CAPITOL HILL WEEK: General Assembly passes budget and closes 2013 legislative session

NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  The State Legislature passed a state budget and several key bills including unemployment compensation reform, education reform, school safety and prescription drug abuse before adjourning the 2013 legislative session to become a part of Tennessee history.  The action came after three and a half months of legislative deliberations and is one of the earliest adjournments in 23 years. 

The $32.8 billion budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), is fully balanced and incorporates approximately $43 million in tax cuts for Tennesseans. 

“In direct contrast to Washington, Tennessee’s budget is balanced,” said Leader Norris.  “The state is ranked 48th lowest in the nation in per capita debt and 47th in per capita tax burden, all while balancing our state budget and lowering tax burdens for our citizens.”

“In submitting this budget, the Governor recognizes a slowly recovering national economy,” added Norris.  “Like last year, it is an optimistic budget.  We remain on guard but we are on the move in Tennessee.”

Senate Bill 502 allocates $18.7 million to take the second step in a four-year process to phase out the state’s inheritance tax, also called the death tax.  It also provides $1.5 million to allow more senior citizens to qualify for Hall income tax relief and $22.2 million to reduce the state sales tax on grocery food from 5.25% to 5.0%.  Norris also won approval of  Senate Bill 198 and Senate Bill 199 on Monday to make the necessary changes in state law to implement the tax reductions. 

On K-12 education, the budget fully funds the Basic Education Program, invests $51 million to assist local governments in paying for technology transition upgrades in schools across the state and makes available $34 million to address ongoing capital needs that can be used for increased security measures to protect students.  It appropriates more than $35 million for K-12 teacher salary increases and provides $47 million in funding to help improve Tennessee’s lowest performing public schools.

The budget prioritizes higher education by providing $307.3 million to fund capital outlay projects in higher education, $35 million to fund the state’s new outcome-based formula adopted under the state’s Complete College Act, $5 million to provide assistance to 2,675 needy students and $16.5 million for equipment for Tennessee’s Technical Centers and Community Colleges. 

Other highlights of the budget include: 
• $104 million cost increase for a 1.5% pay raise salary market adjustment for state employees;
• $46.3 million cost increase for state employee group health insurance;
• continues the state 401 (K) match at $50 per month;
• reduces state employee positions by 299 or .08%;
• $350 million cost increase for TennCare inflation and related expenses;
• $8.6 million cost increase for Cover Tennessee programs;
• $7.5 million cost increase for Children’s Services;
• $100 million to the Rainy Day Fund, bringing it to $456 million by June 30, 2014;
• $79.6 million cost increase for local jail payments, a new prison in Bledsoe County, medical contracts and other inflationary growth;
• $3.9 million cost increase for mental health;
• $4.3 million in capital outlay for the Montgomery County veterans’ home;
• $134 million in capital outlay for state building improvements through the Facilities Revolving Fund;
• $8 million in one-time funds for tourism marketing;
• $1 million in one-time funds for the College 529 Savings Plan;
• $37.9 million for health and wellness initiatives;
• $110 million for economic development; and
• provides tax relief for low income seniors, veterans and the disabled by fully funding the growth of the property tax freeze program enacted in 2007   

The budget assumes a general fund revenue growth of 3.89% during the 2013-14 fiscal year. 

Legislation approved this week continues the work done on unemployment compensation reform last year

State Senators approved legislation this week before adjourning the 2013 legislative session that continues the work done on unemployment compensation reform last year.   Before passage of the 2012 law, Tennessee did not have an efficient system in place to verify a claimant’s efforts of seeking employment while on unemployment benefits.  As a result of that new law, the Department of Labor is now required to conduct weekly audits to ensure that claimants are actively seeking work while on unemployment benefits. 

“The Department found that claimants who are audited under the 2012 law, on average, return to work five times faster than those who were not,” said Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).  “This year’s legislation raises the number of audits to be conducted from 1,000 per week to 1,500 per week.” 

Last year’s legislation also clarified the definition for misconduct as it affects unemployment insurance compensation so that a claimant who is consciously insubordinate, knowingly violates state regulations, has been caught stealing or is chronically absent could not  receive benefits.  Johnson said this year’s bill continues those efforts to define misconduct by adding to that definition any conduct that is constituted as a criminal offense for which the employee is seeking benefits. Senate Bill 783 applies to cases involving dishonesty that arose out of the claimant’s employment or that was committed while he or she was acting within their scope of employment. 

“If an employee was fired for cause as a result of a conviction of a misdemeanor or felony, the bill removes the employee’s right to reconsideration of benefits currently in the law,” he added.   

The legislation also helps ensure the solvency of Tennessee’s Unemployment Trust Fund by returning the base period benefits from the current level to pre-2009 stimulus funding, which required Tennessee to expand benefits.  According to the financial analysis, the total recurring savings to the Trust Fund is reasonably estimated to be over $50 million.  

“This legislation continues our efforts to protect our worker’s compensation fund for the benefit of those who need unemployment benefits by curbing abuse of the system,” said Senator Johnson.  “Besides providing stability for the unemployment compensation fund, it also gives job creators the assurance that they need in knowing that we will address fraud and abuse to keep their unemployment insurance payments at the lowest rate possible.”

Senate votes to lift the ban on municipal school districts

 As part of a continuing effort to reform education in Tennessee, the State Senate passed Senate Bill 1353 on Monday, lifting the ban on municipal school districts implemented in 1998.  Carried by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senate Bill 1353 gives citizens in municipalities with at least 1500 students permission to vote on whether to create a municipal district and whether they are willing to raise taxes to pay for it.

 “The ban on municipal school districts has created an artificial impediment to innovation,” said Senator Norris.  “In recent years, the General Assembly has authorized the creation of other new types of schools that did not exist when the municipal ban was imposed, including charter schools, achievement schools and virtual schools.  Giving a municipality that wants to assume responsibility for its students an opportunity to do so is the next step in the education reform process.”

Municipal school districts in place prior to the 1998 ban statistically contain higher performing schools, with 88% of those districts currently maintaining above average TCAP or ACT scores.  Under new law, 29 more municipalities might qualify to apply for a special school district. 

The Senate, likewise, approved Senate Bill 1354, also sponsored by Senator Norris, which effectively authorizes an unlimited number of municipal districts in any county provided the requirements of state law and the rules of the State Board of Education are met.

Legislation to help keep students safe at school wins approval

Legislation that aims to help keep students safe at school won final approval this week which empowers a local director of schools, in conjunction with the school principal, to hire retired law enforcement officers to provide security.   The legislation, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), also allows a teacher to possess a gun at school if they are a retired law enforcement officer that is Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certified.  However, all decisions regarding the carrying of firearms would be made at the local district and school level. 

The bill comes in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December, which pointed to the need to increase school safety.  POST certification requires extensive law enforcement training, including the handling of firearms.

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, including the hiring of security.   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 and who have a handgun carry permit to serve as security at schools upon receiving 40 additional hours of specialized training. The 40-hour training would include education in crisis management and hostile situations in the school setting. Teachers who are authorized to carry guns as result of their law enforcement background would also have to go through the specialized training.  The bill also requires the chief of the local law enforcement agency to be notified that the employee has been authorized to carry a gun. 

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

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, which was passed on April 8, 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. 

Senate passes “Step up Scholarships” to give students with developmental disabilities the opportunity to receive a Tennessee Lottery Scholarship

Legislation, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), giving students with developmental disabilities the opportunity to receive a Tennessee Lottery Scholarship was approved by the State Senate on Thursday.  Senate Bill 36 would create the Tennessee STEP UP Scholarship to provide accessible funding for high school students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who have college aspirations.

 “Tennessee’s lottery scholarships were created to help Tennessee’s high school graduates reach their dreams,” Senator Overbey said.  “This legislation removes the barriers so scholarship opportunities are open to everyone who shows a desire through their coursework to obtain a college degree, regardless of disability.”

Like the larger HOPE Scholarship program, the bill allocates $4,000 per year for a maximum of two years to each student who qualifies, starting for the 2013-2014 academic year.  To be eligible, a student must display Tennessee residency, graduate high school in his or her own Individual Education Program, and be admitted to and enroll in an eligible postsecondary institution no later than 16 months after graduation.

 “Lynn’s Law” to protect state’s most vulnerable citizens from willful abandonment approved on final consideration

The State Senate approved a minor House amendment on Thusday for “Lynn’s Law,” sending the bill to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.  Lynn’s law is named for 19 year-old Lynn Cameron, a developmentally disabled Illinois woman, who was abandoned by her mother in a Caryville, Tennessee bar.  Unable to tell authorities who she was and how she got there, Lynn was left without identification and put into emergency care until she could be identified.

“When law enforcement authorities sought to prosecute the mother, they found Tennessee law does not cover willful abandonment,” said Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), sponsor of the bill.  “Fortunately, Campbell County authorities took care of her and they were able to place Lynn in a home so she could receive proper care.  This could have turned out a lot worse for this young woman if she had fallen into the wrong hands.”

“Lynn’s Law” defines abuse or neglect in the adult protection statutes to include willful abandonment or failure to pick up an adult if the caretaker knows that the person cannot take care of his or herself without assistance.   Senate Bill 675 applies to an individual or institution that has assumed the duty to provide for the care of the adult by contract or agreement and includes a parent, spouse, adult child or other relative either biological or by marriage who resides with the incapacitated adult or who regularly visits them and who knows he or she is unable to care for themselves.

Lynn’s mother was receiving compensation for providing care to her daughter by the state of Illinois.  It took law enforcement authorities 10 days to identify her.

“This bill gives prosecutors the ability to prosecute this crime,” added Yager.  “It is imperative that we ensure that our most vulnerable citizens are protected from such dangerous action in the future.”

Major legislation to curb abuse of prescription drugs passes State Senate

Major legislation sponsored by State Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) and Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) designed to curb the abuse of prescription drugs in Tennessee is on its way to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature after final action was taken on the bill on Thursday.  Yager said the bill is a result of “comprehensive and collaborative effort by citizens, legislators, law enforcement and medical professionals to enhance and tighten the regulations on prescribers and pain management clinics.” 
“The bill is named the Addison Sharp Prescription Regulatory Act of 2013 in memory of an East Tennessee man whose young life was tragically cut short in 2012 by an overdose of prescription medication,” said Massey.  “Since this tragedy, his family has been working with our local legislative delegation, law enforcement and medical professionals to attempt to decrease the number of lives being taken by this growing epidemic.” 

“Prescription drug abuse is at epidemic levels in Tennessee,” Yager continued.  “It not only adversely affects the public health, but the public safety and economy.  This legislation provides additional and useful tools to fight this scourge.”

Provisions of the Senate Bill 676 would:
• Directs the Commissioner of Health to develop a standard of care on prescribing the most commonly abused prescription medications and provide this information to the various licensing boards who oversee prescribers; 
• Requires two hours of training for medical professionals every two years on these guidelines and other pertinent requirements such as medicine addiction and risk management;
• Limits the dispensing of opioids and benzodiazepine to 30 days.  (The prescription may still be issued for 90 days, but this will limit it to a 30-day supply at a time);
• Requires reporting to the Controlled Substance Monitoring Database by all prescribers who dispense at their offices; 
• Clarifies the definition of manufacturer and wholesaler of drugs and require the reporting of the drug distribution to the State of Tennessee as they do to the DEA; 
• Strengthens the definition of pain management clinics by closing a loophole in the law that has allowed some operators to avoid registration;
• Requires a patient of pain management clinics to have a current and valid government-issued identification or health insurance card for monitoring purposes;
• Limits the medical director at pain management clinics to four clinics total; 
• No longer authorizes money order payments as method to reimburse pain management clinics for services essentially putting an end to cash business; and
• Enhances the fine for violations on unregistered clinics to between $1,000 – $5,000 per day to substantially impact those who choose to operate illegally.
“The current fine is considered just the cost of doing illegal business for unscrupulous pain clinic operators,” said Yager.  “This will make the fines higher, while expanding who can be fined and the frequency of fines, to attack the problem of illegal operations in our state which contributes to our prescription drug problem.”

“The prescription drug problem has touched almost every Tennessee family,” added Massey.  “Tragically, it is the number one reason for children being taken out of their homes and into state custody.  We must turn back the tide of this epidemic and this legislation makes a major step in the right direction in accomplishing that goal.”

In Brief….

Crime / Gangs — Legislation passed the full Senate on Tuesday rewriting and simplifying the state’s Criminal Gang Enhancement statute, which prosecutors report is too difficult to interpret and navigate.  Currently, prosecutors must prove the group is a “criminal gang;” show the defendant is a “criminal gang member;” demonstrate the gang and/or an individual has committed a criminal gang offense, and establish the group has a pattern of “criminal gang activity.” The revised statute lists the specific offenses considered to be criminal gang offenses rather than asking prosecutors and courts to interpret today’s more vague definition. According to 2012 data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, gang members now outnumber law enforcement officers 2 to 1 in the state.  The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

DUI / Interlock Devices – State Senators have approved key legislation to curb drunk driving, requiring the use of ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers.  In 2011, 257 people were killed in Tennessee in alcohol-related crashes, which is approximately 27% of all traffic fatalities in the state.  Senate Bill 670, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), decreases from 0.15 percent to 0.08 percent, the breath or blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that is considered an enhanced offense for purposes of issuing a restricted driver license. The bill also requires the interlock device be capable of taking a photo, to ensure that another person does not provide the sample for a convicted offender.  The average first offender has been on the road 80 times drunk before their first arrest according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  Currently, 17 states require interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers.

Attorney General — The Senate 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.  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.

Student Health / EpiPens — Legislation to help ensure that every public school in the state has epinephrine injector pens on hand, or EpiPens, was approved by the full Senate.  Senate Bill 1146, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), would help make the EpiPens available in public schools in Tennessee in case of a life-threatening allergic reaction when the student does not have one available. The legislation authorizes the school nurse or other trained school to administer the epinephrine auto-injectors to respond to an anaphylactic reaction using protocols from a physician.

Tennessee Technology Colleges — The name of the “Tennessee Technology Centers” will be changed under legislation passed by the full Senate this week.  Senate Bill 643, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), changes the name of the centers to “State Colleges of Applied Technology.” 

LEAP / Jobs and Higher Education — Senate Bill 1330, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), passed during the last week of legislative action to create the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP).  The measure 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 is drafted so that wages or other compensation received by students will not impact eligibility for state need-based financial assistance or grants.  The legislation is modeled after “cooperative education” programs where 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.  Having employers work closely with state agencies creates increased collaboration and focus across the board, giving students the opportunity to attain credentials.



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