Capitol Hill Week: Education and Anti-crime Bills Move in Senate

Disaster relief sought for storm-ravaged and flooded Tennessee counties

(NASHVILLE, TN), May 5, 2011 –  Action in the Tennessee General Assembly continued to shift from legislative committees to the floor of the Senate as we approach the final weeks of the 2011 legislative session.  Committees worked diligently to move a number of important education and anti-crime bills onto the floor of the Senate.  Meanwhile, it is the state budget that will be the central focus of attention during the remainder of this legislative session.

Victims of last week’s tornadoes and the rising flood waters in West Tennessee were also on the minds of lawmakers and Governor Bill Haslam this week as President Obama declared ten Tennessee counties, Bradley, Greene, Hamilton, Washington, Bledsoe, Cocke, Johnson, McMinn, Monroe and Rhea, as federal disaster areas as of Thursday.  The designation makes those counties eligible for varying levels of federal assistance programs.  Additional counties are expected to be added to the federal declaration as damage assessments of those counties affected by the April 25 storms are completed by local officials with Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).   Residents who sustained losses in these counties can begin applying for assistance immediately through the FEMA by registering online at www.fema.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).

As a result of the severe weather, Tennessee suffered 37 fatalities and more than 500 homes were destroyed or sustained major damage. 
 
In addition, Governor Haslam has asked President Barack Obama to authorize emergency funding of $10 million to assist the state and local jurisdictions with evacuation preparedness and activities in West Tennessee due to flooding that began April 21, 2011, a result of the record rainfall on the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.  The Mississippi River is expected to crest at the highest levels next week.  Should this request be granted, local governments in Dyer, Lake, Shelby and Stewart counties would have access to direct federal assistance for evacuation actions. 

“They don’t call it the mighty Mississippi for nothing,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who toured affected counties in West Tennessee with the Governor on Tuesday.  Norris represents several counties which are most affected by the rising flood levels.  “We are working very diligently with federal and local officials to be as prepared as possible.  The next several days will be critical as the river crests.  It is very important that residents in the areas that could be subject to flooding listen for public announcements and are ready to move to safety if an evacuation is ordered.””

Senate approves bill to allow the “Good Faith Exception” to the “Exclusionary Rule” for Tennessee Courts

The State Senate voted 26 to 4 to approve legislation to enact what is known as the “common sense” or “good faith exception” to the “exclusionary rule” regarding suppression of evidence in violation to the fourth amendment or unreasonable search and seizure.  Senate Bill 559, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) would allow a judge to give a jury access to evidence or facts obtained as a result of a search or seizure which contains a minor technical error.

The bill attempts to balance the scales of justice to a standard embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Leon and Herring v. United States, which was the law in Tennessee prior to 1979.  McNally says the standard allows the judge and jury to weigh all the facts and still administer justice in an objective manner. 

“This legislation would allow a judge to admit evidence or facts which have inadvertently been tainted due to a technical error so the jury can then make a determination on all the facts,” said Senator McNally.  “This will allow justice to be administered in an objective and balanced manner.”
 
“Prior to 1979, only evidence obtained by unlawful search and seizure was excluded,” added Senator McNally.  “That year the Tennessee General Assembly changed the standard to unlawful or invalid search and seizure.  Unfortunately, the lack of action by the courts as well as the legislature has precipitated the possible release of murderers and rapists since passage of the 1979 law due to minor defects in a warrant.”

McNally said the current law has hampered prosecution of many hardened criminals, including a man who confessed to authorities for committing the aggravated rape, robbery and murder of multiple young women but who had his conviction vacated as there was a technical error.  The technical error was made by the magistrate in the preparation of the warrant.  The court held that even though the rapist / murderer had collected “trophies” from the victims, those items should not have been admitted into evidence because of the minor defect in the warrant. 

The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.

Senate passes bill setting up process for all teachers to have input regarding professional working conditions

The State Senate approved legislation on Monday to repeal a 1978 state law that gave one teachers’ union the exclusive right of collective bargaining to negotiate terms and conditions of professional service of all teachers, regardless of whether or not affected personnel are affiliated with that union.  Senate Bill 113, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), sets up a process to ensure that every teacher has a right to make his or her voice heard regarding the terms of employment, not solely those of the union’s members through designated union leaders.

The bill restores final school policy to the popularly-elected school board members in each district.   

“I am grateful to the teachers from across the state who have expressed their concerns and suggestions regarding this legislation,” said Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), sponsor of the bill.  “This bill has been amended to ensure that school boards maintain cooperative collaboration with our teachers so that all of them have a voice in the process.”

No other groups of public employees in Tennessee, including fire or police personnel, have a statutory right to collectively bargain.  Several of Tennessee’s sister states, including Georgia which has higher teacher salaries, also ban collective bargaining.  According to the Tennessee School Boards Association, 92 of the state’s 136 LEAs have collective bargaining agreements. 

Under the bill, local education authorities (LEAs) are required to draw up an employee manual to address matters pertinent to employment and provide teachers with an opportunity to make their voices heard.  The manual includes such matters as salaries, wages, benefits (insurance and retirement benefits), leave, student disciplinary procedures and working conditions.  A sample manual will be developed by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.  Local boards, however, can draw up their own manuals or even adapt current memorandum of understandings, if they so choose. 

There is a 45-day period prior to adoption of the manual at the local level during which time teachers will be allowed to provide written input.  After input from teachers is collected, the school board will adopt the manual and make it available for their review.  Then a public hearing will be held in which local elected officials, teachers and parents can also provide input into the professional conditions and other matters in the employee manual.  The manual must be fully adopted by April 17, 2012, and will take effect July 1, 2012.

“The collective bargaining system that we have rewards average,” said state Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield). “Collective bargaining agreements underpay outstanding teachers and overpay underperforming teachers.  I want to vote for the outstanding teachers in Tennessee.”
 
Conditions set forth in the professional manual would be binding on the LEA and must be reviewed a minimum of every three years to allow for continuous teacher and parent input. 

“Many teachers have been left out of the current process,” Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).  “This bill provides an avenue for every teacher to have his or her voice heard, and puts teachers, school boards and parents in the driver’s seat, not solely those of union members through a union leader.”

The bill is supported by the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee County Commissioners Association.

Innovative school bills pass Education Committee

Legislation sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) that would allow a local education agency (LEA) to create an innovative school district (ISD) has been approved by the Senate Education Committee.  The legislation, Senate Bill 252, contains a number of safeguards and accountability measures, including the requirement that a waiver must be obtained from the State Board of Education in order to convert to an ISD. 
 
“This legislation provides traditional systems a structure and process to create an innovative school district in order to address the particular needs of their students” said Speaker Pro Tempore Woodson.  “This is an important tool to promote innovation and creativity in our schools across the state in our continued effort to improve student achievement.”

The State Board of Education would have the authority to approve or deny the proposed contract under the bill.  The Tennessee Department of Education would also review any proposed contracts. 

Prior to the submission of the proposed contract to the Department of Education, the LEA would hold a public hearing for the purpose of providing ample opportunity for discussion and public input regarding any proposed innovative school district.  After hearing public input, the LEA would submit the strategic plan and proposed contract to the state Department of Education for evaluation and recommendations.

The bill contains a provision requiring an ISD contract must include student achievement measures for students and a performance assessment.  The contract must also clearly set forth interventions or sanctions for failure to meet the identified achievement levels.  The legislation also requires that ISD students must have at least the same equivalent time of instruction as required in regular public schools.

In other action regarding education, the Senate Education Committee has approved a “Virtual Schools Act” to authorize a cyber-based public charter school that provides educational resources and opportunities to students by way of the Internet in a “virtual” classroom setting. 

Senate Bill 874, sponsored by Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), authorizes LEAs, a charter school board, and the Department of Education to sponsor a virtual school open to any student, as long as their teachers are qualified to teach in Tennessee under current statutes. Virtual school students would have access to a sequential curriculum that meets or exceeds the approved curriculum by the State Board of Education, and must have 900 hours of learning opportunities each school year.

Virtual schools would be required to provide instructional materials, access to a computer and printer, and an Internet connection.  The school would have to maintain a physical administrative office in Tennessee.  To provide accountability, the bill requires a virtual school to be evaluated annually on student achievement and on academic, fiscal, and operational performance.  The State Board of Education would be authorized to promulgate rules and regulations as needed to enact the legislation.

“Virtual schools have many advantages and have the potential to affect a large number of students in a positive way,” said Senator Gresham.  “It permits students in small, rural, or low-wealth school districts to take specialized courses that would ordinarily not be available to them.  It also meets the needs of students who have special circumstances.  It makes sense in our technological age to reach out to these students through this program.”

Bills strengthening Tennessee’s cyberbullying law progress in State Senate

Two separate bills sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), strengthening Tennessee’s law against bullying and cyberbullying through the use of electronic devices, received approval in the State Senate this week.  The action comes after several highly publicized cases of cyberbullying nationwide. 

“Technology has now given way to cyberbullying and electronic messaging, which challenges the traditional schoolyard bullying,” said Senator Ketron.  “Both of these bills are designed to help curb this problem.” 

Various national studies have found approximately 30 to 40 percent of students have reported they had been cyberbullied or had cyberbullied another person at least once. 

The first measure, which was approved by the Senate Education Committee, clarifies that Tennessee’s elementary and secondary school laws dealing with harassment, intimidation, bullying and cyberbullying applies to after-school activities that create a hostile educational environment. 

Present law prevents bullying or cyberbullying in schools; however, the law is not clear regarding incidents that occur off campus.  Senate Bill 488 expands the current policies of local education agencies (LEAs) to include cyberbullying or bullying through the use of electronic devices by adding other forms of electronic communication to Tennessee’s law dealing with the matter.

“A safe and civil environment is necessary for students to learn and achieve high academic standards,” said Senator Ketron.  “This legislation ensures that Tennessee’s bullying law extends to such off-campus activities as sports events, school buses, bus stops and other school-sponsored activities, regardless of whether or not it is done by electronic means.”

The second bill, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, calls for those convicted of using electronic devices to bully to serve up to 30 hours of community service work for transmitting or displaying an offensive image where there is a reasonable expectation the victim will see it.   Senate Bill 487 would apply in cases where there is a malicious intent by a juvenile to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to the victim.

Tennessee first passed its bullying law in 2005.  Since that time, it has become model legislation for other states.   In 2009, the legislature approved a law to require each LEA to adopt a policy that prohibits harassment, intimidation, or bullying. 

Research indicates that approximately 160,000 students avoid school every day for fear of being bullied.  

Senate passes legislation which aims to ease professional licensing process for military spouses transferred to Tennessee

Military spouses transferring into Tennessee should find the state’s licensing procedures a bit smoother following legislation passed by the State Senate today putting into place a system to expedite their professional- licensing process.  The bill would apply to a wide variety of professions, including architects, contractors, real estate agents, cosmetologists, barbers, healthcare professionals, or any other profession for which the state requires a license. 

Senate Bill 1039, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), requires Tennessee’s licensing boards to establish a procedure to expedite the issuance of a license, certification or permit to perform professional services regulated by each board to the spouse.  It would apply to military spouses who are currently licensed in a profession in another state, as long as they relocate with their husband or wife and have been transferred in the line of duty. 
 
“Most decisions to stay in the military are made around the kitchen table and not in the personnel office,” said Senator Ketron.  “To retain our trained and experienced military we must maintain the family.  This bill helps spouses with some complications that arise as a result of military service such as a delay in obtaining a professional license upon being transferred.”

Ketron said professional-licensing requirements often differ among states, limiting career advancement or deterring re-entry into the work force for military families moving to new locations.  Military spouses relocate every two to four years on average.  Over 70 percent of those surveyed say they either want or need to work.  However, delays of four to six months are commonly incurred in getting a license.  Ketron says this has a detrimental impact on the military spouse’s ability to find employment due to the frequency of military moves.
 
“This bill is to support our troops and their families and ease a burden that presents a significant problem,” added Ketron.  “Sometimes spouses become discouraged and give up their careers in health professions, law, finance and education to take lower paying jobs for which they are frequently over-qualified.  We need to do everything we can to help expedite the licensing process so this does not happen.”

The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.

In Brief….

Infant Mortality — The full Senate has unanimously passed legislation sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to help address Tennessee’s high infant mortality rate.  The bill directs the Department of Health’s Perinatal Advisory Committee to study issues and policy options relating to hospital discharge and follow-up care procedures for premature infants born less than 37 weeks gestational age.  The goal of the legislation, Senate Bill 616, is to ensure standardized and coordinated processes are followed as premature infants leave the hospital and transition to follow-up care by a health care provider in the community.  Tennessee ranks 44th in nation for healthy babies, which is up from its 47th ranking last year.  In Memphis, Tennessee, the infant mortality rate is three times higher than that of the United States.

Foreign Refugees / Resettlement – The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted this week to require any entity or agency that administers the state’s refugee program to submit regular reports to state and local governments regarding certain resettlement information.  Senate Bill 1670, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), is designed to give city, county and state authorities information to help them plan for a variety of needs, including any demands on the education system or emergency services.  Refugees are located as part of a federal government program to resettle those who have left their home country due to political or religious persecution.  Last year about 1,800 refugees from 14 different countries were moved into Tennessee, with the same amount predicted this year. 

Voter Registration / Citizenship —  The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved legislation on final consideration aiming to strengthen the integrity of elections in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 352, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), requires the Coordinator of Elections to compare the statewide voter registration database with the Department of Safety’s motor vehicle database to ensure non-United States citizens are not registered to vote in this state. The U.S. Constitution already requires citizenship to vote.  In addition, federal law makes it a crime to knowingly make a false statement or claim regarding citizenship upon registering to vote.  The bill authorizes the Coordinator of Elections to compare the statewide voter registration database with relevant federal and state agencies and county records for the same purpose. If evidence exists that a registered voter is not a citizen, the Coordinator shall notify the county election commission who will send a notice to the voter inquiring about his or her eligibility to vote. If the voter does not provide evidence of citizenship, the voter would be purged from the voter registration database. The voter may appeal to the State Election Commission if they want to challenge the decision.

Children / Hearing Devices — Legislation requiring private insurance plans to include coverage of hearing aids for children was approved by the full Senate on Thursday.  Senate Bill 607, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), requires that health insurance policies provide coverage of up to $1,000 per individual hearing aid per ear, every three years, for every child covered as a dependent by the policy holder.

Voting machines – The Senate Finance Committee gave approval to Senate Bill 1203 to allow cash-strapped Tennessee counties determine whether or not to replace their voting machines under the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act.  The vote came after both Democrat and Republican county mayors from across the state expressed strong support for flexibility regarding the law due to the costs to taxpayers, availability for up-to-date federally certified machines and the fact that the machines will have to be replaced again in the immediate future to comply with new standards from Washington.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), allows those counties who are able to tap into HAVA (Help America Vote Act) funds to assist them with the purchase if the county chooses to proceed.

Kendra’s Law – Legislation was approved by the full Senate which directs  the Department of Mental Health to study relevant issues raised by Senate Bill 608 for an assisted outpatient treatment statute, which is also known as “Kendra’s Law.”  Senate Joint Resolution 200, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), calls for a report on the findings and recommendations of the study to be delivered to the
Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee and the House Health and Human Resources Committee by January 15, 2012.  Kendra’s law was first passed in the state of New York in memory of Kendra Webdale, a young woman who died in January 1999 after being pushed in front of a New York City subway train by a person who was living in the community at the time, but was not receiving treatment for his mental illness.  Kendra’s law, as passed by New York, calls for court-directed, physician-monitored treatment programs that could include mandatory drug compliance through law enforcement.  Many of those with mental health problems are in jails which are not equipped to deal with the specialized medical attention needed to treat them. 

Drugs / Spice – Lawmakers passed legislation to extend the class of drugs under Tennessee law which is subject to a Class A misdemeanor offense for offenders who produce, manufacture, distribute, or possess the hallucinogenic plant salvia divinorum.   The bill extends the class to include the active chemical ingredient in the plant or other synthetic cannabinoids.  The drug, also known as “spice,” was popular in Europe before spreading to the U.S.  The drug goes by many different brand names and law-enforcement agencies warn that teenagers who smoke it can experience dangerous side effects.  Tests have shown that smoking the drug can cause undesirable side affects on the heart, circulation and nervous system, in some cases leading to unconsciousness. There is also a danger of addiction.  All members of the State Senate signed on as co-sponsors of Senate Bill 1726.  

Transitional Teacher Licensure — The full Senate voted to require the State Board of Education, in consultation with the Department of Education, to review current policies, rules and regulations pertaining to transitional teacher licensure options.  Senate Bill 688, sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), calls for the Board and the Department to make recommendations regarding the process by which providers or transitional licensure programs receive approval by the state to the Legislature by February 1, 2012.

Pure Honey – Consumers would be given more information about the honey they purchase under legislation approved by the full Senate this week.  The bill requires that honey sold or offered for sale in Tennessee must be labeled as 100 percent pure or not pure.  Senate Bill 703, sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), would simply give consumers more information regarding the product they are purchasing in case the honey is combined with another substance.

Federal Funds Owed — Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes told members of the Senate Finance Committee that the federal government has acknowledged they owe Tennessee approximately $82 million in “Special Disability Workload” funds.  Over the past 35 years, the federal Social Security Administration has misclassified some Tennesseans and put them in Medicaid when they should have been in the Medicare program.  Emkes said the administration, however, does not know if or when the funds will be repaid.  The administration did present a contingency plan in the case the funds are paid this year.

Verbal Orders / Physicians — Legislation traveled through the full Senate this week to give physicians and hospitals a 14-day timeframe to do the paperwork when a verbal order by a doctor is given for a patient.  Currently there is a 48-hour timeframe in which verbal orders can be documented when there is a “read back” provision.  A read back provision means the nurse is required to read back the verbal order which is then approved or clarified by the physician.  Under Senate Bill 817, sponsored by General Welfare, Health and Human Services Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), the hospital can either adhere to the current requirement or allow the authentication to take place within 14 days.  

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Posted in Weekly Review

Leadership