CAPITOL HILL WEEK: Legislation advances in the Senate to improve student discipline in the classroom

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Senate Committees worked at full steam this week as they wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government and moved a number of important bills to the Senate floor for final action.  The Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee have closed their business for the 2013 legislative session.  The remaining committees are preparing to conclude their business over the next three weeks, as the General Assembly is working to adjourn next month.

Legislation advances in the Senate to improve student discipline in the classroom

Two major bills designed to improve discipline in the classroom advanced in the State Senate this week.  This includes key legislation, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), that requires principals to suspend or expel students who cause bodily injury to a teacher, bus driver or other school personnel. 

Presently, Tennessee law states a principal “may” suspend a student for a variety of reasons, including assault or violence against school employees.  Senate Bill 264  authorizes a student to be suspended from school for using vulgar, obscene or threatening language toward a principal, a teacher, a school bus driver or other personnel at anytime on or away from school property.  The bill, however, makes the punishment mandatory when a student escalates to committing an act that results in bodily injury. 

The proposal leaves the type and duration of the suspension up to the school principal, but requires that prior to readmission the parent or legal guardian of the offending student must meet with the principal or a designee. 

“This bill makes it very clear that students can be held accountable for their actions at the school house as well as away from it,” said Gresham.  “A student needs to know they cannot lay in wait for a teacher to step off of school grounds and then verbally or physically assault them thinking it will not be dealt with back at school.  And, teachers need to know they can move about freely in their community without the fear of a student threatening violence or using vulgar, obscene or threatening language against them with impunity.”

The bill is now headed for the Senate floor for a final vote.

Another bill giving teachers an additional tool to use in maintaining student discipline was approved by the full Senate this week on final consideration.  Senate Bill 883, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), requires local boards of education to adopt policies regarding a teacher’s ability to remove disruptive students from the classroom in grades 5 – 12.  The policy must specify the actions required by the teacher and the actions required by the principal in removing the students for disruptive behavior.  The bill gives the principal the flexibility to decide the punishment but says that after three times of removing a disruptive student, the principal cannot send that student right back into the classroom.  

“This legislation makes it clear what prerequisites have to be met before a teacher can send a student to the principal’s office for additional disciplinary action,” said Senator Hensley.  “This lets students know that if they create problems within their classrooms in violation of what is acceptable behavior, that there will be consequences up to and including suspension and possible expulsion.” 

Legislation approved by Senate Judiciary Committee allows prosecutors to charge DNA profile as a person in rape cases

The Senate Judiciary Committee 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.  Under the measure sponsored by Senator Mark Green, MD, (R-Clarksville), 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.

“To me, this is personal,” Dr. Green declared, noting that as an emergency room physician, he treated “all too many rape victims who could not identify their attackers.” 
“Approximately 90,000 women are raped every year in the United States, with only 25 percent of these attacks resulting in arrests,” he added.  “It’s heartbreaking for the victims and their families when, years later, they are told that even if the perpetrator is caught, he can’t be prosecuted because too much time has expired – especially when courts at all levels have recognized the validity of DNA tests in identifying suspects and establishing guilt.”

Senate Bill 831 will allow a criminal prosecution to be commenced by issuing an arrest warrant that identifies the perpetrator based on the DNA profile.
“Skilled emergency room personnel often obtain DNA evidence that identifies the perpetrator of rape, even if the victim herself cannot do so,” Dr. Green noted. 

“As the DNA registry expands – often because these individuals are arrested for some other crime – and better technology decreases the time it takes for analysis, this legislation will be increasingly valuable to prosecutors seeking justice,” he predicted.
“The science of DNA comparison is changing the way law enforcement agencies treat and investigate rape and sexual assault,” Dr. Green said.  “It is already resulting in more detailed police investigations and greater rates of conviction.  This bill ensures that Tennessee law keeps pace with this emerging science so that prosecutions will be kept alive even when the perpetrator can’t be brought to justice within the time allowed by the statute of limitations.”

Tennessee Energy Independence Act encourages use of natural gas to help reduce dependence on foreign oil

The Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee has approved the Tennessee Energy Independence Act which is an attempt to promote the utilization of an abundant resource of natural gas produced in the United States.  Senate Bill 852, sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), establishes a rebate program modeled after one in Pennsylvania that would pay up to 50% of the incremental costs, which is the difference between a petroleum vehicle and a natural gas vehicle.   

“Natural Gas is an American-grown solution that will allow the US to achieve Energy Independence and can reduce or eliminate our dependence on foreign oil,” said Senator Ketron.  “Fleets across the country are looking to convert to Natural Gas due to its low cost (half the price of gasoline or diesel) and its low carbon footprint.  In order for Tennessee to attract the investment, we need to make our business environment more competitive.”

The rebate program is a small portion of the overall vehicle cost, but will make the investment in Tennessee much more attractive.  In order to qualify, a business must pay the full base cost of the vehicle as well as half the incremental costs.  For example, if a diesel trash truck costs $250,000 and a natural gas trash truck costs $300,000, the incremental cost is $50,000.  Under the bill, the business would be eligible for a $25,000 rebate or half of the incremental cost.

In addition, the bill allows the Department of General Services to add natural gas vehicles to its mix of energy efficient vehicles and sets goals for up to 25% of future fleets subject to vehicle and fueling availability.  It also authorizes the Commissioner to engage in pilot projects regarding natural gas vehicles.

Finally, the legislation gives guidance to property assessors regarding the assessment of natural gas fueling equipment and ensures that a business that invests in natural gas fueling infrastructure will not be hit with a large property tax bill.  The proposed language caps the assessment at 30% of the installed value and is similar to the tax treatment that the Comptroller has recommended for the solar industry in Tennessee and the same as the wind industry currently enjoys.

Bill would end routine payment for hotel stays for legislators who live within 50 miles of the State Capitol Building

Legislation that would end routine per diem payments for lodging for state legislators who live within 50 miles of Tennessee’s State Capitol Building was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week.  Senate Bill 107, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), only allows for hotel payment upon special circumstances like inclement weather as approved by the House and Senate Speakers, but receipts for the hotel stay must be provided.

“This is a big step forward in reforming the per diem system through which members receive reimbursement for expenses,” said Senator Haile.  “I should not be reimbursed for a hotel stay if I sleep in my own bed at night.  This legislation would end routine reimbursement for lodging for those who live within a 50-mile commuting distance to the State Capitol Building.”     

Currently, members of the General Assembly are paid $173 per day which is the federal per diem rate. The money is used to cover lodging, food, and other costs. The state law that provides for the reimbursement of legislator expenses is not a permissive statute, meaning payment of the expense account is not optional.  If a member chooses to reimburse the state for their expense account payment, they must write a check to the state; however, they still are required to pay taxes on the full amount to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  The IRS considers the per diem payment for those living within 50 miles of the State Capitol as income, meaning affected lawmakers must pay federal taxes on it in accordance with their guidelines.

The State and Local Government Committee also approved Senate Joint Resolution 127 calling for a study by the Tennessee Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) of the General Assembly’s  per diem structure which compensates legislators for their expenses.  The resolution, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), instructs TACIR to look at the number of counties that each member represents, the population of each member’s district, the number of square miles in the district, the number of local and county governments, and the distance to and from Nashville.   They will report back to the Chairmen of the State and Local Government Committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Two bills banning preferential treatment based on race, gender or ethnicity advance in State Senate

Two bills that would ban preferential treatment based on race, gender or ethnicity in government hiring advanced in the State Senate this week.  The bills, sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), are part of a package of legislation called the Civil Rights Initiative of 2013 that is pending consideration in the Tennessee General Assembly.  

“Certainly we all need to strive towards the goal of protecting citizens from discrimination,” said Senator Summerville.  “But, at the same time that goal is hard to achieve if preferential treatment is part of our state’s public policy.”

Senate Bill 114, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would amend Tennessee state government’s hiring policy to disallow the granting of any preference to candidates on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity.  The language has been added 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. 

Senate Bill 1177 approved by the full Senate on Thursday would eliminate race, gender or ethnicity as considerations for hiring K-12 teachers in Tennessee’s public schools.  Under existing law, local school systems may not discriminate against job applicants on the basis of race, sex or ethnicity.  This legislation adds a section to the law that says no job applicant will be preferred over any other person applying based on that same criteria.

“Every qualified applicant to teach in our K-12 schools can show a record of college work and other accomplishments to enter the profession, and a promise of helping our schools to be centers of achievement,” added Summerville.  “In other words, these applicants must demonstrate merit and that’s all that matters.”

The action in Tennessee comes after similar laws were implemented in  other states through statute, constitutional amendment or propositions including those implemented in California, Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.  

“It’s time that we declare that such classifications are no longer needed in Tennessee life.  Although it took longer than it should have, our nation has opened the doors of opportunity for all. Only character, intelligence and hard work matter now,” Summerville concluded.

In Brief…..

Credit for Basic Training / Military — Students who enlist in the armed forces and complete basic training before the date of high school graduation may use their basic training as credit toward graduation under legislation passed by the State Senate.  Senate Bill 477, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), specifies that if a high school student enlists in a branch of the United States military or National Guard through the military delayed entry program (also called the “future soldiers program”), then the student would receive high school wellness credit(s) toward graduation for such basic training.

Military / Licenses –   Senator Green also led passage of legislation to ease license requirements for members of the U.S. Armed Forces or National Guard.  As amended, Senate Bill 493  waives professional license fees for soldiers who are on active duty deployment and gives them a six-month grace period when they return for renewal.  The legislation also allows soldiers and their spouses who have professional licenses from a different state and who move to Tennessee to have their licenses expedited.  The intent of this bill is to help active duty soldiers who have moved to Tennessee who hold, or whose spouse holds, a professional license in another state.  Often times those families depend on a second income of a spouse who is using a professional license and time is of the essence to help them with employment.

“As a former army ranger it is in my DNA to do all I can for those among us who keep us free,” said Senator Mark Green.  “These are just two of a slate of bills focused on serving America’s heroes.”

Amelia’s Law — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Wednesday sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) that would have tightened the operations of the Board of Probation and Parole in regards to the granting of parole for certain crimes.  The bill is named “Amelia Keown’s Law” for the 16-year-old William Blount High School junior who was killed in a fatal car crash at the hands of John Charles Perkins, who had a lengthy criminal record.  Perkins, who had numerous traffic citations and automobile crashes on his record, was on parole at the time of the accident.   A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation toxicology report showed he had methamphetamine and oxycodone in his system when his vehicle crossed the center line and struck Keown’s vehicle killing her.  The bill will be held in the Senate Finance Committee until next year after the companion version failed to gain the support needed to advance it in the House of Representatives.

Electronic Insurance Documentation – Senate Bill 512 passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week allowing insurance documentation to be displayed in an electronic format. Currently, state law provides that proof of financial responsibility be proven through a hard-copy, paper document only. This bill opens up this language to also allow an individual to provide proof of insurance in an electronic format using a smart phone, laptop, or other electronic device.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald).

Juvenile Justice Information — Senate Bill 498 won passage in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), would delete the phrase “of the state” from the section of the code regarding the criminal justice steering committee. By amending the code in such a way, the committee would be able to share criminal justice and juvenile justice information with law enforcement agencies in other states.

Prescription Drugs / TennCare — Senate Bill 500, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week restricting any person, besides a licensed medical professional, from selling, delivering, or helping anyone to obtain a drug through the use of TennCare.  Written to stop potentially fraudulent use of TennCare benefits, especially in the case of controlled substances, the legislation makes an offense a Class E Felony, a sentence that includes mandatory jail time. 

Workers’ Compensation — Legislation that reforms Tennessee’s workers’ compensation system to make the state more attractive to job creation, while protecting injured employees moved through the Senate Government Operations Committee.  Senate Bill 200, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), was sent to the committee because it creates a new Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims to keep claims from going to trial court and establishes a new Ombudsman program to help employees and employers who are underrepresented get the assistance they need.  The bill aims to 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. 

DUI Law Restructuring – Final Senate approval has been given to legislation rewriting Tennessee’s DUI laws to make them more understandable by prosecutors, defense lawyers and citizens.  Senate Bill 186, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), comes from Tennessee Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons who said the state’s DUI laws have received so many additions (58 pages worth) over the years that they have become very complicated and are in need of streamlining.  The current law consists of numerous sections dealing with DUI offenses, punishments and enhancements as well as ignition interlock requirements and fees, implied consent testing and related fees, open container requirements, drug and alcohol treatment, and mandatory reports to the General Assembly.  Many of these provisions are duplicative among several sections, or overlap other requirements, making it difficult for prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and the general public to determine the consequences. 

Reduction of Food Tax – The Senate Tax Subcommittee has approved Senate Bill 199, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which reduces the state sales tax on food from 5.25% to 5.0%.  This year’s legislation follows a law adopted by the legislature in 2012 lowering the state’s portion of sales tax on food from 5.5 % to 5.25 %.  The state budget legislation as proposed by Governor Bill Haslam provides a total of $23.1 million which will go back to taxpayers through a combination of tax relief proposals.

Emissions Tests — Automobiles under three years old would be exempt from Tennessee’s vehicle emission test under legislation approved by the Senate Transportation Committee.  The bill would apply to owners of vehicles in six Tennessee counties where emissions testing is required.  Vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of up to 10,500 pounds in Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson or Wilson Counties must currently pass an emissions test prior to registration renewal.  Senate Bill 1080, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would exempt testing for gasoline and diesel vehicles from that requirement if the automobile’s model is three years old or newer.

Protecting Children / Schools — Senate Bill 922 passed third and final consideration on the Senate floor on Monday. The bill, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), would allow the Department of Children Services to conduct an emergency review upon  inquiry from a local education agency to find out if an individual is an immediate threat to children. The bill would also prohibit the Department of Education, the State Board of Education, local boards of education and local education agencies from hiring or retaining any individual whom the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has found to commit any form of child abuse. It also would require DCS to share the information from their investigation with the reporting educational authority in a timely manner.

¬Likewise, legislation that would add drug crimes, violent juvenile sexual offenses, and violent crimes to the list of actions that would prohibit contractors or employees of contractors who have a record of such acts from entering school grounds or having contact with children passed the full Senate this week. Under current law, any person who contracts or is employed by someone that contracts with a school or childcare center is required to submit to a criminal history records check if their work involves interaction with children or entering school grounds while children are present. Senate Bill 16 would expand the list of offenses that would bar a contract worker from working in situations that would require being in contact with children or entering the school grounds while children are present.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville),



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