursue his dream of being in the music industry.

In 2009, Wayne remembered a promise he made as a teenager to “give back” if he became successful.  Since that time he has worked to raise awareness about teenage foster children and the challenges they face, including founding the “Meet Me Halfway” project.   In 2010, Wayne walked 1,660 miles from Nashville to Phoenix to advocate on behalf of foster youth who are in danger of becoming homeless upon being released from state custody at age 18 without vital resources.

Similarly, Reagan wrote lawmakers saying, “The majority of children who age out of foster care are not equipped to live as productive adults.”  He said statistics show that these youth are less likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and become employed or to earn a living wage.  They are also more likely to experience violence, homelessness, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancies and mental illness.  “They deserve the chance to be properly prepared for adulthood,” he said.

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative Organization reports that 40 percent of young people who were in foster care became homeless or without a stable living situation at least once since exiting foster care, and many were homeless multiple times.  Those remaining in care until age 21 were twice as likely to be working or in school at age 19.  Young women remaining in care until age 21 experienced a 38 percent reduction in the incidence of pregnancy before age 20.

“This is one of the most important bills we have before us this session,” said Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield).  “Every study about employment challenges after foster care reveals the same depressing fact that children forced to leave the foster care system without permanent families are too often left without the tools they need to succeed as adults. The tragic effects of being unprepared for adulthood are seen in the disproportionately high rates of incarceration, drug abuse, homelessness, unplanned pregnancy and poor health among former foster youth.”

The bill is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, and funds to continue the program are included in the proposed 2012-2013 budget.

Governor Haslam completes “Top to Bottom Review” of state government departments

Governor Bill Haslam released his administration’s “Top to Bottom Review” of state government departments this week.  Haslam instructed the commissioners of the state’s 22 departments to analyze operational and organizational efficiency thoroughly to see if they are functioning effectively and accomplishing their core mission.

“State government’s role is to provide services that taxpayers can’t get on their own,” Haslam said in a letter delivered to legislators.  “I believe the Governor’s job is to make sure we’re providing those services in the most customer-friendly way and at the lowest cost.”

Each department listed recommendations in the report aimed at improving the use of public resources.  Some of the recommendations are already included in the Governor’s legislative package, while many other efficiencies can be implemented internally.

“We believe this process will result in meaningful change to the benefit of Tennessee taxpayers. While this Top to Bottom Review process is complete, this administration will continue on an ongoing basis to evaluate and improve efficiency and effectiveness in the way we deliver services,” Haslam concluded.

“It is extremely important that any organization, including state government, take a look at itself in the mirror to improve efficiency and effectiveness,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).  “The Governor has done exactly this through this review.  It reflects a good business practice that will benefit taxpayers and those who receive state services for many years to come.”

The report can be found at:  http://forward.tn.gov/toptobottom/index.shtml.

Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 receives final approval in State Senate

Legislation which aims to create order in the use of Tennessee’s public lands received final approval by the full Senate this week.  Senate Bill 2508 , called the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012,” comes after reports of potential health threats, theft, lewd behavior and other crimes on the Capitol’s War Memorial Plaza in association with the “Occupy Nashville” encampment.

The bill makes it a misdemeanor offense to engage in the activity of camping on property owned by the state knowing that the area is not designated for that use.  Any items associated with camping in violation of the proposed law would be subject to seizure and forfeiture.

The legislation aims to protect the state’s interests that are jeopardized by unauthorized camping on state property in an area that is not compatible to or designated for such activity.  The bill states it is in Tennessee’s interests to be “good stewards of public land” and to manage and protect it to ensure that future generations are able to continue to enjoy it by seeing that it is properly used.

The bill states that “perhaps more important are the health concerns that can reasonably be expected to follow from the use of public land by a group of people for an activity never contemplated on that location.  Without necessities such as sanitary facilities, the risk of communicable disease transforms an unauthorized use of public land into a potential public health problem.”

Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), sponsor of the bill, told the occupiers gathered in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room upon consideration there that, “No one will ever deny citizens the right to protest –never–  nor the redress of grievances, nor the ability to come forward.  But when it comes to the public lands of Tennessee and what they were designed for, we have to bring order to that.  This bill is about bringing order to the way we manage our public lands.”

Gresham said the “occupation” of the Legislative Plaza has “not been without incident.”  Metro Nashville Police have recorded 131 arrests and 1250 incident records, which include vandalism, assaults, lewd acts, a fire, complaints of human feces on the plaza, public drunkenness, possession of marijuana and disorderly conduct.

The bill now goes back to the House of Representatives for approval of a severability clause amendment before it goes to the Governor’s desk for his signature.  Severability clauses are commonly found in legislation, and state that if some provisions of the law are found to be unconstitutional, the remainder of the statute will continue in force.

Adjutant General Max Haston updates Senate State and Local Government Committee on Military Operations and Natural Disaster Response

Tennessee’s Adjutant General Max Haston testified before the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week about his department’s budget request, its role in responding to the natural disasters that occurred in the state last year, and its efforts in the Global War on Terrorism.  The Military Department has jurisdiction over the state’s Army National Guard and Tennessee Air National Guard, as well as the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA).

Haston said Tennessee has deployed over 22,000 soldiers in the Global War on Terrorism.   Current troop strength in both Tennessee’s Army and Air National Guard is 14,010 soldiers and airmen, making it the 6th largest in the nation.  The Guard experienced a growth of 362 over last year.  There are 964 total soldiers and airmen in the state’s Army and Air National Guard who are currently deployed.  Recently,  970 soldiers and airmen returned from deployment.

“Tennessee continues to earn its name as the ‘Volunteer State’,” said State and Local Government Chairman Ken Yager.  “Our state continues to be at the forefront in safeguarding our freedoms.”

Although Haston is confident regarding the immediate flow of federal funds coming to the state’s Army National Guard in 2012 and 2013, he expects drastic cuts in 2014 due to the U.S. Army’s downsizing.  Approximately 85 percent of the state’s Military Department comes from federal funds.  The U.S. Department of Defense could have as much as $1.3 trillion in cuts.  The state’s Military Department is currently taking steps to minimize the impact of the cuts on the Army National Guard in Tennessee by strengthening the readiness of the troops, an action that would make reductions less likely.

Although the Air Force is starting to make cuts immediately, Haston said the state’s Air National Guard units have fared extremely well in avoiding drastic reductions.  The state has been slated to receive three new units which Haston says is at the “tip of the spear” in military operations. This includes a Cyber Operations Unit, another Intelligence Squadron to compliment the one Tennessee already has, and a Remote Piloted Aircraft Unit.  In addition, the C-5 aircraft located in Memphis will be replaced with new C-17s, which Haston said will “take us into the year 2040.”  The C-17s can also land in over 300 airports in Tennessee to support civilian authorities here.

On TEMA operations, Haston said there were six disasters in Tennessee which were declared by the President last year, effecting 66 counties, several of which had multiple disasters.  Tennessee has received $19.5 million in federal disaster assistance going to individual citizens and $79.7 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursements to local governments as a result of these events.

TEMA coordinated 154 missions last year in responding to the disasters and logged in  2,838 incidents monitored by agency employees.  TEMA has managed “pass through” federal funds of $479 million since 2004, mostly due to an increase in the number of natural disasters.  The Army National Guard also responded to the most severe natural disaster events in Tennessee last year.

Tennessee teachers and members of the public invited to attend & participate in public forums on new evaluation process

Tennessee teachers and members of the public have been invited to attend and participate in eight regional roundtables on the state’s new teacher evaluation process.  Earlier this year, the State Collaboration on Reforming Education (SCORE) was asked by Governor Bill Haslam to lead an independent statewide listening and feedback process on the evaluation system.  SCORE will gather feedback on challenges and concerns, identify what is working well, and report back to the state Board of Education and Department of Education on June 1.

To view details regarding the roundtables or to find the closest one to attend go to http://www.tnscore.org/feedback/.  The website will also allow educators to submit a survey regarding the evaluation system beginning March 1.

Reforming the state’s teacher evaluation system was a critical part of Tennessee’s receiving $500 million in federal Race to the Top funds which was based on four pillars:  enhancing standards and assessments, improving the collection and use of data, increasing teacher effectiveness, and turning around struggling schools.  The new teacher evaluation process was designed by teachers and other education practitioners after passage of the law.  The law was passed during the administration of former Governor Phil Bredesen and approved by the Legislature in January 2010, with the evaluation system set to go into effect during the current school year.

Senate Judiciary Committee hears NRA bills

Two bills that would give gun owners the right to self-defense began their journey through the legislative process on Tuesday.  Senate Bills 3002 and 2992, sponsored by Sen. Mike Faulk (R – Church Hill), were presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday, as several witnesses, including National Rifle Association (NRA) State Liasion Heidi Keisling, testified in support of the bill.

“Together these bills will prevent employers from discriminating and enforcing policies against the storage of lawfully-owned firearms in employees’ private motor vehicles,” said Senator Faulk. “Tennessee has already recognized that private vehicles are an extension of our homes. These bills acknowledge this and our Second Amendment rights.”

As introduced, Senate Bill 3002 would recognize that Tennesseans’ right to self-defense does not end when they drive onto their employer’s property or into publicly accessible parking lots. It will allow firearms to be stored out of sight in a locked vehicle, while providing employer immunity from liability for any damages.

Senate Bill 2992 is firearm discrimination prevention legislation that will protect law-abiding gun owners from anti-gun policies put in place by employers across the state, including forced employer firearm registration, random vehicle searches, and “gun zone” parking lots for gun owning employees.

Other witnesses testifying in support of the bill told lawmakers that they were employed in a high crime area and desired to carry a firearm for protection purposes traveling to and from their workplace.

Debate will continue on the legislation on March 6 when members are expected to vote on the proposal.  In the meantime, lawmakers are working with business owners who have concerns regarding the bill to find a solution that balances the rights of gun owners with those of employers.

Bill would improve market for grape farmers

The Tennessee Senate State & Local Government Committee has approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), designed to help Tennessee’s growing grape farming industry.  Senate Bill 3552 would improve the market for Tennessee grapes as state experts estimate 90 farms would seek permits authorized upon implementation of the proposed law, with an additional 15 expected to follow each year afterwards.

“Tennessee farmers in the grape-growing business will get a boost when we pass this legislation,” said Senator Faulk.  “It will allow grape growers to add a new dimension of agri-tourism to their farm sales.  It will also boost state and local sales tax revenues.”

The legislation would allow grape farmers to contract with wineries in the state to custom crush the farm’s produce, turning it into wine labeled with the farm and winery’s logo. Tennessee wineries currently pay a premium of 240 percent for Tennessee grapes compared to similar grapes from out-of-state.

The measure now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, its last stop before reaching the Senate floor for final consideration.

State Civil Service System Needs Major Reform, Comptroller Report Suggests

A report released by the Comptroller’s Division of State Audit this week suggests that Tennessee’s civil service system is inefficient, unfair and outdated.  The audit said the system, developed in 1939, centralizes the process for people who wish to apply for civil service jobs within the state’s Department of Human Resources. The department maintains lists, or registers, of potential candidates for job openings.

The report said the system is fundamentally flawed. For example, it said the human resources department ranks potential candidates and recommends them to whichever state departments or agencies have job openings. It says this is inefficient because in many cases the top-ranked candidates are not interested in or may not actually be qualified for the open positions. In addition, it said the ranking process itself lacks transparency, so neither the departments and neither agencies nor candidates know exactly how the process is conducted.

The report says registers are often top heavy with current state employees to the exclusion of people who wish to enter state service, as job openings are not always posted if human resources officials believe they have suitable pools of applicants for those positions.  The system allows employees with more seniority to “bump” less senior employees out of jobs, which can set off chain reactions that displace numerous employees.

The Comptroller’s report recommends that the current system be replaced with a decentralized system that would give departments and agencies the ability to screen and
hire applicants directly.  To view the report online, go to http://www.comptroller1.state.tn.us/repository/SA/sr04056.pdf.

Issues in Brief

Electronic Fraud Hotline – Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) guided her first bill through the State Senate this week with approval of legislation calling for an electronic hotline for citizens to email any reports of fraud or abuse in state government spending.  Senate Bill 2259 adds electronic notifications to the current telephone hotline authorized under the Advocacy for Honest and Appropriate Government Spending Act.

Baby Boomers / Elderly Care – Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability Director Jim Shulman told lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week that by 2030 there will be about 72.1 million persons age 65 and older.  This is twice as many as their number in 2000. Shulman told the committee that it is important that Tennessee is efficient with its resources to serve an increasingly larger aging population.  People age 65 plus represented 12.4% of the population in the year 2000 but are expected to grow to be 19% of the population by 2030.  Baby boomers are typically defined as those individuals born between (and including) 1946 and 1964, totaling 75 million “boomers” or 29 percent of the U.S. population.

State Road Projects – Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer told Senate Transportation Committee members this week that his Department has 400 projects under construction, 800 in some form of development, and 550 projects managed at the local level, for a total of 1750 active projects.  Schroer came before the Committee to present the budget for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).  Schroer said that since last year TDOT has completed major projects in all regions of the state, including State Route 131  in Knoxville from I-40 to the Pellissippi Parkway, I-40 at White Bridge Road in Davidson County, a portion of U.S. 64 in Hardin County and opened the Chattanooga Transportation Management Center.

Jobs and Roads / Bridges — During 2011, the Tennessee Department of Transportation had 7 industrial access road projects at a combined cost of over $8.198 million supporting new or expanding industries.  TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said the projects  represented capital investments totaling $53 million for the creation of approximately 845 jobs with a total income of $27 million.  Schroer also said that, at the end of 2011, TDOT brought 200 of Tennessee’s bridges from structurally deficient or functionally obsolete to structurally or functionally sound.  “While this program ends, we will continue to focus on bridges using both state and federal dollars to continue our efforts in restoring the state’s bridges,” said Schroer.

CPR / Education – The full Senate approved a House amendment and sent to Governor Bill Haslam legislation calling for schools to include hands-on practice in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) programs.  The current wellness curriculum in schools requires CPR training.  Senate Bill 1680, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), ensures that this training includes hands-on practice as well.  The training for CPR is often provided by local emergency personnel who give demonstrations for the students and the opportunity to practice the life-saving skill.

7th and 8th Grade Advanced Math and Science Teachers / Loan Forgiveness – The full Senate approved and sent to the Governor legislation which would allow 7th and 8th grade teachers to apply for up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness funds available for secondary school teachers that teach advanced high school courses in math and science.  Senate Bill 2579 , sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) changes the definition of elementary school so 7th and 8th grades can be classified as secondary schools in this case and these teachers can apply for loan forgiveness.

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