Capitol Hill Week
Legislation addresses retail theft and its strong link to Tennessee’s opioid crisis
(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 22, 2018 – A major bill which aims to cut off the flow of funds used in the purchase of illegal drugs was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week as legislation addressing Tennessee’s opioid crisis moves front and center in the Tennessee General Assembly. Senate Bill 1717 addresses the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft which has been heavily linked to the purchase of opiates.
The proposal follows a new law passed by the General Assembly last year defining organized retail crime and creating two new theft offenses for the purpose of prosecuting individuals who return stolen merchandise to receive gift cards, money or store credit.
It is estimated that Tennessee loses over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lose over $200 million each year related to return fraud. The National Retail Federation has estimates the loss at $12 to $15 billion nationwide, with almost all being related to illicit drug trade.
From April to June of last year, 98 overdose cases resulting in death or hospitalization were linked to individuals involved in retail theft. Investigative reports, like one done by CNBC entitled Gift Card Crime Fueling Opioid Addiction across the U.S., continue to lend validity to the strong connection of the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft and illegal drugs. The report took a firsthand look at the problem with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Area Law Enforcement and Retailers Team (A.L.E.R.T).
The bill proposed this year would give local law enforcement the tools they need to make sure businesses comply with the law passed in 2017 by:
- enhancing penalties for those convicted of Organized Retail Crime;
- establishing penalties for businesses that do not report;
- clearly stating what information is to be collected; and,
- making all identifying information confidential, to be used only by the state and law enforcement.
Local law enforcement would decide how to notify businesses affected and what method they should use to report the data.
Committee members also discussed Senate Bill 2258 which addresses two components of the three-pronged TN Together legislation proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to attack the state’s opioid epidemic. TN Together is a multi-faceted plan comprised of legislation, $30 million in state and federal funds proposed in Governor Haslam’s 2018-19 budget and other executive actions to attack the state’s opioid epidemic through three major components: 1) Prevention, 2) Treatment and 3) Law Enforcement.
Senate approves Tuition Transparency and Accountability Act
Legislation providing more transparency and accountability when it comes to tuition and fee hikes at the state’s colleges and universities has passed the State Senate on final consideration. Senate Bill 1665 seeks to slow down tuition increases, which have risen by 125 percent over the past decade, by putting constant pressure on the process.
Approximately 50 percent of graduates from colleges in Tennessee have debt that averages around $25,000.
Under the bill, governing boards must give public notice 15 days prior to a meeting to adopt an increase in tuition and mandatory fees in order to allow for public comment and awareness. Any tuition increase must be substantiated by stating the amount of increase, the reason for the increase, and any steps that may have been taken to control it.
The legislation also requires each university to provide in a student’s acceptance letter a “predictive cost estimate,” projecting how much tuition and fees will costs for a four-year period.
Finally, the proposal calls for the governing boards of each university to submit a report to be distributed to the General Assembly with information on how the tuition increases where spent during the previous year.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration where it is scheduled to be heard on February 27.
Senate Health and Welfare Committee approves legislation to address Tennessee’s increasing suicide rate
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved legislation on Wednesday establishing a Tennessee Suicide Mortality Data Review and Prevention Team in the Department of Health to address the growing number of adult suicides in Tennessee. The Suicide Prevention Act of 2018 calls for the team to gather suicide data identifying causes and factors in order to direct limited prevention resources in the most effective way possible.
There were 1,110 suicide deaths in 2016, which is the highest number recorded in Tennessee in over 35 years of record-keeping. This is compared to 945 deaths in 2014 and 1,065 deaths in 2015.
Under the bill, the team would be composed of a physician and a nurse appointed by the Commissioner of Health, as well as designees from the Departments of Health and Mental Health and the chairs of the health committees in the Senate and House of Representatives. The group would make recommendations for changes to any state law or policy that would promote the prevention of suicide deaths or improvements to the way suicides are investigated and/or reported. They could also propose strategies for prevention of suicide deaths on which TSPN can focus. Recommendations would be made to the health committees by January 2020.
The legislation dovetails with the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, as issued by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, that calls for local health officials to routinely collect, analyze, report, and use suicide-related data to implement prevention efforts.
Legislation bolsters state’s Go Build Tennessee Program
Legislation bolstering Tennessee’s Go Build Tennessee Program, which encourages and promotes career opportunities in the construction industry, was approved by Senate Commerce Committee this week. Senate Bill 1922 clarifies that the annual 50 percent transfer of revenue from the contractor’s license be used solely for the implementation, administration and management of the non-profit program.
The goal is to encourage and promote career opportunities in Tennessee’s secondary schools, postsecondary schools, colleges of applied technology and community colleges. The Go Build Tennessee website features 109 in-state training programs of the top demanded occupations. These occupations include carpenters, welders, road builders, electricians, masons, equipment operators, plumbers, and pipe fitters and more.
In Alabama, where the program originated in 2010, they have been able to increase construction-related Career and Technical Education (CTE) course enrollments by 24 percent. Tennessee’s Go Build Tennessee Program has communicated with students, parents and teachers in all 95 counties of the state as they widen their efforts to attract more skilled tradesmen to these high demand jobs.
Five bills addressing sexual misconduct by teachers with their students are approved by the Senate Education Committee
The Senate Education Committee approved five bills this week to prevent sexual misconduct by teachers with their students. The legislative package follows a comprehensive report from Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson which revealed deficiencies in hiring practices for school personnel that could allow predators to slip through the cracks.
Two specific catalytic events prompted the series of bills to be sponsored. One of them was a USA Today report which surveyed states nationwide to measure how children are protected from sexual misconduct in K-12 schools. In that report, Tennessee received a failing grade. After the report was issued, a request was made to the Office of the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to do a thorough study regarding the matter.
The second catalytic event was a case that came before the State Board of Education regarding a teacher who had been convicted of statutory rape and who wanted his professional license back. The State Board of Education denied the licensure, but was overturned by a Chancery Court in Davidson County based on ambiguity in the board’s rules.
The bills approved by the committee include:
- Senate Bill 2014 which ensures that background checks are conducted to identify sexual predators before a teacher license is issued and that reports are done on an ongoing basis for those who work with children. Presently, school districts require an initial background check before hiring.
- Senate Bill 2015 which prohibits a Local Education Agency (LEA) from entering into a non-disclosure agreement with a teacher that would prevent other school districts from knowing about sexual misconduct. It also allows districts to access information about the previous employment of a teacher with another school district.
- Senate Bill 2013 which updates the state’s Teacher Code of Ethics regarding inappropriate teacher-student relationships, including engaging in sexual behavior with students or furnishing them alcohol or drugs.
- Senate Bill 2011 which grants the State Board of Education authority to reprimand school directors for not reporting instances of misconduct and clarifies the board’s authority to reprimand educators for violating the Teacher Code of Ethics.
- Senate Bill 2012 which calls for the State Board of Education to post all final teacher’s disciplinary action on its website to allow school districts, as well as out-of-state entities responsible for the licensing and hiring of Tennessee educators, to access information regarding the final disciplinary action of an individual’s license case. It also requires final licensure action be reported to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) database for the same purpose.
Senate Bill 2014 will go to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration, while the other bills are headed to the full Senate for a final vote.
Issues in Brief
Constitutional Amendment banning Hall Income Tax – Legislation to amend the Tennessee Constitution to ban the Hall income tax passed the full Senate on Thursday on third and final reading by a vote of 26 to 3. Senate Joint Resolution 494 proposes additional language in Article II, Section 28 of Tennessee’s Constitution which would eliminate state and local governments’ authority to levy state or local tax upon income derived from stocks and bonds that are not taxed ad valorem. The Hall income tax, enacted in 1929, is the only tax on personal income in Tennessee. It is currently a four percent tax on income derived from dividends on stock or from interest on bonds after the General Assembly has made several reductions over the past several years. Legislation was approved last year to incrementally phase the tax out by January 2021. However, the proposed amendment would constitutionally prohibit the General Assembly from ever levying or permitting any state or local tax upon income derived from stocks and bonds.
Heart Attack / STEMI System of Care — Final approval was given to legislation on Thursday establishing a statewide ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction (STEMI) system of care in Tennessee. A STEMI is a very serious type of heart attack during which one of the heart’s major arteries (one of the arteries that supplies oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the heart muscle) is blocked. In order to treat a STEMI, it is vital that the patient get to the hospital quickly and have a stent placed so blood flow can be restored. Senate Bill 2071 requires the Department of Health to recognize hospitals that meet certain criteria as Accredited Receiving Centers and Accredited Referring Centers. Then, the emergency services and ambulances at hospitals shall develop pre-hospital protocols for transporting STEMI patients to the nearest receiving or referring hospital based on nationally recognized clinical practice guidelines.
Blockchain Technology / Legal Authority — Legislation which recognizes the legal authority of “distributed ledger technology,” which includes “blockchain technology” used in smart contracts, advanced this week in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Blockchain is a growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Originally developed as the accounting method for the virtual currency Bitcoins, the technology is now appearing in a variety of commercial applications. Senate Bill 1662 gives any signature, record, or rights of ownership accomplished through distributed ledger technology full legal effect, validity and enforceability. The legislation seeks to make Tennessee more attractive for this technology.
Revenues – Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin announced this week that overall January state tax revenues posted less than expected, while year-to-date state revenues remain more than budgeted. Revenues for January totaled $1.4 billion, and were 3.18 percent less than revenues received in the same time period one year ago, and were $25 million less than budgeted. On an accrual basis, January is the sixth month in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Year-to-date revenues were $185.1 million more than the budgeted estimate. The general fund recorded $136.1 million more than budgeted estimates and the four other funds that share state tax revenues were $49.0 million in above the estimates. These estimates are available on the state’s website at https://www.tn.gov/content/tn/finance/fa/fa-budget-information/fa-budget-rev.html.
Court Costs / Indigent Defendants – The full Senate approved legislation on Thursday that allows other counties in Tennessee to opt in to a successful Knox County program which gives indigent defendants an alternate method of paying back their court costs and litigation taxes in favor of community service. Under Senate Bill 1504 the defendant must apply to be a participant of the program, prove that they are indigent and be approved by the judge. If the defendant completes the program, the clerk submits documentation to the judge who can then clear the fees. If at any point in the program they have failed the requirements, the judge may rescind the defendant’s participation in the program. The number of applicants accepted and the duration and continuation of the program will be at the discretion of the clerks. The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.
Out-of-State Teachers / Licensing — The full Senate approved a bill this week that would address regulatory hurdles faced by high performing teachers licensed in other states who want to teach here. Although Tennessee has reciprocity with numerous states, out-of-state licensees face additional administrative burdens which can be discouraging to many of these qualified educators. Senate Bill 1804 removes an assessment requirement for those who hold a license in a reciprocal state as long as they have received evaluations of above expectations or significantly above expectations in each of their first two years in Tennessee. The bill aims to address teacher shortages and encourage the recruitment of high quality teachers.
College, Career and Technical Education — The Tennessee Department of Education announced new steps forward this week in its work to strengthen the integration of postsecondary and workforce readiness throughout K-12 education, ultimately preparing students to meet the demands of the real world. Through a new report, the College, Career and Technical Education (CCTE) Transition Advisory Council provides recommendations and guidance as the department moves forward in its work to successfully transition students from high school to postsecondary education and beyond. The Council was created in 2017 to provide insight and guidance as the state welcomed new leadership to drive its work in postsecondary and career readiness.
Police Officers – Senate Joint Resolution 563 designating May 13-19 as “Police Week” and May 15 as “Peace Officers Memorial Day” passed the Senate unanimously on Thursday. The designation is in honor of “the brave and valiant service rendered by the many law enforcement officers through Tennessee.”