Key bills advance in the State Senate as General Assembly works towards April adjournment
NASHVILLE – The announcement that Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey will not seek re-election after 24 years of service in the legislature headlined a busy week on Capitol Hill. Ramsey spent four years in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate, where he led the charge to gain a Republican majority, then super majority. He was elected as Lieutenant Governor / Speaker of the Senate in 2007 as the first Republican to serve in the position in 140 years.
During his tenure of conservative leadership, sweeping reforms have been passed by the legislature including record tax cuts, a constitutional amendment to prohibit a state income tax, legislation preparing students for the 21st century marketplace, job creation initiatives to ease unnecessary regulation and red tape on businesses, comprehensive tort reform, and fiscal responsibility measures to help restore the state’s AAA credit rating, to name a few.
Ramsey will continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor until a new one is elected by the Senate in January 2017.
In other action, Senate Committees wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government this week and gave approval to some of the most important bills of this legislative session. Two Senate committees, the Government Operations Committee and the Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, have closed for the year. The remaining committees are preparing to conclude their business within the next two to three weeks, as the General Assembly is working to adjourn the 2016 legislative session in mid-to late April.
Senate Judiciary Committee approved major public safety legislation
The Senate Judiciary approved major legislation this week sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) aiming to reduce crime and improve public safety. Senate Bill 2567 addresses the most serious offenses driving Tennessee’s violent crime rate by establishing mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of three or more charges of aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary, or drug trafficking.
“This legislation has four major areas of focus to be tougher on crime and smarter on sentencing, particularly for enhancing sentences for crimes that drive Tennessee’s violent crime rate,” said Senator Norris.
The act would set the mandatory minimum period of incarceration to 85 percent for third and subsequent convictions for aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary, and Class A, B, and C felonies for the sale, manufacture, and distribution of controlled substances. The legislation would also change the felony thresholds for property theft for a Class A misdemeanor from the $500 to $1,000, Class E felony from $500-$1,000 to a range of $1,000-$2,500 and a Class D felony from $1,000-10,000 to a range of $2,500-$10,000.
“Increasing the monetary threshold for theft offenses will make it more consistent with surrounding states,” added Norris. “No adjustments have been made to these fines in many years to help deter these crimes.”
On domestic violence, the legislation would allow a law enforcement officer to seek an order of protection on behalf of a domestic abuse victim. Additionally, if a law enforcement officer makes an arrest for a crime involving domestic abuse, then an automatic order of protection would be issued when there is probable cause to believe that the alleged assailant used or attempted to use deadly force against a domestic violence victim. A hearing would be held within 15 days of the automatic order of protection being issued.
A third and subsequent domestic violence conviction would become a Class E felony as under the legislation. Third and subsequent domestic violence convictions are currently a misdemeanor. This proposed change would maintain the current minimum 90-day sentence for a domestic violence conviction.
“Right now you can have multiple convictions for domestic violence and every one is a misdemeanor,” added Norris. “This legislation provides third and subsequent violations will be a felony to help protect victims.”
Tennessee is ranked among the most dangerous states for domestic violence.
In addition, the proposal retools community supervision to reduce the number of people returning to prison for probation and parole violations when their noncompliance does not rise to the level of a new criminal offense. The move is expected to save the state $80 million. Of the 12,588 people entering state prison last year, 5,061, or 40 percent, were probationers or parolees sent to prison because they violated supervision conditions. This legislation would authorize the department to utilize a robust, structured matrix of both sanctions and incentives to facilitate compliance with the conditions of supervision by the more than 71,000 state probationers and parolees.
The legislation comes from Governor Bill Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism, which included Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) as members. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of its fiscal impact before moving to the Senate floor for final consideration.
Senate Education Committee approves BEP Enhancement Act
The Senate Education Committee approved the BEP (Basic Education Program) Enhancement Act on Wednesday to solidify and clarify the current funding formula for schools in Tennessee. The BEP is the funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee Schools. The formula has three major categories, instruction, classroom and non-classroom, with each made up of separate components related to basic needs of students, teachers, and administrators within a school system.
Senate Bill 2565 comes after an extensive study by Governor Bill Haslam and other key officials utilizing information provided by the state’s BEP Task Force and BEP Review Committee.
“The BEP enhancement plan reflects the largest investment in education, $223 million, in state history without a tax increase,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who is the sponsor of the act. “That includes $105 million for teacher salaries and $30 million to fund 12 months of insurance. It also endeavors to double the state investment in technology so students are prepared for 21st century challenges.”
“All systems will benefit from this plan,” Norris added. “Every single school system will receive additional money.”
The Basic Education Program (BEP) was enacted in 1992 in response to a successful legal challenge by many of the state’s small school systems, which argued the state’s existing funding mechanism did not provide equal educational opportunities to their students. In 2007, the General Assembly adopted revisions to the BEP. These revisions, known as BEP 2.0, established new funding goals and set the state on a new path of determining how the state divides available revenue among local school districts.
Much debate and discussion has occurred since the adoption of BEP 2.0, both around funding and the distribution of funds to local school districts. Due in part to ongoing debate, the BEP presently utilizes and equally weights two funding distribution models – the pre BEP-2.0 model and the post-BEP 2.0 model.
Since 2011, Governor Haslam and the General Assembly have partnered to improve the BEP by a half billion dollars. This includes more than $240 million in new money for teacher salaries from fiscal years 2012 to 2016 as Tennessee strives to be the fastest improving state in teacher salary growth. Other improvements in the enhancement plan in this year’s budget include almost $20 million to better serve high need student populations and $50 million to address enrollment growth and inflationary costs.
Senate approves bill providing healthcare consumers with an affordable option to contract directly with their physicians for health services
The full Senate unanimously approved legislation on Monday to provide Tennesseans with an affordable free-market option to contract directly with their physician for primary healthcare services. The “Health Care Empowerment Act,” sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), removes roadblocks in state law to the growing Direct Primary Care (DPC) healthcare model by ensuring that it is not considered an HMO or insurance company for purposes of regulation in Tennessee.
Under the DPC model, patients pay their doctors a monthly fee in return for agreed-upon primary care services. In order to be Obamacare-compliant, a patient may supplement a DPC membership with a high-deductible “catastrophic” insurance policy. The combined cost of monthly membership fees and insurance premiums is anticipated to be substantially lower than a traditional health insurance plan with co-pays, deductibles, and premiums.
“This legislation gives healthcare consumers who are struggling to pay the increasing costs of premiums or who have been priced out of the market, with an affordable option to contract directly with their physician for primary care services,” said Senator Roberts. “Not only is this good for the patient, but the physician can set aside insurance hassles and just practice medicine. What we are seeing in other states with direct primary care is that it improves health outcomes as doctors are spending more time with patients on preventative care and are more effectively monitoring chronic conditions.”
Presently, 14 states have passed enabling DPC legislation.
“The focus is on healthcare rather than insurance,” added Roberts. “Physicians are extremely frustrated with how much time they spend dealing with insurance reimbursement, dealing with TennCare, or dealing with any other government entities that interfere with their abilities to provide care for their patients. DPC allows good old-fashioned healthcare where doctors spend time with patients, practice medicine instead of paperwork, and focus on affordable and effective healthcare outcomes.”
Senate Bill 2443 now awaits action in the House of Representatives where it is pending consideration in the House Health Committee on Wednesday.
Legislation calling for Public Private Partnerships to meet growing transportation needs advances
Legislation that would provide a framework to allow Private Public Partnership (P3) agreements for certain transportation projects advanced through the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week. The bill aims to improve safety, reduce congestion and increase capacity on Tennessee’s roads, as well as encourage economic growth.
Typically with a P3 agreement, the public sector maintains ownership of the asset but the private partner manages construction, operation, and maintenance through the life of the contract.
Senate Bill 2093, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), authorizes partnerships between private entities and state and local governments for the private development, redevelopment and operation of transportation facilities. Transportation facilities are defined, under the bill, to include any mass transit system intended for shared passenger transport services to the general public.
“With long-term funding sources for transportation being uncertain, the ability to enter into private-public partnerships will allow us to finance projects that we might not otherwise be able to even consider,” said Sen. Ketron. “This legislation is the result of months of collaboration by many groups that understand the necessity for forging ahead to find solutions to the challenges we face to meet growing transportation demands in Tennessee. It would give us another tool in the toolbox to address those needs.”
The bill authorizes a state or local government entity, or agencies created by them, to receive, consider, evaluate and accept proposals for a qualifying transportation facility. It details the procedures for doing so, including that the private entity must first obtain state approval before entering into a comprehensive agreement with the state or local government. The request must also be reviewed by the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee prior to the agreement to ensure transparency and oversight. Under the proposal, any project estimated to be over $50 million would require an independent audit to be paid for by the private entity. This audit will be subject to public disclosure, other than proprietary information. If any state funds are expended for the purposes of a P3 agreement, it must be appropriated in the general appropriations act.
The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.
Aging Caregivers / Persons with Disabilities — State Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) guided passage of legislation through the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday to help aging caregivers who care for a child or ward with an intellectual disability. Senate Bill 2003 would allow eligible people having an intellectual disability (ID) who are on the waiting list for services from the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) with custodial parents or caregivers aged 75 and over to enroll into the Self-Determination or similarly capped waiver. In 2015 the original “aging caregiver” law, which was also sponsored by Ketron, was passed by the General Assembly requiring DIDD to enroll all eligible people whose caregivers are 80 and over into the Self-Determination Waiver. However, the average life expectancy in Tennessee is only 76.30 years of age. The bill aims to give aging caregivers who are facing their own healthcare challenges the peace of mind that their child or family member will be cared for after they pass away. At the same time, it provides individuals with disabilities with basic support prior to a “crisis” to help them adjust to being supported by people other than their primary caregiver.
VETS Campuses — Legislation passed the full Senate this week that will make the Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) program available to private, non-profit institutions of higher education throughout the state. The highly successful VETS program, authored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), was passed into law in 2014. It encourages colleges and universities to prioritize outreach to veterans and successfully deliver the services necessary to create a supportive environment where student veterans can prosper while pursuing their education. Currently, there are 13 public institutions that can claim VETS Campus Certification. The certification recognizes and promotes schools that make veteran enrollment a priority. Higher education institutions that satisfy veteran-friendly criteria, such as specialized orientation and the availability of mentoring programs, can receive the designation. Senate Bill 2598, which is also sponsored by Senator Norris, is now awaiting a signature from Governor Haslam before becoming law.
Pre-K Programs — The full Senate approved legislation this week sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville) to make improvements to the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten programs. Currently, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) may apply to the Tennessee Department of Education for funding and approval of one or more pre-kindergarten programs. Senate Bill 1899 would require an LEA to include as a part of its application: a plan for ensuring coordination between voluntary pre-kindergarten classrooms and elementary schools within the LEA, a plan for engaging parents and families of students throughout the school year and a plan for delivering relevant and meaningful professional development to teachers. The Voluntary Pre-K for Tennessee Initiative was implemented to close the achievement gap for at-risk four-year-olds by providing an opportunity to develop school readiness skills. Studies have shown, however, that gains made by enrollees in the program fade, with most students scoring at or below their peers by the third grade. The legislation seeks to see if improvements can be made to the program to benefit these students and ensure that best practices are replicated.
Prescription Opiates — The epidemic of prescription opiate overdosing was deliberated this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) introduced legislation to create a reporting system to identify reported overdoses. The bill also allows the state to utilize the information to make an intervention “before the overdose becomes an overdose death.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that for every one overdose death, there are 26 emergency room overdose visits. Senate Bill 1850 passed the committee unanimously and will next be considered on the Senate floor.
Constitutional Amendments — The Senate unanimously passed legislation on Monday that would make voting on state constitutional amendments less convoluted and confusing. Senate Bill 1605, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), was in reaction to a previous ballot which had four changes to the Tennessee Constitution for the public to vote upon, but did not print the sections which could be changed. The legislation states that, if a question of a state constitutional amendment is submitted to the vote of the people, then the ballot must list the proposed constitutional amendment and the full, current text of any section that would be deleted or altered by the proposed amendment.
Telehealth — The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee unanimously passed legislation to ensure that Tennesseans utilizing telehealth services are not receiving different reimbursements based upon their rural or urban locality. Senate Bill 2373, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), provides that coverage and reimbursement for telehealth services cannot be impacted by the geographical location of the client. Telemedicine is the delivery of health care services to patients in remote sites by using electronic information and telecommunications technology to connect providers to patients who need them. It is particularly important to people in rural communities who may have to drive long distances to receive healthcare services. The proposal builds on major legislation passed last year to protect Tennesseans’ access to cost-effective healthcare by ensuring that telehealth services are readily available and consistently safe.
Civil forfeiture – Legislation was approved by the State Senate on Monday prohibiting a general session judge from authorizing a magistrate or judicial commissioner that is not licensed to practice law in Tennessee to issue forfeiture warrants. Senate Bill 2029, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), requires that all appointed magistrates be licensed attorneys or judges to help prevent unwarranted seizing of assets. Civil forfeiture is a legal process in which assets are taken from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing. A magistrate can issue a warrant if they deem probable cause exists. This has created a serious concern that those magistrates who are not attorneys or judges and do not have the necessary qualifications to determine if the issuing of a warrant is truly justified under Tennessee law to meet that standard.
Wildlife / Outdoor Recreation — The Senate Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee passed legislation this week to create a forum with the mission of targeting challenges to Tennessee’s multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation industry and creating solutions that will protect and grow the industry. The forum would consist of four members of the Senate Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee appointed by the Lieutenant Governor, four members of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee appointed by the Speaker of the House, one member who represents the Bureau of Parks and Conservation of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation appointed by the commissioner of the Department, one member who represents the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) appointed by the executive director of the TWRA and one public member appointed by the governor. The bill would also create a 12-member technical advisory committee to assist the new forum. Senate Bill 1832, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), will next be heard on the Senate floor.
Private Property Rights / Weapons Policy – Legislation was approved by State Senators on Wednesday that would allow a private school to develop and institute its own weapons policy. Senate Bill 1559, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), applies to private K-12 schools and institutions of higher education, and recognizes their private property rights. Present law bans the carrying of guns onto any school property, public or private, regardless if the person carrying is a legal permit holder. The legislation prescribes that if the private school does not adopt a handgun policy, then carrying in possession of a firearm would continue to be prohibited as provided under current law. However, if the school decides to develop a policy, it must first receive an affirmative vote by the institution’s governing board or the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in the absence of a board. Any policy developed must only allow guns to be carried by legal handgun permit holders in the State of Tennessee. The policy must also be reduced in writing and disseminated in a manner likely to ensure it is known by the students, as well as the parents and guardians of those who attend that school. Finally, the administrative officer of the school would be required to submit a copy of the policy to the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction.