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LEGISLATION AIMS TO PREVENT SUICIDE BY PROVIDING EFFECTIVE TRAINING FOR PROFESSIONALS

NASHVILLE –Legislation which aims to prevent suicide by providing training to medical professionals and others who are most likely to interact with troubled individuals is on its way to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature after passage in the House of Representatives on Thursday.  Senate Bill 489, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) and Representative Sam Whitson (R-Franklin), enacts the "Kenneth and Madge Tullis, MD, Suicide Prevention Training Act.”

The legislation comes after three Farragut High School students committed suicide this year.  It also comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in March showing the U.S. suicide rate has been increasing since 2000.   The CDC recommended that there is a growing need for comprehensive suicide prevention employing a broad public health approach.

“This legislation is very needed,” said Sen. Briggs.  “Studies indicate that not all professionals are properly trained in assessing, treating, and managing suicidal people, nor do they know how to refer them for proper treatment.  This legislation addresses the need to implement effective training for the recognition of at-risk behavior and the delivery of effective treatment.”

“Ongoing education of the professionals to recognize and treat mental diseases such as depression is a key factor within any prevention strategy,” added Sen. Massey.  “It is important to strengthen training on suicide risk assessment and intervention.”

The bill would require professional counselors, marital and family therapist, pastoral therapist, social workers, alcohol and drug abuse counselors, and occupational therapist to undergo suicide prevention training.  It calls for the program to be in place by January 1, 2020.  Professionals affected would then have exactly two years to complete the initial training required with follow-up training every five years thereafter.

Likewise, any professionals joining the field after 2022 would have two years to complete the training with a refresher course following every five years after.

The bill is named after Dr. Kenneth Tullis, a survivor of seven suicide attempts and multiple addictions, is an award-winning psychiatrist specializing in mood disorders, addictions, psychological trauma, and suicide prevention.  Tullis and his wife, Madge, organized and co-chaired Tennessee's first-ever Suicide Prevention Conference.   Together with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, they founded the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN), which has become a model for other states.

 

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State Senate passes legislation aiding law enforcement officers and members of the military

NASHVILLE -- The full Senate unanimously approved legislation this week to enhance penalties against those convicted of intentionally selecting their victim because of his or her status as a uniformed law enforcement officer or member of the armed forces.  Senate Bill 1342 was inspired by the many brave men and women in uniform who have lost their lives, were injured or targeted simply because of their jobs as protectors of the community.

“Thousands of men and women voluntarily put their uniforms on every day to protect and serve our communities and this nation,” said Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), sponsor of the bill.  “It is deeply disturbing when they are intentionally targeted because of their chosen profession.  This legislation sends a clear message that these dangerous criminals reprehensible behavior will not be tolerated and that they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

Under the bill, the enhancement factor would be considered by the court at the time of sentencing.  The law also applies to members of the Tennessee National Guard.

In addition, the State Senate passed legislation adding penalties to current law which forbids the release of private information regarding law enforcement officers to protect them and their families from being targeted.  Presently, it is unlawful to release nonpublic information regarding police officers, such as a street address, city, state, and zip code, but there is no punishment attached to the crime.  Senate Bill 467, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), makes the offense a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine for the negligent unauthorized release of an officer’s residential address.  If the release is intentional, the crime would be punishable as a Class A misdemeanor.

"Our men and women in blue are laying their lives on the line every day for us,” said Senator Bell.  “It's time we as a state recognize that fact by adding greater protections in the law for those who sacrifice their safety to protect us."

Both bills now go to the governor for his signature.  When signed, they will become effective on July 1.

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Oliver Springs L&N Depot included in newly amended budget proposal says Sen. Yager

(NASHVILLE, TN), April 25, 2017— State Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) said an appropriation of $100,000 for the Oliver Springs L&N Depot is included in Governor Bill Haslam’s amended budget proposal submitted to the General Assembly today.   The action came after Sen. Yager wrote Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin earlier this year asking for an appropriation for the project, laying out the reasons it should be included in the Governor’s amended budget.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $200,000.  The Oliver Springs Historical Society will raise the balance according to Yager.

“The Oliver Springs Depot is a priceless landmark in desperate need of repair,” said Sen. Yager.  “Volunteers have made a herculean effort to restore it, but we needed the funds in which this appropriation will help provide.  The Depot not only has great potential for tourism, it preserves our community’s history for generations to come.  I am very pleased that Governor Haslam and Commissioner Martin saw the need for this project and included it in their amendment.”

The Depot was built in the 1890’s and served as a focal point in the life and commerce of the town.  It currently houses the town’s library and a museum of local history.

 

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Senate approves legislation calling for one full semester of Tennessee history in state’s public schools

NASHVILLE, April 25, 2017 -- The Senate unanimously approved a bill Monday evening that would require Tennessee's public schools to go back to teaching at least one full semester of Tennessee history.  Senate Bill 631, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), is named for the late Senator Douglas Henry who was a great devotee of Tennessee history and who devoted much of his public life to its cause.

As amended, the semester of Tennessee history would be carved out between grades 4 and 8--a detail to be worked out by the Tennessee Board of Education and local school systems.

The bill complements a system under which the subject of Tennessee history is presently "embedded" into U.S. history classes in grades 4, 5, 8 and 11.  The embedded system, however, is piecemeal and does not call for the “story” of Tennessee to be taught.

"This legislation ensures Tennessee students learn the story of Tennessee history and the best way to do this is for it to be taught as a course,” said Sen. Haile  “Then the embedding of facts in U.S. history and world history will have more meaning.”

“We intend to work with the Department of Education and the Standards Review Committee where it is currently worked into the curriculum to implement this proposal without causing disruption to the process or adding additional burdens on our teachers.”

The bill wasn't so much debated on the Senate floor as it was praised. Among those who spoke in favor of its passage were Senators Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) and Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).

"This is long, long overdue," said Senator Overbey. "Those of us of a certain age took a semester of Tennessee history in the eighth grade, and the other day several of us were talking about this. To a person, everyone in the group said that the half-year of Tennessee history got them excited about their state and got them excited about being engaged in public service. We need to get our students interested both in civics and in Tennessee history."

"Tennessee has one of the richest histories of any state in the union," added Senator Kelsey. "It is absolutely necessary that we ensure that all our students understand all the important chapters in our history. These are things that absolutely should be taught.  And frankly, I don't care if some national test company doesn't have Tennessee history questions on it. This is the right thing to do."

At their request, all members of the Tennessee Senate were added as sponsors of the bill.

The House version of the bill is currently pending action in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

 

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SEN. OVERBEY’S BILL REGULATING SPORTS AGENTS PASSES LEGISLATURE

For Immediate Release:  April 25, 2017

NASHVILLE – A bill designed to protect student athletes by ensuring that sports agents keep their activities above board passed the Tennessee Legislature and is expected to the be signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam.  The Revised Uniform Athlete Agents Act (RUAAA), SB 565, was sponsored by Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), and is based on the Revised Uniform Athlete Agents Act, drafted by the Uniform Law Commission in 2015.

“This legislation modernizes the Uniform Athlete Agents Act for the ever-evolving sport commercial marketplace to deter improper activity between athlete agents and student athletes,” said Sen. Overbey.  “An athlete agent’s recruitment of student athletes while they are still enrolled in an academic institution may cause substantial eligibility or other problems for both the student athlete and the academic institution.”

SB 565 updates an earlier version of the act which was enacted in Tennessee in 2001.  The Uniform Athlete Agents Act governs the relationships between student athletes, athlete agents, and academic institutions.  The revision provides enhanced protection for student athletes and educational institutions, and simplifies the regulatory environment faced by legitimate athlete agents.

SB 565 makes numerous changes to present law, including

(1) expands the definition of “athlete agent” to include an individual who, for compensation or the anticipation of compensation, serves the athlete in an advisory capacity on a matter related to finances, business pursuits, or career management decisions; or manages the business affairs of the athlete by helping with bills, payments, contracts, or taxes.

(2) adds new requirements to the signing of an agency contract by requiring that an agency contract include a statement that the athlete agent is registered as an athlete agent in this state, and requires the agent to list any other state in which the agent is a registered athlete agent. This bill also requires that the agency contract be accompanied by a separate record signed by the student athlete, or a minor student athlete's parent or guardian, acknowledging that signing the contract may result in the loss of the athlete's eligibility to participate in the athlete's sport.

(3) expands notification requirements relative to an athlete agent providing notice to a student's educational institution and athletic director prior to initiating contact with a student athlete and giving notice regarding an agency contract. This bill adds certain notice requirements regarding athlete agents who have a preexisting relationship with a student prior to the student enrolling in a particular educational institution. This bill also adds notice requirements for situations when the student athlete is the initiator of a communication with an athlete agent.

(4) provides for reciprocal registration between states.

Further information on the Revised Uniform Athlete Agents Act can be found on the ULC’s website at www.uniformlaws.org.

 

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JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM BILL TAKES CREATIVE AND INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO ADDRESSING TRUANCY

NASHVILLE, (April 24, 2017)  -- Legislation establishing a progressive truancy intervention program for students in K-12 schools is advancing in the General Assembly with passage by the Tennessee Senate last week.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), is part of a package of bills recommended by the state’s Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force.

Senate Bill 196 takes a creative and innovative approach to addressing truancy, shifting toward a therapeutic rather than a correctional approach as the most effective means to reduce the rate of delinquency and to provide positive outcomes for students.  Truancy is the most frequent reason given for schools referring juveniles to court.

“I am grateful to the Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force for recommending the General Assembly take up and again consider this legislation from 2015,” said Sen. Overbey.  “This is one of the most important things we can do for students who take the privilege of an education for granted:  we can work with them and their families to keep them in school and out of juvenile court.”

Overbey passed the proposal in the Senate in 2015, but it stalled in the House of Representatives.  When the Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force completed their work, members recommended that it be approved this year as part of their reform package.

Overbey passed the proposal in the Senate in 2015, but it stalled in the House of Representatives.  When the Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force began their work, members recommended that it be approved this year as part of their reform package.

The goal of the program is to create mentorship-type relationship between a designated school representative and child and parent in an opportunity to focus on attendance prior to it becoming a juvenile court issue.  The legislation requires that the schools notify parents at the beginning of the school year in writing regarding their attendance policy. After three unexcused absences, the student and parent are pulled into a conference with a school representative to address the absences and to implement the first tier of the progressive truancy intervention.  An agreement is then signed by the student, parent and school representative, including the school’s attendance expectations for the child and penalties for additional absences.

Two additional tiers of interventions would be applied if the student accumulates additional unexcused absences in violation of the attendance contract.  At least one tier must include an individualized assessment regarding the reasons for the absence, and if necessary, referral to the child to counseling, community-based services or other services aimed at addressing the student’s attendance problems.

The bill is also designed to ensure that the intervention program is tracked to monitor its success.

“I believe this legislation will make a positive difference in the lives of many young people who otherwise would not receive early intervention in their truancy and end up in juvenile court,” Overbey added.

The proposal is pending action in the House of Representative’s Finance Committee.  The committee is expected to act on the bill during the next two weeks as the 2017 session comes to a close.

 

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Yager amendment would raise reimbursement rates for direct support professional caring for Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens

NASHVILLE – A proposal raising the rate of reimbursement for professionals providing care to Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens was presented by State Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) today during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee’s Appropriation Subcommittee.  Yager presented the $21 million amendment to increase the current reimbursement rate of $8.73 per hour by $1.00 for direct support professionals who provide home and community-based services through the Department of Intellectual Disabilities (DIDD) to stave off serious loss of personnel.

Personal care and home health are among the fastest growing occupations.  Home and community-based service providers are experiencing an unprecedented 46 percent turnover rate of direct support professionals as jobs with less stress and responsibility are widely available for higher pay.

“It is the direct support professionals that care for our most vulnerable citizens, those who have intellectual, developmental and age-related disabilities,” said Senator Yager.  “This woefully uncompetitive hourly rate has only seen an increase of 48 cents over the last 10 years.     Amendment 70 to increase the hourly rate comes at a critical time when the state is being required to meet federal mandates to integrate the intellectually and developmentally disabled into the workforce or risk losing Medicaid funding.”

If the reimbursement rate had risen with inflation since 2006, it is estimated the pay would now be at least $10.16 per hour.  The $20 million investment proposed by the amendment is expected to bring in an additional $40 million in federal funds for Tennessee.

“This amendment would have a positive economic impact for Tennessee communities,” Yager added.  “But the most important factor is what the increase means to workers who are generally there because they love working with this vulnerable population.  They can only do that for so long and provide support for their families or make ends meet.  I hope that we will receive a favorable vote to help keep these workers on the job.”

The committee was tasked with hearing appropriations amendments today but will vote on each proposal at a later date which has not yet been scheduled.


Tennessee Senate approves bill broadening the use of cell phones in election polling places

NASHVILLE – Legislation which revises Tennessee law to broaden the rights of Tennesseans to use their cell phones at the polling place passed the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 30-0.   Senate Bill 517, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), regulates voting without infringing on a citizen’s First Amendment rights.

The bill stems from the 2016 presidential election when famous Tennessean Justin Timberlake took a selfie at a polling place in Germantown, Tennessee. The photo became national and international news due to the controversy surrounding Tennessee’s law prohibiting such action.

“Sometimes citizens are waiting in long lines in hallways before they even reach the room with the voting machines,” said Senator Kelsey.  “We need to allow folks to call home about the grocery list while they are waiting.”

The legislation allows certain exceptions prohibiting the use of cell phones by election officials or commissioners, which mostly pertain to acts of harassment.  It also ensures that a recording of a marked ballot, including selfies, would be prohibited only if it had been recorded in an effort to commit voter intimidation, voter fraud, or the sale of a vote.

“This law helps us to continue to conduct our elections with integrity and reliability, as the ban on cell phone use is a narrowly tailored restriction to achieve that interest,” added Kelsey.  “At the same time, it employs common sense so that we don’t infringe on our citizen’s First Amendment rights.”

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is scheduled for a vote in the Local Government Committee on April 18.

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State Senators move to protect elderly and vulnerable adults from financial exploitation

NASHVILLE –   Two major bills to protect elderly and vulnerable adults from financial exploitation are headed to the Senate floor for a final vote after being approved in Senate committees this week.  Senate Bill 1192, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), and Senate Bill 1267, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), gives securities officials and financial institutions the tools they need to help detect and prevent financial exploitation of those age 65 and older and vulnerable adults with diminished capacity.

The legislation comes from the Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Abuse Task Force, which worked with Tennessee’s financial community to recommend the changes.

“Roughly one in five seniors has been a victim of financial exploitation at a cost of approximately $2.9 billion annually,” said Senator Gardenhire.  “Moreover, these numbers are likely low as it is also estimated that only one out of every 44 instances of financial abuse is actually reported.”

Called the Senior Financial Protection and Securities Modernization Act, Senate Bill 1192:

  • Provides a pathway for voluntary reporting by giving civil and administrative immunity to broker-dealers, investment advisers, agents, representatives and other qualified individuals for reporting the suspected abuse or exploitation;
  • Allows those individuals to delay disbursements from an account for up to 15 days if financial abuse or exploitation is suspected (that delay could be extended to up to 25 days upon request by the commissioner and by court order);
  • Grants the Commissioner of Commerce and Insurance authority to create additional guidelines by rule for delayed-disbursement when fraudulent activities are suspected;
  • Authorizes notification to third parties previously designated by the elderly or vulnerable adult regarding any suspected fraudulent transactions; and,
  • Gives the Commissioner authority, under the state’s Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, to double current civil penalties to up to $10,000 to $20,000 per violation against offenders who victimize a vulnerable or senior adult.

“Financial exploitation robs elderly victims of their money and their dignity,” said Senator Gardenhire, who is a retired financial advisor.  “It also can rob them of their independence and can even force them into depending on government assistance despite their best efforts to save for their golden years.”

It has been estimated that 41.4 percent of the offenses of financial exploitation were committed by a family member and another 13.3 percent of victims were described by law enforcement as having close relationships with the perpetrator.

Likewise, Senate Bill 1267 adds tools and greater flexibility as to how financial institutions can best protect their customers when they have reason to suspect financial exploitation of elderly or vulnerable adults is occurring or being attempted.  The legislation:

  • Provides new authority for financial institutions to delay or refuse to conduct transactions which permit the disbursement of funds from the account of an elderly customer or vulnerable adult when exploitation is suspected;
  • Permits, but doesn’t require, the financial institution to establish a list of persons the customer would like to have contacted if the institution suspects the customer is a victim of financial exploitation or theft;
  • Allows financial institutions to refuse to accept an authorized power of attorney if they believe the person is conducting financial exploitation; and,
  • Requires the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions to consult with financial service providers, the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, and the Department of Human Services to develop a public education campaign to alert the public to the dangers of vulnerable adults from financial exploitation.

“Bankers are often on the frontlines of witnessing attempted exploitation and these tools will give them greater flexibility to protect vulnerable Tennesseans,” said Sen. Norris.

The proposals build on a new law, sponsored by Norris and passed by the General Assembly last year, which set up Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams (VAPIT) in each judicial district in Tennessee to foster cooperation and information sharing between different government agencies whose purpose is to protect elderly and vulnerable adults.

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Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation making it illegal for a prison inmate to possess a cell phone

NASHVILLE, (April 6, 2017) -- The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week making it illegal for a prison inmate to possess a cell phone during their incarceration.  Senate Bill 432, sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), creates a new class E felony offense for knowingly possessing an unauthorized telecommunications device while present in any Tennessee penal institution.

Current law prohibits anyone from bringing in a device of this nature, but there are no laws in place that make possession of them illegal.  The bill also applies to use of the device to coerce a witness or juror and when it involves escape from a penal institution.

There were 1,536 incidents with cell phones in state prisons last year alone.

“Cell phones being slipped into our prisons is a huge problem,” said Sen. Jackson.  “I met with 120 correctional officers about a year ago, and they laughed when I asked about the phones because they just can’t keep them out of the prisons. These devices are used to threaten guards, citizens and witnesses, as well as planning crimes and running gang and drug activities.  Prisoners are sending selfies to the people they have offended.”

“The main fix would be if the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) would let us jam the signal in these prisons, but in the meantime we have to do something to fix it.  This legislation expands the authority of the facility to do something about it, not only for the safety of the correctional officers, but also for the citizens they have contact with outside of those prison walls.”

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

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Legislation seeks to reduce the number of required school evacuation drills without undermining the safety of children

NASHVILLE – Legislation which seeks to reduce the number of required school fire drills, without undermining the safety of children, is headed to the floor of the Senate for a final vote.  Senate Bill 136, sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), would decrease the minimum requirement of practice drills to seven drills over a 10-month period.

The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee last Wednesday and could come up for a vote as early as this week.

Jackson said the bill was brought to him by school superintendents.  He has worked with school officials, as well as state and local fire marshals in crafting the legislation.

Currently, the state’s requirements are 11 evacuation drills, in addition to other safety drills for earthquakes, bomb threats, intruders and tornadoes, with some schools performing drills about every 11 days.

“The current fire drill requirements were put into place in 1915 before fire safety advances, like sprinklers, fire retardant construction materials, back door escapes and regular fire marshal inspections, were implemented,” said Sen. Jackson.  “It was also at a time when wood two-story schools were more common.   This legislation continues a rigid fire drill schedule, but allows for instruction in the classroom, which we believe could complement fire safety procedures.”

Under the legislation, the first four fire drills must be complete evacuations, while the remaining three may be executed in the classroom by way of review through any means available to the school.

“The safety of children is paramount in this legislation,” Jackson continued.  “We believe we have a bill that accomplishes that goal, but that it also sets a more reasonable number of drills so that needed classroom time will not be interrupted as often.”

 

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State Senators approve bills aiding the families of law enforcement officers and emergency responders who are killed in the line of duty

NASHVILLE -- The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved two bills this week aiding the families of law enforcement officers who are killed in the line of duty.  Senate Bill 1059, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), calls for a $250,000 death benefit from the State of Tennessee for any firefighter, volunteer rescue worker, or law enforcement officer who is killed in the line of duty.  The Helping Emergency Response Officials (HERO) Act would significantly increase the current lump sum of $25,000 paid at the time of death to a $250,000 annuity with the first responder’s estate receiving annual installments of $50,000 per year.

“This legislation calls for something that no one wants to have, a death benefit to the hero’s family should the first responder be killed in the line of duty,” said Senator Bowling.   “These families have lost more than a loved one.  They’ve lost income that the individual was providing to that family. This legislation will provide them more time and resources to stabilize their family after the tragic loss.”

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch testified in favor of the bill saying, “For too many years in Tennessee we have overlooked the families of those first responders who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.  These heroes run toward danger when others run away… While we can never repay the debt that they create through their actions, we can address the challenge that the family will be burdened with due to their loss.”

The second bill authorizes the State Insurance Committee to offer or continue to provide health insurance benefits to the surviving spouse and children of a first responder killed in the line of duty. Under Senate Bill 822, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), the first responder’s family and unborn child may receive health insurance benefits from the employing agency for up to two years.

“A community’s loss of a first responder is certainly tragic, and the uncertainty that faces the family can be paramount,” said Senator Haile.  “What this bill allows is that the state would reimburse local government that provides health insurance benefits according to this section.”

Finally, the State Senate voted unanimously this week to designate May 14-20, 2017, as Police Memorial Week.  Senate Joint Resolution 115, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), was introduced to “honor the brave and valiant service rendered by the many law enforcement officers through Tennessee.”

Bailey said, “When one of our law enforcement officers doesn’t make it home to his or her family, we owe them a perpetual debt of gratitude and remembrance.  By pausing for a statewide remembrance, we will give our fallen law enforcement officers the prayerful respect and dignity that they so deserve.”

 

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Legislation stiffens penalties against felons with firearms

NASHVILLE – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved major legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) yesterday to enact tougher sentences for violent felons in possession of firearms.  The legislation continues Norris’ series of anti-crime laws dubbed “Crooks with Guns” passed over the last decade to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping violent criminals behind bars longer to protect the public.

Senate Bill 1241, which is supported by the District Attorneys General Conference, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission and the City of Memphis, follows recent reports that convicted felons illegally in possession of firearms have increased from 13 to 17 percent over the past three years.

“The proliferation of crimes involving firearms points to the need for a more effective hammer to deter felons from going armed,” said Sen. Norris.  “This legislation continues our efforts to give law enforcement authorities stronger tools to curb violent crime in Tennessee.”

Currently, possession of a firearm by a felon previously convicted for an offense involving the use or attempted use of force is punishable as a Class C felony, with sentences averaging 3.51 years.  The legislation would increase the offense to a Class B felony, almost doubling the average time spent in jail to 6.31 years.  Likewise, the legislation enhances penalties for possession of a firearm by a person with a prior felony drug conviction.  The proposal elevates the crime from a Class D to a Class C felony, adding 1.28 years to the current average sentence of 2.23 years.

The bill also prohibits probation for possession of a firearm by a person with a prior felony conviction involving the use or attempted use of force.

The penalties are more in line with sentences imposed at the federal level involving gun possession by convicted felons.

“This enables the state system to do a better job of holding these individuals with prior violent crime and drug trafficking convictions more accountable under state law,” said Bill Gibbons, Executive Director of the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis and President of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.   “But, also, it will help change behavior and maybe get some of these people to pause and think a little bit about their behavior and start making some good choices instead of bad choices.”

Gibbons was joined by Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and District Attorney General Mike Dunavant who also testified in support of the bill.

The legislation now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of the proposal’s fiscal impact.

 

 

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Legislation sponsored by Sen. Roberts combats welfare fraud in Tennessee

NASHVILLE -- Legislation designed to combat welfare fraud in Tennessee is headed to the Senate floor for a final vote after being approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. Senate Bill 365, sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), requires agencies within state government to communicate with each other to identify people who are receiving benefits for which they are not eligible.

Studies estimate Tennessee loses approximately $123 million per year in fraudulent payments to people who are not actually qualified to receive benefits.

“Any money that is obtained through fraud in the welfare system costs the taxpayers of Tennessee money,” said Senator Roberts.  “But more importantly, it makes less money available to those who qualify for benefits and really need assistance.”

Called the Program Integrity Act of 2017, the legislation creates a new system of enhanced verification in Tennessee, requiring the Department of Human Services (DHS) to conduct quarterly data matches against information databases to help eliminate fraudulent payments that are being made.  It also authorizes DHS to join a multistate cooperative for identifying individuals who currently receive Tennessee benefits but who live in other states.  In addition, the Bureau of TennCare would be required to verify wage and income information, immigration status, and vital records information for each applicant or enrollee once their new automated electronic eligibility system is operational.  The state has been continuing development of the Tennessee Eligibility Determination System (TEDS) to help detect those who misuse the welfare system.

“As people move, get jobs, pass away, or simply falsify their economic statuses, this new computerized crosscheck system will help detect fraud, ensuring that those who receive benefits are those who actually qualify,” added Sen. Roberts

In addition to the new enhanced verification system, the legislation also requires the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation to make a monthly report to DHS of all individuals who collect a prize of more than $5,000 to ensure that those who exceed income requirements do not continue to collect taxpayer-supported payments. While federal rules require recipients to self-report this income, this change simply adds an extra layer of security to the process by requiring the Lottery Corporation to report these winnings so that it can be crosschecked through the system.

If approved by the full Senate, the bill which passed the House of Representatives earlier this year, will go to the governor for his signature.

 

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Hensley advances legislation creating a State Task Force on Palliative Care

NASHVILLE – Legislation sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) that creates a State Task Force on Palliative in Tennessee is set to be heard in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday after being approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee last week.  Hensley said the purpose of the bill is to promote patient-centered and family-focused palliative care in the state.

Palliative care is an approach intended to improve the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing serious or life-threatening illnesses.  It aims to prevent and relieve their suffering by means of early identification, impeccable assessment, and the treatment of their pain, physical, psychosocial, spiritual, and various other ailments.

Hensley said education on palliative care would play a key role in the task force’s work as the public needs to be armed with good information about what palliative care is and where they can find it.

“Palliative care is still a relatively new movement, considering the long history of healthcare and has been both misunderstood and under-utilized,” said Hensley, who is a physician.  “The growing body of evidence shows that it improves quality of life so much that it reduces need for crisis hospitalizations, which are not only difficult for patients and families, but are by far the costliest setting for medical care.”

Over the last decade, a multitude of studies have shown the benefits of palliative care, including improved quality of life, reduced patient and caregiver burden, and an overall reduction in total health care costs.

Senate Bill 1170 creates a nine-member task force charged with consulting and advising the Department of Health on matters relative to the establishment, maintenance, operation, and outcome of palliative care initiatives.  Currently, 16 states have laws establishing these Advisory Councils, and an additional seven states introduced comparable bills during their most recent legislative sessions.

“Much remains to be done to ensure that people with serious or life-limiting illness and their families have access to care that is rendered with compassion,” Hensley added.  “My hope is that this task force will provide a roadmap for the delivery of high-quality patient and family-centered care that optimizes the quality of life for these patients.”

 

 

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Senate advances Tom Cronan Physical Education Act

(NASHVILLE), March 24, 2017 – Legislation which aims to ensure that elementary students are receiving adequate physical activity while at school overcame its first hurdle this week with approval by the Senate Education Committee.  The Tom Cronan Physical Education Act requires each student in elementary school participate in a physical education class (PE) at least twice a week for a combined total of no less than 60 minutes.

Senate Bill 558 is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Representative Roger Kane (R-Knoxville).  The bill is named for the late Dr. Thomas Cronan, who was Professor Emeritus of Exercise Physiology at Carson-Newman College and a lifelong promoter of wellness.  He was the husband of former University of Tennessee Women’s Athletics Director Joan Cronan, who with Coach Pat Summitt, led the Lady Vols to multiple national basketball championships.

Obesity is one of the most pressing health concerns in Tennessee.  The state ranks 49th in the United States in physical inactivity and 47th in obesity.  The percentage of overweight/obese students is highest for 6th graders.

“Evidence shows that children who are physically active and fit tend to perform better in the classroom,” said Sen. Ketron.  “It improves their concentration, cognitive functioning, and self-esteem, not to mention the health benefits by establishing healthy habits at an early age.  It’s time to change the culture of the school to blend academics and PE.”

“Physical activity is beneficial in so many ways,” stated Rep. Kane. “It not only improves physical health but also academic performance.”

Under the legislation, the PE class must be taught by a teacher with a physical education endorsement and must meet the needs of students.  The legislation also requires local education agencies (LEAs) to verify compliance with the act annually.

“The Tom Cronan Physical Education bill will make a difference in young people’s lives,” Mrs. Cronan told committee members.  “The facts show one in three of our school children is obese.   Seventy-four percent are not ready to go to the military… One of the things that Coach Summitt taught us is that discipline makes a difference.  I think when we look at our elementary students and what they can do to get better and represent us, not only in the military, but in life, I feel strongly that physical education provides that.”

U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Eden Murrie, a Nashville resident, testified about physical education and obesity as it affects national security.  “We need today’s youth to be ready to successfully serve our nation tomorrow in the armed forces or in a variety of different ways.  As simple as it sounds, PE is a necessary tool for our youth,” she said.

Obesity is the leading medical disqualification in the armed forces with nearly one out of three young people being too overweight to serve.

The bill is scheduled to come before the House Education Instruction and Programs Subcommittee on Wednesday.

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Senate version of IMPROVE Act is “Taxpayer Protection Pledge Compliant” says top conservative tax reform group

NASHVILLE –  The IMPROVE Act, as amended last week by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), has met the approval of the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a national conservative group formed by Grover Norquist in 1985 at the request of President Ronald Reagan.  The flagship project of ATR is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written promise by legislators and candidates for office that commits them to oppose any effort to increase income taxes on individuals and businesses.

In a memorandum to the members of the Tennessee General Assembly today, Norquist said, “The recent amendments made by the Senate, and supported by Gov. Haslam, have improved the bill to the extent that the bill is now a net tax decrease, and thus not a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge…ATR scores the amended version of SB 1221 / HB 534 as a net tax cut and therefore Taxpayer Protection Pledge compliant.”

The group’s approval follows an announcement in January by the American Conservative Union that that the Tennessee Senate is the “Most Conservative Senate” in the nation, earning a score of 79.87 percent.  Since 2011, the General Assembly has cut $438 million in taxes.  These cuts include legislation sponsored by Leader Norris in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 repealing the gift tax, eliminating the death tax, reducing the sales tax on food, exempting the sales tax on certain machinery and medical supplies, and phasing out the Hall Income Tax.   If the IMPROVE ACT is approved, those tax cuts would exceed $540 million.

“We have worked diligently to rebuild our state, not only with a focus on keeping our roads and bridges safe, but to reallocate revenues to maximize the return to Tennessee taxpayers,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).  “This legislation is the latest along the continuum of cuts providing widespread tax relief for Tennesseans, while paving the way to new and better jobs to Tennessee.”

The legislation, which was approved last week in the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, is up for consideration in the Senate State and Local Government Committee tomorrow.

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Senate Education Committee approves Opportunity Scholarships Pilot Program

NASHVILLE The Senate Education Committee today unanimously approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Senator Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), 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.

“I would not be the person I am today without having received a scholarship to attend a private school,” said Senator Kelsey.  “I desperately hope to provide that same opportunity to others.  Opportunity Scholarships would provide the parents of students in the lowest performing schools with hope for a better education for their child.  Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood.”

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.

Pastor LaShundra Richmond, a Memphis educator and mother of a fourth grader who transferred her daughter to a private school, testified in favor of the bill.  She said, “So often we hear the narrative around low performing schools and low performing students, but it really boils down to what best fits the needs of the individual student, and I believe Senate Bill 161 is an opportunity to empower parents to receive access to an option they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford.”  Richmond has worked with the Achievement School District in advocacy with the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

“Some people are for this legislation and some are against it,” Kelsey added.  “It is time to learn once and for all whether this program can work for Tennessee.”

House Education Administration and Planning Committee Chairman Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Representative John DeBerry (D-Memphis) are sponsoring the legislation in the House of Representatives where the bill received unanimous subcommittee approval on Tuesday.

Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown.  He serves as a member of the Senate Education Committee and as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

 

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Senate approves legislation making it easier for veterans to determine how their military training can count as credit in Tennessee’s colleges and universities

(NASHVILLE), March 6, 2017 -- Legislation that will make it easier for veterans to determine how their military training can count as credit in Tennessee’s colleges and universities was approved by the Tennessee Senate on Monday.  Senate Bill 1232, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), also 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 Norris led to passage in 2014 encouraging enrollment of veterans and removing 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.  This 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.

“Veterans should receive college credit for the education and training they learn while serving their country,” added Norris.  “We have found that in too many instances, service members were not getting that credit and having to start over.  This bill helps ensure that they are given maximum credit for their 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.

 

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SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE APPROVES SEN. BEAVERS’ RESOLUTION TO LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE IF THEY WANT AN ELECTED STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 1, 2017  -- A resolution that would allow Tennessee voters to decide if they want to popularly elect the state’s attorney general (AG) is headed to the Senate floor for a final vote after being approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.  Senate Joint Resolution 57, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), begins the process of amending the State Constitution, which if approved by voters, calls for the AG to be elected beginning with the November 2024 general election.

“Currently, the attorney general is twice removed from those he or she is supposed to represent – the people of Tennessee,” said Senator Beavers.  “It is time we let the citizens have more of a say in their government.”

State attorneys general are directly elected in 43 states. Of the remaining seven, six are appointed by the governor or the state legislature.  Unlike any other state, Tennessee’s AG is appointed by the justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court for a term of eight years.  Tennessee’s Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor and stand for a retention vote.

“This means you have appointees appointing the AG,” added Beavers.

The resolution calls for the AG to be elected to a four-year term, but would limit it to two consecutive terms.  The amendment process requires a simple majority by the 110th General Assembly currently in session, and a two-thirds majority in the 111th General Assembly which is elected in 2018, before going to voters in a statewide referendum.

The resolution also provides that the AG be 30 years of age or older, a citizen of the United States, an attorney duly licensed in Tennessee and a resident of the state for at least five years preceding the election.

“We must have the respect for the citizens of this great state that they would be able to elect a great attorney general to uphold and defend our constitution.  Along with the vast majority of the rest of this nation, I feel that the citizens of this state ought to have a ‘say so’ in the highest legal office in Tennessee,” Beavers concluded.

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