CAPITOL HILL WEEK: Budget moves front and center as legislature works toward adjournment / Lawmakers pass major worker compensation reform bill

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee lawmakers continued to make progress on Capitol Hill this week acting on several key bills, including a major workers’ compensation reform legislation.  However, the biggest legislative hurdle before adjournment later this month is the state’s budget.

Governor Bill Haslam sent additions to his proposed 2013-2014 budget to the Senate Finance Committee this week for consideration.  The supplemental appropriations amendment is customarily introduced in the final weeks of the legislative session each year for consideration and approval by the General Assembly.  It includes additional funding to the governor’s budget based on new revenue projections from the State Funding Board.  Notable funding priorities in the governor’s budget amendment include:
• $5.2 million in additional revenue from the tobacco settlement for a total of $43.1 million to support Healthy Tennessee;
• $1.37 million restored for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services   Peer Support Centers;
• $225,700 restored for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities for positions in West, Middle and East Tennessee;
• $250,000 more to Family Violence Shelters;
• $1 million grant for University of Tennessee, Martin Parsons Campus nursing program;
• $44.6 million for the state’s Fast Track Job Training Assistance Program;
• $1.26 million for infrastructure at Rocky Fork State Park;
• $3 million for State Library and Archives and State Museum planning;
• and $1 million for the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

Senate Bill 502 , which authorizes the budget, will continue to be the main focus during the remainder of the 2013 legislative session.  The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

On workers’ compensation reform, the State Senate approved final passage of legislation to make the state more attractive to job creation, while protecting injured employees.  Senate Bill 200, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would cut costs to businesses, create more predictability, improve the efficiency of claims management, simplify the physician selection process for injured employees and reduce benefit delays to workers.  The legislation comes as a result of two comprehensive studies tasked with identifying possible recommendations for improving the program.

“The primary gains for employees include fewer delays, better medical treatment, claims processing that is easier to follow and better support from the Workers’ Compensation Division when problems do arise,” said Senator Norris.

Highlights of the bill include:
• employees would file their claims in a newly created Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims, rather than going to a trial court;
• provides neutral application of the workers’ compensation law so that neither side has an unfair advantage;
• gives a clearer standard for causation to require that the injury arose primarily out of employment rather than non-work related activities; 
• provides disability benefits for injured workers based on a maximum of 450 weeks instead of the current 400 weeks;
• modifies requirements for medical panels through development of advisory medical treatment guidelines by January 1, 2016 that are based on best practices in medical care for work-related injuries and / or illnesses; and 
• creates a new Ombudsman program to help employees and employers who are unrepresented get the assistance they need.

“This bill would implement a system that is fair, efficient and better for both employees and employers,” said Senator Johnson.  “Employees will receive benefits faster and in a manner that is easier to calculate, and they will be able to return to work sooner.  Employers will have a fairer, more predictable environment in which to conduct business and create jobs.” 

Currently, Tennessee is one of only two states in which workers’ compensation cases are settled primarily in the courts.  In following, the state’s workers’ compensation premium costs are higher in Tennessee than in bordering states. 

Senate Judiciary Committee approves package of bills to attack human sex trafficking

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a package of bills that builds on the legislature’s ongoing efforts to attack the problem of child prostitution and human trafficking in Tennessee.  The legislation, which included eight bills approved by committee members this week, increases penalties for sex trafficking and related criminal activities and gives prosecutors more tools to bring offenders to justice.
 
“Sex trafficking is a real issue that is facing Tennessee,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), sponsor of seven of the bills. “These bills will make it easier for our justice system to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes and hold them responsible for their actions.”

According to a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) study, human sex trafficking is a widespread problem in Tennessee, with 78 of the 95 counties reporting the crime has occurred within their boundaries over a two-year period.  The study also showed that sixty-two counties reported the presence of human sex trafficking of minor children, with Shelby, Davidson, Coffee, and Knox reporting more than 100 cases.

The legislation sponsored by Kelsey and approved by the Judiciary Committee includes:
• Senate Bill 1030 to prohibit defendants from using consent as a defense in the cases of soliciting, sexual exploitation of a minor, aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, and especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor;
• Senate Bill 1390 to broaden the definition of custodian to include anyone who physically possesses or controls a child (the proposal would enable Child Protective Services to remove a child from the care of a trafficker in cases in which the trafficker is not a parent, guardian or legal custodian, which, under current law, are the only people considered custodians);
• Senate Bill 1035 to provide defendants or victims of sex trafficking restitution of special damages which include medical and counseling related expenses the victim incurred as a result of sex trafficking and other offenses;
• Senate Bill 1038 to add trafficking for commercial sex acts, promoting prostitution, patronizing prostitution, solicitation of a minor, soliciting the sexual exploitation of a minor and exploitation of a minor by electronic means to the list of criminal acts that can constitute a charge of  racketeering;
• Senate Bill 1032 to increase the charge of promoting the prostitution of a minor from a Class E felony to a Class A or B felony;
• Senate Bill 1033 to create the Class C felony of promoting travel for the purposes of prostitution. In many instances, those perpetrators that solicit prostitution travel great distances to do so.  This charge would apply to those who knowingly promote this travel; and
• Senate Bill 1028 to extend the statute of limitations for the charges of commercial sex acts and soliciting the sexual exploitation of a minor to ten years after the victim turns 18, and patronizing and promoting prostitution of minor to 15 years after the victim has turned 18.   In many instances, victims are unaware of the fact they are victims at the time of their 18th Birthday. This legislation would allow them more time and maturity to make that realization.

In addition, the package includes Senate Bill 1027, sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill  Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), to allow children who are victims of trafficking for commercial sex acts and patronizing prostitution the opportunity to testify outside of the courtroom by using a two-way closed circuit television. Currently, the same courtesy is afforded to victims of aggravated sexual battery, rape, incest, aggravated child abuse, kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated kidnapping, and a criminal intent to commit any of the offenses above.

 “I am extremely proud of the work that this committee has done to combat sex trafficking,” said Chairman Ketron.  “These predators and criminal gangs target women and children because of their vulnerability.  That is why it is so important to strengthen penalties against those who exploit them.  It is intolerable that in 2013, this crime is growing rather than decreasing.  We must continue to take the steps needed to address it.”

All of the bills, with the exception of Senate Bills 1032 and 1033, which must clear the Finance Committee, are currently awaiting placement on the floor calendar for final consideration by the Senate.

Senate Judiciary Committee approves resolution to change the way state’s Attorney General is selected

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a resolution sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), calling for the State Attorney General (AG) to be selected by the General Assembly provided voters agree. 

Currently, the Tennessee Attorney General is selected by the State Supreme Court and serves until he or she resigns or are replaced by the five Justices.  The resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 196, would give citizens the opportunity to vote on changing that process to provide that the Attorney General be selected in a joint convention of the legislature to a four-year term beginning in January 2019.

 “Tennessee is the only state in the nation that allows the State Supreme Court to select the attorney general and where the people have neither a direct nor indirect voice in this process,” said Senator Green.  “This legislation would allow citizens’ voices to be heard regarding the highest legal office in the state through their elected representatives.”

The state’s Secretary of State, Comptroller and Treasurer are also selected by the General Assembly.

The constitutional amendment process requires approval by both the 108th General Assembly currently in session, and the 109th, which will take office in 2015.  If approved, the question would then go to voters in a statewide referendum in the 2018 general election.

LEAP bill calling for “cooperative education” programs aims to attract jobs to Tennessee

A major jobs bill moved through the Senate Education Committee this week creating the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP).  Senate Bill 1330, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), allows students at Tennessee’s technology centers and community colleges to combine occupational training in a high-skill or high-technology industry with academic credit and to apply that experience toward a degree.  The legislation directs several state entities to work together in both establishing and carrying out the initiative.  

“I am very excited about this jobs bill,” said Senator Norris.  “We have learned that all too often employers in this state are not communicating with our Department of Economic and Community Development and our departments in higher education, or in some cases, Labor and Workforce Development and vice versa.  Employers come to this state with certain job skills needed, certain number of employees that they need to be able to hire and all too often they find that when they come to Tennessee it is more difficult to find skilled workers than they anticipated.  This bill addresses that need.”

The legislation is drafted so that wages or other compensation received by students will not impact eligibility for state need-based financial assistance or grants.  Norris and his staff consulted with major employers in Tennessee and other southern states, as well as overseas, to study what are referred to as “cooperative education” programs. Students are paid to learn while applying what they learn at work for credit toward a degree.

“This program recognizes that an important outcome of a student’s education is job opportunity,” added Norris.  “Having employers work closely with state agencies creates increased collaboration and focus across the board, giving students the opportunity to attain credentials.”

Legislation to help keep students safe at school wins approval

Two proposals to help keep students safe at school won approval this week, including key legislation that will allow superintendents to hire retired law enforcement officers to provide security.   The legislation comes in the wake of the shooting in Connecticut in December, which pointed to the need to increase school safety. 

Governor Haslam has proposed $34 million in state funding to address ongoing capital needs in K-12 schools that can be used for school safety measures.   The School Security Act of 2013 would give school superintendents the option to hire retired police officers, highway patrol officers, federal agents, game wardens and other personnel with extensive weapons or law enforcement training to serve as security at schools upon receiving 40 additional hours of specialized training. 

“Many schools are looking to bring security into their buildings in a safe and affordable and safe manner,” said Senator Niceley, (R-Strawberry Plains) who sponsored the bill.  This legislation gives them that ability.” 

The 40-hour training would include education in crisis management and hostile situations in the school setting. The person would also have to complete an annual eight-hour Peace Officers Standards and Training certified firearm training program.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was also the impetus behind legislation requesting the state’s BEP Review Committee to make a recommendation in its annual report this year as to whether the state’s school funding formula should be modified to include a component regarding school safety and security.  Senate Resolution 30, is sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).

Governor Bill Haslam, state law enforcement officials and homeland security experts met with education leaders from more than 120 school systems earlier this year to discuss school safety.   Mental health specialists and emergency management officials also joined the group to think through additional measures that school districts can put into place to avoid a tragedy like the one which occurred in Newtown.   The group reviewed best practices and new ideas on school safety, noting that the right plan would likely vary district by district.  Both of these proposals fit into that plan. 

In Brief….

Agriculture Spotlighted — Tennessee lawmakers celebrated Ag Day on the Hill at Legislative Plaza this week. The day highlighted the importance of farming and forestry to Tennessee and featured a wide variety of exhibits and activities.  Tennessee has 77,300 farms representing 10.8 million acres in production. More than half of the state, 14 million acres, is in mostly privately owned hardwood forests. Tennessee’s top agricultural commodities include cattle, soybeans, poultry, corn, cotton, greenhouse and nursery products, timber, dairy products, wheat, tobacco and hay. Agriculture and forestry contribute more than $71 billion a year to the state’s economy and employs nearly 364,000 residents.

Handgun permit holders — Legislation to prevent a list of names of those holding a Tennessee’s handgun carry permit from being printed or circulated has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Senate Bill 108, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), would allow for the media and Safety Department to confirm whether someone who had run afoul of the law was a permit holder, but only by providing a legal document or other record that “indicates the named person is not eligible to possess a handgun carry permit.”  The legislation does not create an exception for political operatives and lobbying groups to obtain the entire set of names and addresses.  The companion bill was approved 84-10 in the House last month.

Drones — Legislation that protects citizens from unwarranted surveillance by drones and helps to ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The legislation defines “drone” and says they can be only be used to counter a high risk of terrorist attack, or if a warrant is obtained to prevent imminent danger to life.  Exceptions are also provided when looking for a fugitive, monitoring a hostage situation, or to help find a missing person.  If drones violate these, civil action may be filed under Senate Bill 796. Data will be private and deleted no later than 24 hours after acquisition.  The Federal Aviation Administration predicts 10,000 commercial drones could be in the skies by 2020.  The bill, which is modeled after a Florida law, is sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet). 

Education / School Transfers — Senate Bill 1175 passed through the Senate Education Committee on Monday, allowing parents to transfer their children to schools without the approval of the child’s current school.  Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who sponsors the bill, said it was the latest move in Tennessee’s effort to promote school choice for students and parents.  The bill mandates an open enrollment period where parents of students can request a transfer to any school listed with adequate space by the school board.  Upon acceptance to the new school, the student must maintain good attendance, behavior and academic progress to remain at the new school. 

Rape / Child Custody — Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) carried Senate Bill 923 unanimously through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, moving the bill to the State Senate for a floor vote.  The legislation allows a court to terminate the parental rights of a person convicted of rape, aggravated rape, or rape of a child.  Moreover, the bill allows certified copy of the conviction of either three offenses as evidence enough to terminate parental rights, which is intended to protect rape victims from having to appear in court with the convicted rapist.

Rape / DNA Profile — The full Senate has approved legislation by a former emergency room doctor that will give Tennessee prosecutors a new weapon in rape cases where the Statute of Limitations is about to expire.  Senate Bill 831, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), will allow a criminal prosecution to be commenced by issuing an arrest warrant that identifies the perpetrator based on the DNA profile.  Under the measure, prosecutors will soon be able to obtain a “John Doe” arrest warrant based on the perpetrator’s DNA profile, saving the case from dismissal on grounds that too much time has passed.

Governor / Duties — A joint resolution that provides for a process to hand over the office of governor during a period when he or she cannot perform their duties was read to the Senate for the first time this week.  Any proposal to change the state’s Constitution must be read three times before the Senate can vote on the measure.  Senate Joint Resolution 103, sponsored by Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), would allow for the Speaker of the Senate to assume the duties of office if the Governor is incapacitated, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  The bill follows Tennessee’s current constitutional provision that provides the Speaker of the Senate (followed by the Speaker of the House) to assume the duties in cases of death, removal from office or resignation.

Students with Disabilities / Occupational Diploma — The Senate Education Committee has approved legislation requiring the State Board of Education to adopt an occupational diploma for students with disabilities.  Senate Bill 886 is sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald).

Students of Retired Teachers — Legislation that allows students attending public higher education institutions, who are receiving a 25 percent tuition discount as children of fulltime teachers, to continue to receive the discount in the event their parent retires has been approved.  Under present law, every child in Tennessee under 24 years of age whose parent is employed as a full-time certified teacher in any public school or as a full-time technology coordinator in any LEA receives a 25 percent discount on tuition to any state operated institution of higher learning.  Senate Bill 1265, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), adds that a child receiving the discount would continue to receive it if their parent retires after a minimum of 30 years of full-time creditable service in the public schools of Tennessee.

Embryo / Legal Process — Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) moved Senate Bill 473 successfully through the full Senate this week, providing a legal process for embryo donors to transfer rights to an embryo to future parents.  Upon passage of the bill, “legal embryo custodians,” those who hold the full legal rights to an embryo, will be able to contract the relinquishment of rights prior to the inception of an embryo into a female uterus to future parents.  Written in accordance to guidelines from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, the bill will both protect donors from future liabilities or complication and clarify the legal rights of future parents who choose in vitro fertilization.

Jails / Work Program — Senate Bill 524 won passage on final consideration by the Senate on Wednesday. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), requires any person convicted of a felony and sentenced to a local jail to be required to work in the jail’s work program. Currently, the inmates have the option of opting out of a jail’s work program. This legislation would incorporate participation in a work program into the violator’s sentencing. An inmate would be excluded from participating if the County Sheriff thanks he or she poses a security or escape risk, suffers from physical or mental health conditions, or if the county cannot afford to provide the security or transportation for the inmates sentenced to the work program.

State Government Hiring / Discrimination — Legislation that amends Tennessee state government’s hiring policy to disallow the granting of any preference to candidates on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity has passed final consideration in the Senate.  Senate Bill 114, sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson) and Senator Joey Hensely (R-Hohenwald) adds language to the part of the law that already bans discriminatory practices in hiring government employees, with the intent to ensure that all hires are conducted purely on the merits of the applicants. 

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