Legislation making Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college advances

NASHVILLE — The State Senate approved a wide range of important bills this week, including major legislation to make Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college.  This week’s action was also marked by the death of a most beloved former State Senator, Douglas S. Henry.

Universally respected, Henry was a gentleman, statesman and a scholar who is credited for playing a key role in Tennessee’s solid financial footing as a long-standing member and Chairman Emeritus of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.  During his service, he championed legislation aiding children, the mentally ill, the elderly and the unborn.  He was also a strong supporter of the Tennessee State Museum and an avid guardian of federalism.

Senator Henry is the first person to lie in state at the Tennessee State Capitol since Governor Austin Peay in 1927, as the flags over the State Capitol were lowered to half-staff until his internment.  It was a fitting tribute to the longest serving lawmaker in state history whose service spanned six decades.  A 2014 video, produced by the Tennessee State Library and Archives on the occasion of his retirement, highlights his extraordinary career serving Tennesseans with interviews from people who knew him.  Henry was 90 years old.

Reconnect Act Completing the path for all Tennesseans to access higher education, the Tennessee Reconnect Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), establishes a last-dollar scholarship for adults to attend a community college tuition-free.  Senate Bill 1218 expands a grant program launched in 2015 that aimed to attract approximately 900,000 Tennesseans who have earned some college credit but no degree.

Adults without a certificate can already attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) tuition-free under the current Reconnect program. This proposal would expand that program’s access to community colleges and relieves some of the previous requirements to receive assistance.  The Reconnect expansion would be funded out of lottery reserves at no cost to taxpayers.

“Tennessee Reconnect is a tremendous investment in the state’s economy,” said Sen. Norris.  “It not only gives adults new opportunities for career growth, but also provides employers with the skills and credentials they are seeking from the workforce.”

To be eligible for Tennessee Reconnect, a student must be a Tennessee resident for at least one year preceding the date of application and does not already have an associate or bachelor degree.  Other requirements include completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) where the applicant is deemed an independent student; participation in an approved advising program; and enrollment in any of the state’s 13 public community college’s degree or certificate programs for six semester hours.  In order to maintain the Tennessee Reconnect grant, the student must enroll in classes leading to an associate’s degree or certificate continuously and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA.  The program will begin with the 2018-19 school year upon approval of the legislation.

State Senators approve numerous bills aiding veterans

Numerous bills aiding veterans were approved by State Senators this week, including two major bills to expand access to education.  The Senate Education Committee approved the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act that would create a pilot program to provide eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard funding toward a first time bachelor’s degree through a tuition reimbursement program, while the full Senate passed legislation that will make it easier for veterans to determine how their military training can count as credit in Tennessee’s colleges and universities.  Both bills are sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

The STRONG Act provides an opportunity for those who protect and serve their state and country to receive their bachelor’s degree, a move that gives Tennessee’s National Guard a competitive edge in recruitment.  As a last-dollar reimbursement, the amount of state tuition reimbursement is offset by any other funds received. To be eligible, the individual must be currently serving with the Tennessee National Guard in good standing, have applied for federal tuition assistance, and be admitted to any Tennessee public community college, public university, or private college or university which is regionally accredited.  The student must maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0.

All but four states nationwide, and all states adjacent to Tennessee, already offer 100% state tuition assistance for those who are serving in the Guard.

In addition to making it easier for veterans to determine how their military training can count as credit in Tennessee’s colleges and universities,  Senate Bill 1232 grants in-state tuition to anyone currently living in Tennessee who is using VA educational benefits, regardless of their official home of record.  That change brings Tennessee into compliance with new provisions in the GI bill, ensuring that about 13,000 Tennessee service members, veterans and their dependents continue to receive education benefits under the federal program.

The proposal also updates and enhances Tennessee’s Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) Act which encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials.  That law created a “VETS Campus” designation to recognize and promote schools that make veteran enrollment a priority.

“This legislation enhances the VETS Act and will make Tennessee the second state in the nation to develop a web-based dashboard to help prospective student veterans determine how their military training counts,” said Sen. Norris.  “A veteran or service member will be able to click on the specific military occupational specialty he or she possesses and instantly see what academic credit they qualify for at each of Tennessee’s public institutions, before they enroll.  The easy-to-use system will help us recruit and keep military service members in Tennessee.”

The bill also calls on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) to select representatives of various state colleges and universities by December 2018 to work collaboratively in adopting policies for Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) for veterans. Currently, PLA credit can vary significantly from one institution to the next.  The group will identify and develop uniform methods to assess and maximize academic credit for veterans based on the experience, education, and training obtained during their military service.

Approximately 27.7% of Tennessee’s Veterans have some college or an associate’s degree, while 24.3% have a bachelor’s degree.  The VETS bill works in conjunction with the state’s Drive to 55 initiative to get 55% of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025, prioritizing veterans in that goal.

Veterans / Employment — In other action on veterans this week, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee approved a bill which provides protections to employers if they give hiring preference to honorably discharged veterans, their spouses, in certain cases, or survivors.  It includes spouses of a veteran with a service-connected disability, unremarried widows or widowers of a veteran who died of a service-connected disability, and unremarried widows or widowers of a member of the military who died in the line of duty.

Senate Bill 209 gives companies that would like to give special consideration for hiring veterans because of their unique skill sets, proven work ethic, and reliability but may be hesitant to do so out of concern of being sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VII, Section 11 of the Civil Rights Act contains a carve-out that exempts veterans’ preference processes that are authorized by state statute.   It is sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville).

Disabled Veterans / Vehicles — In the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, members approved Senate Bill 10, which is also sponsored by Sen. Green.  The proposal allows for sales tax, registration fee, and motor vehicle privilege tax exemptions for veterans who are 100% disabled and are provided with a modified vehicle from the Veteran’s Administration.

Veterans / Yellow DOT Program — Legislation advanced in the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week that extends the state’s Yellow DOT Program to include veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).  The Yellow DOT Program is designed to provide first responders with an individual’s medical information in the event of an emergency on Tennessee’s roadways.  Senate Bill 1304 calls for including veterans, should they choose to opt in, to inform the police officers and other responders of a potential medical situation due to PTSD.   It also authorizes TDOT to publicize the Yellow Dot Program in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Services and agencies providing services to veterans.   The bill is sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).

Department of Veterans Affairs works to help expand veteran access to education and services

Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many Bears Grinder told members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week about her department’s efforts to expand veteran access to education.  The department has hired three veteran education coordinators to work in the three grand divisions of the state, working with the colleges and universities to make sure that they are better equipped to recruit, retain, and support veterans through graduation.  The department is also conducting Veteran Education Academies to strengthen campus networks through improved data collection, information sharing and utilizing best practices to address transitional challenges that veterans face.

Grinder said more of Tennessee’s campus partners are demonstrating their commitment to increase the number of veterans with college degrees or certificates.

The department is also working to inform soldiers transitioning out of the U.S. Armed Forces of opportunities here, so they can choose Tennessee as their home state.  High achieving soldier have skills and disciplines that are desired by employers Grinder said.

She said the department is also working to connect veterans with business resources as veterans make very successful entrepreneurs.

The department also provides premier training to their county service officers throughout the state to provide support to veteran treatment courts and recovery courts to ensure that justice-involved veterans become productive citizens once again.

In Brief..

 A number of bills moved in the full Senate this week including:

Government Accountability — The full Senate approved Senate Bill 463, which provides for additional accountability for state agencies.  The bill assists the Comptroller’s office in working with state agencies to achieve corrective actions, reduce audit findings and avoid repeat findings.  This plan will address each audit finding and give an explanation of what the agency has done or will do to correct the finding, the persons responsible for correcting the finding and a timeline for the corrections to be completed.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville).

General Assembly PagesSenate Bill 1013 requiring a school to count a child who serves as a page in the General Assembly as present for attendance, in the same manner as an educational field trip, has received final Senate approval.  Pages, whose duties consist of anything from making copies, running errands within the Capitol building, to distributing legislative information to members of the General Assembly, get a unique front-row view of the lawmaking process.  The legislation is sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga).

LEAP / Education  — The full Senate has approved legislation this week to include “work-based learning experiences” in the curriculum for work-based learning under the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP).  The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), aims to meet necessary skill standards of industries in Tennessee as part of the LEAP program.  Senate Bill 1231 also eliminates the liability of employers participating in the LEAP program, unless the employer acted willfully or with gross negligence, to continue to encourage industry participation.  Part of the LEAP program is not only to align within the state government what departments are doing and making sure the state education programs are providing a more relevant educational experience, but to align them with the private sector as well, so that students can work, learn and earn simultaneously.  The LEAP program has engaged almost 20,000 students since it was passed in 2013.

Smoking on College Campuses – The State Senate approved a bill this week which authorizes the state university board of each public institution of higher education in Tennessee to adopt policies regulating smoking on property owned or operated by the institution.  Senate Bill 116 would apply to any area on campus that is not already prohibited by law.  It is sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville).

Immunizations / Tennessee Colleges and Universities – Legislation which grants the governing boards of each public institution of higher learning, in consultation with the Department of Health, the authority to promulgate rules regarding immunization requirements for students enrolled in their institutions has passed the State Senate. The intent of the bill is to provide public higher education institutions the flexibility to set commonsense regulations regarding immunization requirements on their campuses.   Senate Bill 393 also instructs each public institution of higher learning to strive to collect immunization records for students enrolled at their institution.  It is sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).

Identity Theft – In an effort to prevent identity theft, the State Senate voted this week to approve Senate Bill 428 to remove the social security number contained on the permanent identification device attached to a decedent’s body prior to placing them in a casket or entombment.  It is sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon).

American Sign Language — Legislation received final approval in the State Senate this week that requires the State Board of Education to adopt a policy allowing American Sign Language (ASL) courses to satisfy the foreign language credits.  State law is already supposed to encourage Tennessee schools to offer courses in ASL and to accept these courses as satisfying a foreign language requirement.  However, there has not been any movement to comply with the 1990 law.  Senate Bill 524, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), seeks to help the more than 500,000 Tennesseans who are deaf or hard of hearing and who use ASL as their primary form of communication.

Buprenorphine — State Senators voted this week to require the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, in collaboration with the Commissioner of the Department of Health, to develop recommended nonresidential treatment guidelines for the use of buprenorphine.  Buprenorphine-containing products, like Suboxone, are used for the treatment of opioid abuse.  It reduces opiate withdrawal symptoms as it produces similar effects to the opioid.  Senate Bill 709 requires the guidelines developed be used by prescribers as a guide for caring for patients by January 1, 2018. It also calls for the guidelines to be posted online for licensees to access.  The legislation, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), is similar to a law adopted by the General Assembly providing treatment guidance for the use of pain medication.

Juveniles / Detention Centers – Legislation establishing rules and regulations to provide a consistent and appropriate level of education services to public school students who are incarcerated in Tennessee’s 17 juvenile detention centers has been passed on final consideration.  The detention centers are intended to be temporary holding facilities for youth awaiting adjudication, which is typically less than 72 hours.  A small percentage of incarcerated youth, however, are held beyond this time period while a long-term placement option is determined or because a determinate sentence in the center has been given by a judge.  Presently, the law is not specific about the responsibility to educate students in juvenile detention centers who receive general education services.  With education services lacking in some juvenile detention centers, this is concerning as the juveniles need to attain their degree to help them succeed.  Senate Bill 1195, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), will put the responsibility on the Local Education Agency (LEA) that is most appropriate to serve each juvenile detention center.  The legislation also requires that the Department of Education monitor the educational services provided in these centers and the Department of Children’s Services monitor each center’s compliance through its licensure of the detention centers.

Special Agent De’Greaun ReShun Frazier TBI Crime Lab and Regional HeadquartersThe Senate approved Senate Bill 1233 this week which designates the new Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) crime lab in Jackson, Tennessee as the Special Agent De’Greaun ReShun Frazier TBI Crime Lab and Regional Headquarters. Frazier, who was shot and killed during an undercover drug operation conducted in Jackson, Tennessee, was the first TBI agent in history to be killed in the line of duty. He was 35 years old.  The legislation is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson).

Judicial Diversion / Public Employees The Senate approved legislation which excludes employees of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the state or any political subdivision of the state from being eligible for pretrial diversion for any misdemeanor committed in the employee’s official capacity.  Pre-trial diversion is the process in which the prosecutor halts the case against a defendant if he or she meets certain conditions like probation, counseling and community service, among others.  If approved by the judge, the defendant walks out of the courtroom a free man or woman without an admission of guilt and the record is expunged after a certain time if there are no more infractions.  Senate Bill 690, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), seeks to hold public employees accountable for their actions while on the job as a matter of public trust.

Business Owners / Personnel Policies — The Senate approved legislation on Thursday prohibiting state and local governments from taking discriminatory action against a business owners because of their personnel and employee benefit policies.   Senate Bill 127 requires that state law be the standard when evaluating bids and contracts for government work.  It is sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville).

In Senate committees this week, the following bills were passed:

Opportunity Scholarship Pilot Program The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) calling for a five-year pilot program to offer Opportunity Scholarships to students eligible for free and reduced lunch that are currently enrolled in a public school that is identified as being in the bottom five percent of academic achievement.  Senate Bill 161 creates the pilot program only in the school district with the most schools in the bottom five percent of the state in academic achievement.  The program would take effect in the 2018-2019 school year and would be capped at no more than 2,500 students for the first year, and 5,000 thereafter.  In addition to requiring assessments to measure student achievement growth, the program would be monitored and evaluated by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) for its effectiveness.  If a participating school demonstrates achievement growth for scholarship students at a level of significantly below expectations for two years in a row, the State Commissioner of Education would suspend or terminate the school’s participation.

Equal Justice / Drug Offenses — Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted this week to clarify that state drug laws preempt local ordinances in determining the appropriate sanction for drug offenses.  Senate Bill 894, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), follows ordinances introduced in two cities in Tennessee that ease marijuana charges.  The purpose is to uphold Tennessee’s drug laws and apply justice equally in different localities in the state, regardless if the officer making the stop is employed by a city, county or state law enforcement agency.

Body Cams / Law Enforcement Officers – Legislation advanced through the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week which seeks to set the right balance between privacy and transparency in public access of body camera (cam) footage taken by law enforcement officers.  Body cams are becoming more common, which has brought the need for clarity regarding public access to footage.   Senate Bill 442 creates exceptions to the public records request law when the footage involves minors at an elementary, middle or high school; when the body cam was filmed inside a hospital or medical facility that provides healthcare or mental healthcare; or when it is obtained in a private residence that is not being investigated as a crime scene.  It would further provide that nothing would prevent the information from being used in criminal proceedings by a District Attorney (DA) or an Attorney General (AG) or defense counsel.  It would also ensure access to the footage by law enforcement courts or other governmental agencies.  The legislation is sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).

Jail Overcrowding — Legislation which creates a task force to study the best practices and new approaches to the management and coordination of local correctional facilities overcame is first hurdle with passage in the Senate Government Operations Committee this week.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma).  Senate Bill 708, called the “Comprehensive Local Correctional Enforcement Task Force Act,” seeks to find solutions to the serious overcrowding in local jails. The goals of the task force will be to enhance overall operations of the criminal justice system at the local government level, to ensure that taxpayer money invested in local correctional facilities is used wisely and efficiently, to ensure that the rights of individuals involved in local correctional facilities are protected, and to ensure that such individuals are directed or diverted into appropriate programs that will best protect public safety, reduce recidivism, and provide the best likelihood for those individuals to become productive citizens. The task force must examine the challenges raised by individuals dealing with mental illness or substance abuse problems who may become involved with local law enforcement or correctional facilities.

Transportation — Legislation advanced through the Senate Transportation Assessment Subcommittee on Tuesday containing 962 road projects identified by Governor Bill Haslam as high priorities.  Senate Bill 1221 recognizes the need for road improvements to address the wide ranging deficits in Tennessee’s highway infrastructure. Included in the 962 projects identified by the governor are 45 projects to improve interstates, 89 projects to improve road access in rural communities, 51 projects geared toward creating economic opportunities, and 724 total bridge replacements. Tennessee has approximately 11,000 local roads, 40% of which are over 50 years old. Likewise, there are 8,000 state bridges in which 40% are over 40 years old. The bill now moves to the full Senate Transportation and Safety Committee and will be heard the week of March 13 when senators will discuss solutions.

Synthetic Opioid / Pink – Senate Judiciary Committee members approved Senate Bill 192 which adds the drug U-47700, a synthetic opioid nicknamed Pink, to the list of Schedule I controlled substances.   The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reported at least 46 deaths linked to use of U-47700 that occurred in 2015 and 2016.  Schedule I drugs include those that are the most dangerous and have a high risk of addiction or dependency and no legitimate medical use.  The legislation is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).

Etizolam – Similarly, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 284 which adds etizolam to the list of Schedule I controlled substances. Etizolam is a thienodiazepine which is very similar to Xanax, a widely abused drug.  Although it is not prescribed in the U.S., it is prescribed in some Asian countries. Drug manufacturers and distributors have been known to move operations to states where Etizolam is not scheduled.   The legislation is sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol).

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