Capitol Hill Week: Senate Education Committee approves Tennessee Tuition Stability Act

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 11, 2016 –The Senate Education Committee approved major legislation this week to control the exponential growth in tuition at Tennessee’s state colleges and universities. The Tennessee Tuition Stability Act, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), limits tuition growth to increases in the consumer price index (CPI) and locks-in tuition for entering freshmen for four years.

Senator Gresham pointed out that over the past 20 years, in-state tuition and required fees have increased 456 percent at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville from $2,236 in 1996 to $12,436 in 2016. Comparatively, $2,236 invested in the stock market in 1996 would be expected to yield $7,259 today, which is $5,177 less than tuition would have risen during the same period.

“So is it any wonder that the State Treasurer was forced to end the state’s pre-paid college tuition plan last year that helped thousands of families save for college,” said Senator Gresham. “What’s to blame here are tuition increases which outpace inflation and our ability to invest and grow our money. It also outpaces Tennessee families’ ability to pay, which amounts to a clear tax on the American dream. This is why student loan debt has grown to record levels and working your way through school has become a thing of the past.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, UT Knoxville’s tuition and fees, which took 7 percent of the state’s median household income in 1996, has now reached 28 percent. The tuition increase means an average Tennessean works three and one half months to pay tuition for one child to attend UT Knoxville, not including books, room and board.

“The statistics also show neither a large increase in enrollment, nor decreases in state funding, are to blame for the problem,” Gresham added. “When higher education can’t get the money they need out of the state, instead of making tough choices to cut their budget and live within their means, they have been balancing their budgets on the backs of Tennessee’s students and working families.”

Despite being increased three times by the General Assembly since its enactment, Tennessee’s HOPE scholarship now covers only 50 percent of tuition and fees at most four-year universities in the state, except UT Knoxville where it covers only 32 percent.

“Tuition increases have completely consumed the benefit of the lottery scholarship and are a direct impediment to the Drive to 55,” she continued, referring to the state’s initiative to graduate 55 percent of Tennesseans with post-secondary degrees by 2055. “What we are doing is driving our students out of the market. Maybe they can go for a couple a years and then they can’t pay for it anymore.”

Under Senate Bill 2306, the Tennessee Board of Regents or the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees would be prohibited from increasing in-state undergraduate tuition or fees at a four-year institution above the increase in the CPI without a vote of the full board. If a proposed increase is less than the most recent annual percentage change in the CPI plus two percent, it would require a supermajority of the board voting in favor. An increase greater than two percent of CPI would require a unanimous vote.

“This bill incentivizes students through the tuition freeze program to finish college in a four-year time period. At the same time, it incentivizes higher education to cut costs, to streamline and to be far more efficient than they are now,” Gresham concluded.

Legislation works to prevent a conservator from isolating their ward from visitation with family members without just cause

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), to restrict the ability of a conservator to isolate their ward from visitation by family members or loved ones without just cause. A conservator is a legally appointed guardian of a disabled person. Under current law, a conservator can restrict visitation and communication with the ward in Tennessee without going to court, even when it involves communication or visits by a family member. Crowe said that, due to the growing number of divorces, this has become a problem when there is conflict between children of an incapacitated adult whose spouse has been named the conservator.

“We are seeing a growing number of cases of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other disabilities which call for a conservator to be appointed,” said Sen. Crowe, who is Chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. “This gets very difficult when there are strained family relationships between the conservator and the ward’s family members and it involves the decision that no communication should occur.”

“Presently, the conservator has power over the ward to control many things, including who can visit them, even when they are in a long term care facility,” he added. “What we are trying to accomplish with this legislation is to balance the rights of the ward to continue strong family relationships after they are incapacitated, while providing ample protection through the court when it is not in their best interest and the conservator objects.”

Catherine Falk, daughter of actor Peter Falk, most notably of the Columbo television series, and Marcia Southwick with “Boomers Against Elder Abuse” testified during the committee meeting. Falk talked about her own personal suffering as she was denied contact with her ailing father during his last days, saying she was left with virtually no recourse because his second wife obtained conservatorship of him. Falk told committee members that wards and their families suffer horribly by cruel acts of isolation from loved ones, which can constitute illegal retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Civil Rights Act of 1964. Falk and Southwick are working with legislatures across the U.S. in promoting the bill nationwide.

Senate Bill 2091 provides the ward has a right to visit, communicate or interact with family and loved ones and that a conservator shall not restrict it unless specifically authorized by a court order. It also provides a process by which the conservator can petition the court to place restrictions upon communication or interaction by showing good cause. Some of the factors the court can consider are previous protective orders, whether the ward expresses the wish to visit and past preferences.

The legislation allows interested persons, including the ward, to petition the court if they reasonably believe a court order has been violated. If the order is knowingly violated, the proposal gives the court the authority to modify the conservator’s duties or to discharge or displace them. Finally, the bill sets out the process for courts to hear motions and stipulates that hearings will be scheduled no later than 60 days after being filed. If the ward’s health is in significant decline, that would require a 10-day notice.

“Unfortunately, you don’t always have a conservator who is as accommodating and reasonable as they should be,” added Crowe. “And some family situations are more difficult than others. It is heartbreaking to hear sons and daughters who cannot spend quality time with their parent after they are incapacitated and their health is in decline. We believe this bill strikes the right balance so that it protects the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens, while at the same time giving the conservator a fair process to follow in protecting the ward.”

Senate Transportation Committee hears testimony from Audi regarding new automated vehicles

Members of the Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony this week from Brad Stertz, Director of Audi’s Government Affairs, regarding the company’s efforts to put automated cars on the road. As the technology for autonomous vehicles continues to develop, states have found it may be necessary for state and municipal governments to address the potential impacts of these vehicles on the road. Three bills have been filed on the subject in the Tennessee General Assembly this year.

Audi also offered automated rides to legislators, allowing them to experience this new technology in a freeway setting. Stertz told members of the committee that it is important Audi work with the state legislatures across the country to develop a consistent regulatory framework for automated vehicles.

Automated vehicles are those in which at least some aspects of a safety-critical control function (e.g., steering, throttle, or braking) occur without direct driver input. Complete automation, where one can drive from his or her home to the office while reading a book in the backseat is about 20 years away, Stertz said, but right now the Audi Q7 has semi-autonomous driving. This is where one can take his or her hands off the wheel for a few seconds at a time. In a few years, according to Mr. Stertz, they are coming out with a system that will allow driving hands-free up to 35 miles per hour in highway traffic jam conditions.

The car has 24 sensors connected to a central computer which uses redundant systems for increased safety. Mr. Stertz said, “The main element of automated driving is safety. Ninety to 93 percent of accidents according to the federal government have some element of human error.”

The director assured that turning the automated feature off is not that much more difficult than turning off today’s cruise control, “We think that, ultimately at the time being, it is really the human driver who is in charge,” he said.

“Recent and continuing advances in automotive technology and current research on and testing of exciting vehicle innovations have created completely new possibilities for improving highway safety, increasing environmental benefits, expanding mobility, and creating new economic opportunities for jobs and investment,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville). “It is important that we work across governmental lines and with automated vehicle industry as we consider the impact these cars will have on our roads.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, sixteen states introduced legislation related to autonomous vehicles in 2015, up from 12 states in 2014, nine states and D.C. in 2013, and six states in 2012.

New “Care Alert” System seeks to help find missing persons with disabilities

The State Senate unanimously approved legislation on Monday creating a “Care Alert” system that would enable local law enforcement agencies to enter a report to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and alert media outlets to promote the safe recovery of a missing person over the age of 18 with an intellectual, developmental or physical disability. Senate Bill 1485, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), extends the definition of a “missing citizen” from a missing person over the age of 60 with dementia or physical impairment to include those over the age of 18 with an intellectual, developmental or physical disability.

“We already have the framework through the Amber Alert Program for missing children and Silver Alert Program for senior citizens with dementia or Alzheimer’s,” said Senator Green. “Like these programs, this legislation calls on local law enforcement agencies to work in tandem with the media and transportation officials in alerting the public when a person with intellectual or physical disabilities is missing.”

“There is a critical 24-hour time period in which to locate missing persons,” added Senator Green. “The Care Alert is designed to quickly disseminate descriptive information about the missing person, so that citizens in the affected area can be on the lookout for the endangered person and notify local law enforcement with any relevant information. This legislation brings a community to their aid in such a crisis to take advantage of the short window of time needed to bring these vulnerable citizens home to avert a tragedy. I am very pleased that it has passed the Senate.”

In Brief…

Repealing the Hall Tax — State Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) guided passage of legislation through the Senate Finance Committee this week that would begin the process of repealing the Hall Income Tax in Tennessee. The Hall Income Tax levies six percent on earnings from stocks and bonds, with 3/8 of the revenue going to cities and counties. Since enactment of the tax in 1929, the use of investment savings has grown as a primary source of retirement income. Senate Bill 47 makes a single cut of one percent to the state’s portion of the Hall Income Tax when a two-year average of three percent growth occurs. When the last cut of the state portion reaches .75 percent, the legislation provides that a phase out of the local portion would begin unless communities decide in a referendum to continue collecting the local portion of the tax. In other news on the Hall Tax, it was announced that the Revenue Subcommittee will consider several more bills on this subject next week.

Tennessee Fallen Heroes Medal – The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted this week to allow the five soldiers killed in Chattanooga in July due to an act of terrorism to be eligible for the “Tennessee Fallen Heroes Medal.” The medal is currently awarded to honor legal residents of Tennessee killed while serving on active duty or engaged in military support operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force. Senate Bill 1441, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson), Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) and Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), removes the requirement that a recipient be a resident of Tennessee when a soldier is stationed and killed in the state during an attack specifically targeting military service members or inspired or directed by a foreign terrorist organization. The medal is awarded solely by the governor or the governor’s designee to the immediate survivor of the recipient.

National Guard Force Protection Act — The Senate State and Local Government Committee passed the “National Guard Force Protection Act of 2016” on Tuesday which enhances protection at Tennessee National Guard facilities and military installations. The bill follows hearings regarding the safety of military installations by the State and Local Government Committee after the Chattanooga terrorist attack that killed five soldiers on Tennessee soil. The governor’s budget includes $1.6 million for an emergency phone system, window film, magnetic locks, a security camera system, privacy screens and bollards to protect soldiers at state military installations to fund the bill. Senate Bill 1553, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), now moves to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

Human Trafficking – Human trafficking was the subject of legislation which received approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 2000, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), clarifies that it is not a defense to prosecution under Tennessee law that the intended victim was actually a law enforcement officer. Law enforcement agencies across the state use undercover officers posing as victims in order to effectively prosecute those who engaged in human sex trafficking. The proposal also clarifies that it is not a defense to prosecution that the human trafficking victim is a minor who has consented. A minor in Tennessee does not have the legal capacity to consent to sex with an adult and this bill explicitly removes this defense in human sex trafficking cases.

EpiPens / Restaurants — Legislation to allow heath care prescribers to prescribe epinephrine auto-injectors to a wide variety of entities, including restaurants, has passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. The purpose of the bill is to make the injectors, more commonly referred to as EpiPens, readily available in locations where an emergency is most likely to occur. Restaurants are among them as food is generally the most common cause of anaphylaxis, a condition which can be deadly if not treated immediately. Wasp or bee stings are also common causes of anaphylaxis. Senate Bill 1989, sponsored by Senator Mark Green, M.D. (R-Clarksville), defines the entities that voluntarily agree to receive the prescription as including but not limited to recreation camps, colleges, universities, places of worship, youth sports leagues, amusement parks, restaurants, places of employment, and sports arenas. The bill calls for one or more employees to be trained in how to properly use and store the injectors. The entity or person who uses the injector in response to an emergency would be given immunity from liability when it is used in compliance with the proposed law. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Local Government Mandates – Legislation was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week that prevents a local government from imposing a requirement on private companies regarding what an employer cannot ask an applicant for employment. The bill comes amid a movement to prohibit employers from doing business with local governments if they ask if an applicant for employment has a criminal record. Senate Bill 2103, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), says that local governments shall not prohibit a private employer from requesting any type of information during the hiring process as a condition of procuring a contract with the governmental entity or doing business within their jurisdiction. It does not prevent the local government from prohibiting the question for purposes of their own employment practices.

TDOT / Priority Projects — Commissioner John C. Schroer and Chief Engineer Paul Deggs of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) discussed their system of prioritization for road projects before the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week. TDOT uses seven guiding principles when formulating their annual three-year plan: roadway safety, traffic operations, regions and legislation, economic development, funding, roadway classification and environmental impact. Of these, safety and traffic are weighted at 52.1 percent in the ranking process. TDOT also takes strides to balance projects between the four departmental regions, urban and rural areas and schedules. Schroer said he is very proud that the department has utilized transparency and objectiveness in their prioritization during his tenure as commissioner.

Wildlife / Skunks — The Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted this week to delete the class C misdemeanor violation for an individual wishing to import, possess or sell live skunks in Tennessee. All Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency rules and guidelines must still be followed under Senate Bill 1821, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta). There are currently 17 other states, including Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia, that allow for an individual to own a skunk.

Cancer Treatment — The “Cancer Treatment Fairness Act” was discussed in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week. Traditional treatments, usually given through an IV or injection, are covered under a patient’s medical benefits resulting in a small co-pay or no cost at all. Oral treatments are usually part of the health plan’s pharmacy benefit and can result in higher out-of-pocket costs for patients. Senate Bill 2091, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), directs health plans that currently cover cancer treatments to apply the same patient cost-sharing for therapies taken by mouth as those that are administered by IV or injection. Action on the bill was deferred for two weeks.

Rape of a Child – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill this week which adds aggravated rape of a child and rape of a child as offenses for which aggravated sexual battery is a lesser included offense. A lesser included offense shares some, but not all, of the elements of a greater criminal offense. Therefore, the greater offense cannot be committed without also committing the lesser offense. According to sponsor Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), Senate Bill 1459 affords victims of child rape the same level of protection, with respect to available lesser included offenses, as is given to adult rape victims. The bill was brought to the senator by the Child Advocacy Centers of Tennessee and his local district attorney. It now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.

Consumer Protection – Deceptive Advertising — This week, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee unanimously passed a bill to investigate and fine companies and individuals who use deceptive advertising methods. Senate Bill 1928, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), prohibits advertisements that look like a summons or a judicial process notification. It also prohibits advertising that looks like a government document, whether it is through the use of language, seals and logos or if it implies an unauthorized endorsement by a government entity. The bill prescribes a fine of up to $100 per advertisement for violation of the proposed law. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Autism — The Senate Government Operations Committee unanimously passed legislation this week to create the Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The Autism Society estimates that about one percent of the world population has ASD, effecting over 3.5 million Americans and that it is the fastest growing developmental disability. Under Senate Bill 1390, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), the council would develop plans for a statewide, comprehensive mechanism for inter-agency coordination of treatment for the disorder, also focusing on issues of health care, education and other adult and adolescent services. It would serve under the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. The bill moves forward to the Health and Welfare Committee.

Stroke — The Senate Government Operations Committee also approved a bill aimed at improving care for stroke patients in Tennessee. Senate Bill 2092 sets up a “Stroke Best Practices and Treatment Guidelines Task Force” that will work with the Department of Health and the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University to make recommendations to the Senate and House Health committees regarding a mandatory statewide data collection registry, funding, hospital designations and standards for EMS personnel. Strokes kill over 128,000 people each year in the U.S. It is the fifth highest cause of death in Tennessee and the leading cause of disability in the state. The goal of the legislation, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), is to ensure the rapid identification, diagnosis and treatment of strokes and reduce the risk of preventable complications and death throughout the state.

Second Amendment Rights – The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed legislation requiring public post-secondary institutions to conform with the law passed by the General Assembly in 2013 allowing for the storage of handguns by permit holders in their vehicle as long as it locked and out of sight. Senate Bill 1991, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), prohibits public colleges or universities from taking any adverse actions against an employee or student who store their permitted gun in accordance with the proposed law.

Uniformed Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act — The full Senate has approved a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which sets the framework for how provisions can be made by persons while living for alternative access to digital assets such as Facebook, Linked-in and email accounts. The Uniformed Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act makes such access after death of the account holder consistent with other existing Tennessee statutes on estates and related matters. Senate Bill 326 follows cases where heirs were unable to terminate or access digital accounts after the death of a family member or loved one. The bill
clarifies that if done in accordance with the proposed law, access to digital assets is not a violation of Tennessee’s Personal and Commercial Computer Act. It also provides a new section to the Uniform Durable Power of Attorney Act adding the authority to access any catalog of electronic communications and any other assets by power of attorney. In addition it provides that heirs can use online tools or a power of attorney to override the terms of agreement that does not require the deceased account holder to act affirmatively.

Consumer Protection / Motorcycles – Consumer protection legislation passed the Senate Transportation Committee this week to ensure that persons purchasing a motorcycle will be informed on the certificate of title if it has been depreciated by 75 percent or more due to being wrecked, damaged, dismantled or rebuilt. Currently, anytime a vehicle depreciated by 75 percent or more is transferred to a new owner, disclosure is given that the vehicle is wrecked, damaged, dismantled or rebuilt and that it will be labeled as such on the next certificate of title. The law, however, does not apply to motorcycles, allowing sellers to take advantage of an unintended loophole not to disclose the information. Senate Bill 1994, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) puts motorcycles under the same salvage law requirements as other vehicles.

PRIME Act / Resolution — Members of the Senate Commerce Committee approved a resolution this week asking Tennessee’s Congressional delegation to support the “Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act” which is pending action in Congress. The federal bill would give individual states the freedom to pass laws allowing the intrastate sale of custom-slaughtered and -processed meat within their states. Currently, federal law exempts custom slaughter of animals from federal inspection regulations, but only if the meat is slaughtered for personal, household, guest, and employee use. This means that in order to sell individual cuts of locally-raised meats to consumers, farmers and ranchers must first send their animals to one of a limited number of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses. According to Senator Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains) who is sponsoring the bill, passage of the PRIME Act would support small farmers who currently lack reasonable access to processing facilities, improve consumer access to locally raised meats, and help revitalize rural communities.

State Symbol — The full Senate acted this week to designate the Tennessee’s flag’s center emblem of a blue circle with three white five-pointed stars as the official state symbol. The flag was adopted as the official flag of the state of Tennessee by an act of the General Assembly passed and approved April 17, 1905. It was designed by LeRoy Reeves of the Third Regiment, Tennessee Infantry, who made the following explanation about the center emblem: “The three stars are of pure white, representing the three grand divisions of the state. They are bound together by the endless circle of the blue field, the symbol being three bound together in one—an indissoluble trinity.” Senate Bill 1430, which is sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), is set for final consideration in the House of Representatives next week.

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