(NASHVILLE, TN), March 8, 2012 – Victims of crime were at the heart of several key bills that moved through the State Senate this week, as the General Assembly makes steady progress towards adjournment next month. Legislation to curb crime and drug abuse in Tennessee remains high on the list of priorities as lawmakers are working diligently to complete the 2012 session.
Kelsey Smith Act would help locate crime victims through cell phone technology
Among bills to aid crime victims was legislation approved by the Senate Commerce Committee that would help law enforcement in locating a missing person believed to be the victim of a crime. Senate Bill 2413, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), requires wireless providers to “ping” the victim’s cell phone at the request of law enforcement authorities to help locate the missing person when there is sufficient information to believe there is a risk or threat of death or serious physical harm.
The “Kelsey Smith Act” is named after an 18-year old Kansas woman who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered in 2007. The tragedy resulted in a nationwide movement by her parents, Greg and Missey Smith, and other advocates to ensure that law enforcement authorities can receive assistance from a cell phone provider to help find the missing person.
Current law only allows emergency 911 personnel or law enforcement authorities to obtain a ping location on a cell phone if the call was made to 911 initially. Any other request requires a warrant, which may take days to obtain. In Kelsey Smith’s case, nearby surveillance video showed there was reason to believe she been abducted, but since she did not dial 911, her location was not released by her cell phone provider despite pleas from her family and law enforcement officials. After four days, the technology was used that pinpointed the location of her cell phone and her body was found within 45 minutes.
“This is a common sense law to give law enforcement the tools they need to protect crime victims,” said Senator McNally. “I cannot imagine the frustration of this young woman’s family and the police in trying to get this information. The first 24 hours in cases of abduction are critical. This legislation ensures that there are no legal obstacles that bar police from getting the information they need when there is risk of death or serious injury. ”
Currently five states, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and New Hampshire, have passed the Kelsey Smith Act. Tennessee, Hawaii, Missouri and Washington, D.C. also have the legislation under consideration this year.
Proposed law would require healthcare providers to report cases of FGM
In the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, State Senators voted to strengthen current law banning female genital mutilation (FGM) by approving a bill that requires healthcare providers to report it to law enforcement authorities in the same way gunshot wounds or meth fires are reported. Female genital mutilation is practiced on young girls and women in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as locations in the United States where FGM-practicing immigrants reside, including Tennessee. Last year, 21 cases were reported in Tennessee hospitals.
Current law requires healthcare providers and facilities to report injuries to patients that are a result of violence to local law enforcement personnel, and failure to do so is a Class A misdemeanor. Likewise, Senate Bill 2559, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), requires health care providers to report injuries that result from illegal FGM to the appropriate law enforcement officials and the district attorney general.
“FGM is a barbaric practice,” said Senator Ketron. “The victims are often young girls. It is steeped in inequality and is a severe form of gender-based violence. This bill aims to ensure it has no place in Tennessee.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM. The practice, which has serious health risks, is widely acknowledged as a human rights violation against women.
Legislation creates civil recourse for victims of human trafficking
Legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week that would give victims of human trafficking a civil cause of action to sue the person who has victimized them. The purpose of Senate Bill 2369 is to help restore trafficking victims financially at the expense of the trafficker.
Human traffickers target vulnerable victims which most often include immigrants, children and runaways. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that one in four children who run away are approached for commercial sexual exploitation within 48 hours of leaving home.
A report ordered by the General Assembly and released by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) last year revealed disturbing findings about human trafficking in Tennessee. Seventy-eight of the 95 counties in Tennessee, representing 85 percent of the total counties in the state, reported at least one case of human sex trafficking in the last 24 months. Sixty-eight counties, representing 72 percent of the total counties in the state, reported at least one case of human sex trafficking involving a minor child, while Shelby, Davidson, Coffee and Knox Counties reported more than 100 cases.
In addition, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 2370 which calls for a plan to be developed in the Department of Human Services for the delivery of state services to victims of human trafficking. The bill seeks to give victims assistance in identifying any services the state offers which will help them recover from this crime.
Legislature continues war against synthetic drug abuse in Tennessee
Legislation dealing with the growing epidemic of synthetic drugs in Tennessee passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Senate Bill 2280, sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), makes it a Class E felony to possess, use or sell synthetic substances intended to imitate controlled substances. The bill is modeled after laws currently in place in Florida and Virginia.
“We can’t wait any longer on this legislation,” said Senator Faulk, who added that since his bill was drafted deaths due to synthetic drugs have occurred in the state. “Tennessee must address this problem now,” he said.
Synthetic drug products, which have become increasingly popular among teens and young adults, are sold at a variety of retail outlets like convenience stores, smoke shops and over the Internet. The products are sold under the guise of “bath salts” or “plant food” but are comprised of a class of chemicals perceived as mimics of substances like cocaine, LSD and methamphetamines. Last week, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) Director Mark Gwyn told Senate Judiciary Committee members that synthetic drugs have the potential to eclipse methamphetamine as the most dangerous drug in Tennessee unless action is taken.
“These synthetic designer drugs are being put on the street quicker than we can take them off the street,” said Gwyn. “I just today got briefed on some synthetic drugs that are probably on the way to Tennessee that we had no idea were even out there.”
Gwyn said there are many new synthetic drugs on the horizon that have not made it to Tennessee yet, including one mimicking Oxycontin. He said the drug, which is produced in China, comes in a container similar to 5-hour energy drinks.
The General Assembly has passed legislation to ban the chemical compound used in synthetic drugs; however, unscrupulous chemists manufacturing the drugs continue to modify molecules in the organic compound to avoid prosecution. By the time a new synthetic drug is discovered and banned, another altered form of the compound has taken its place.
The Faulk bill is similar to Senate Bill 2172, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), passed by the Committee last month. However, that bill defined synthetic drugs in such a way as to capture any analogues. An analogue is a chemical compound having a similar structure to the banned drug. That proposal also prescribed tiered penalties for selling, using or possessing the drug.
Both bills now travel to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of their financial impact.
Legislation passed by Senate Education Committee ties proposed scholarship changes to lottery revenues
The Senate Education Committee approved a bill this week that ties changes proposed by a Lottery Scholarship Stabilization Task Force to continued lottery revenue growth. The proposed changes in scholarship eligibility requirements for students attending four year institutions will not be implemented if the Lottery Corporation sustains the $10 million growth it experienced this year through the Spring of 2015.
The total costs of Tennessee’s Lottery Scholarship Program have outstripped lottery revenues — the net proceeds from the lottery games played plus interest from the lottery reserves — since 2008. To make up the difference, the state has dipped into the lottery reserves, an act of great concern to fiscally conservative policy makers and higher education officials who feared the lottery reserve balance would dwindle to an unsustainable level by fiscal year 2021. These concerns prompted Lt. Governor Ramsey to appoint a bi-partisan Senate Lottery Stabilization Task Force which included the state’s top higher education officials, key State Senators and the Tennessee Treasurer, Comptroller and Secretary of State.
Senate Bill 2514, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), would require students who attend a four-year institution to meet both the ACT and grade point average (GPA) requirements to receive the full award beginning in the fall semester in 2015. However, under the new amendment, that provision would only apply if the Lottery does not sustain the projected revenue growth.
Tennessee Lottery Corporation CEO Rebecca Paul Hargrove testified before the Senate Education Committee regarding the latest revenue reports. Hargrove said they have experienced a $10 million growth in revenues over the past year and predicted that increase would be sustained indefinitely.
“Unlike those in Washington, Tennessee is required to actually pay its bills on time – and we do,” said Lt. Gov. Ramsey. “I am committed to rewarding excellence in the classroom and giving a leg up to students who work hard. I am also committed to paying for it. This amendment will accomplish both goals in a common sense fashion.”
“We must have a fiscally sound lottery scholarship program that will not only ensure stability for the immediate future of the fund, but will also make sure it will be there for the next generation of students,” said Senator Gresham. “If the $10 million improvement is sustainable into 2015, this amendment would keep the current requirements for students attending four-year institutions in place.”
The plan adopted by the Task Force would have also provided financial assistance to financially-needy undergraduate students who are residents of the state. Approximately 5,600 more recipients would be served for each $10 million in funding provided to the Tennessee Student Assistant Award (TSAA) under the recommendation. The grants would be available to non-traditional students of any age, including laid-off workers and other students. That provision would also sunset if the $10 million is sustained and current eligibility requirements continue to remain in effect.
If the revenues fall short of the goal, the award to non-traditional students would apply and students who attend a four-year institution and meet one of the criteria (ACT or GPA) would be eligible for the two-year award amount. It also provides that students who meet one of the criteria and retain the award through year two would be eligible for a full award in year three. Award amounts for students who attend two-year institutions would remain unchanged under both plans.
Tennessee makes progress in battle on obesity
State’s Coordinated School Health Program is model legislation for other states
Tennessee is making progress in its battle with obesity according to two members of the state’s Obesity Task Force. Task Force members Chastity Mitchell and Joan Randall, who testified in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week, told lawmakers Tennessee has seen a reduction in the state’s overweight rates from the second to the fourth highest in the U.S., while the obesity rates have dropped from third to eighth nationwide.
“We believe we are making progress,” said Randall. “It is still not great, but we are going in the right direction. We want to acknowledge your help and hope we can continue to work together to make the environment in Tennessee more conducive to healthier Tennesseans.”
Randall said Tennessee is still seeing problems in the rural areas of the state where obesity numbers are not dropping. The Task Force promotes incentives for locating grocery stores in remote areas of the state to give citizens access to fresh fruits and vegetables. They also encourage access to nutritious foods in the state’s most urban communities, where there are fewer grocery stores, as well.
The Task Force is working with over 600 organizations and partners across the state, including scientists, clinicians, city planners, school officials, transportation specialists, and policy makers to address obesity. Their latest efforts include a cohesive program called “Eat Well – Play More Tennessee” to reduce hypertension, diabetes, and chronic heart disease among Tennesseans. The state ranks among the highest in the nation on all of these health conditions.
Mitchell said Tennessee’s coordinated school health program is key to the state’s efforts to reduce obesity and establish healthier choices among children. Tennessee is the only state in the nation that has a fully implemented program. “It is such a successful program that we are starting to see obesity rates decline for children in our state and that is a great thing,” she said. “Other states are looking to us as the leader and are modeling their coordinated school health program after what we are doing in Tennessee.”
“I am very proud of our coordinated school health program,” said Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City). “We believe this will make a big difference for the next generation of Tennesseans in promoting healthier choices.”
Issues in Brief
State savings / state buildings — General Services Commissioner Steve Cates presented his department’s budget to the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. Cates said the department is continuing to identify areas of savings, including the reduction of leased space. Cates said he believes the state can eliminate one million square feet of rental property with more efficient use of state-owned buildings. The department has consolidated real estate management in order to take advantage of good business practices that save taxpayer dollars.
Veteran’s affairs – State and Local Government Committee members heard the budget of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs this week as Commissioner Many Bears Grinder said that her biggest challenge is getting the word out to veterans regarding services they are entitled to access. Grinder said there are a half million veterans who live in Tennessee, with 1.5 million family members.
Jobs / Amazon – The full Senate has approved a bill, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), to solidify a jobs agreement reached last year between Governor Bill Haslam, legislative leaders and Amazon officials. When all five centers are built and staffed, Amazon will have a $350 million investment and 3,500 full-time workers in Tennessee, in addition to thousands of seasonal employment opportunities.
Senate Bill 2232 establishes requirements for determining whether certain business affiliates have a physical presence in Tennessee sufficient to establish nexus for sales and use tax purposes. Nexus is a legal term referring to connection or jurisdiction within a State. The legislation will ensure that Amazon will pay Tennessee sales taxes if a national online sales tax law is not passed by the federal government by 2014.
DUI / Child Endangerment — Legislation was approved by the full Senate that ensures a multiple DUI offender receives the appropriate punishment when he or she endangers a child in their vehicle by driving under the influence. Currently, multiple offenders do not receive an enhanced sentence like first offenders due ambiguity in the language of a 2005 law which enhanced penalties for child endangerment for DUI offenders. Senate Bill 2607 makes sure state law is clear for multiple DUI offenders that the punishment for child endangerment, which is 30 days, runs consecutively with any other sentence received. The bill is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).
Sportsman’s License / Intellectually Disabled — Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) won unanimous Senate approval this week of legislation that creates a sport combination license for individuals who are under the age of 18 and are permanently disabled as certified by a licensed physician. Senate Bill 3655 authorizes the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to discount the annual fee to $5.00 for this license to encourage these outdoor activities for citizens with intellectual disabilities.
Motorcycle Safety / Children — The Senate Transportation approved Senate Bill 74 on Wednesday which prohibits the operator of a motorcycle from transporting a child whose feet cannot reach the foot pegs as a passenger. The safety legislation prescribes a $50 fine for violation. The bill is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).
Grape Farmers – The full Senate has approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), designed to help Tennessee’s growing grape farming industry. Senate Bill 3552 would allow grape farmers to contract with wineries in the state to custom crush the farm’s produce, turning it into wine labeled with the farm and winery’s logo.
Impersonation of U.S. Armed Forces — Legislation that would make it a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person to falsely represent they are a member of the U.S. Armed Forces has advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 2287, sponsored by Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), creates a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person falsely representing to be or to have been a member of the United States Armed Forces when their intentions are fraudulent.