Opioid abuse and state budget headline issues before the General Assembly as 2018 legislative session begins

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), January 11, 2018 – The General Assembly returned to Capitol Hill on January 9 to begin the 2018 session with the state budget and legislation to curb opiate abuse expected to headline a wide array of issues on this year’s agenda.  Before getting down to work, however, the Senate took care of organizational tasks including the welcoming of two new senators and several committee assignment changes.

The changes come as a result of the resignation of three Senate members since the legislature adjourned in May. Two of the resigning senators, Doug Overbey and Jim Tracy, accepted presidential appointments.

“I am proud the Senate’s superior membership caught the attention of our President,” said Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). “As a result, new members will now have the opportunity to take on new challenges.”

The new senators are Senator Art Swann (R-Maryville) who represents Senate District 2, and Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) who represents Senate District 17.  Both senators previously served in the Tennessee House of Representatives.  The general election to fill a vacancy in Senate District 14 has been set for March 13.

New committee assignment changes include the appointment of Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) as chairman of the Ethics Committee, Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) as chairman of the Calendar Committee, Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) as 2nd vice chair of the Finance, Ways and Means and Labor Committee, and Senator John Lundberg (R-Bristol) as 1st vice chair of the Judiciary Committee.

“Tennessee’s success is not a matter of luck. It is the result of the right people being in the right places to make the right decisions,” McNally added. “Our already strong team will be made even stronger with these changes.”

New Senate members Swann and Pody will serve as 1st vice chair of the Transportation Committee and 2nd vice chair of the Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee respectively.

“Senators Swann and Pody have significant legislative experience from their time in the House,” added McNally. “I look forward to them hitting the ground running with these new assignments.”

Also of note, Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) will now serve on the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, while Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) will join the Commerce and Labor Committee and Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) will join the Ethics Committee.

The Senate has nine standing committees and four select committees.

Health expert reiterates Tennessee’s challenge in finding solutions to prescription drug use and opioid deaths

Tennessee is in the grip of an exploding epidemic of prescription drug use and opioid deaths according to Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health.  Wykoff spoke to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday.   He was there to give an annual update on Tennessee’s health status and offer long-term strategies to improve it.

The state ranked 39th in drug deaths in 2017 in the United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Ranking.  The group, using 28 measures, evaluated the state’s overall health at 45th.

“All of Tennessee – not just East Tennessee – all of us, are in the grip of an exploding epidemic of prescription drug use and opioid-related deaths,” Wykoff said.  “Tennessee has done some effective things to reduce opiate prescriptions.  Unfortunately, the death rate has still been going up – but there is more that can be done.”

“I would like to encourage my colleagues as we go forward this year to say, let it be this year that we start the end to this epidemic,” said Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), a physician and member of the committee.  Legislation is forthcoming which takes a multi-faceted approach to problems in the areas of education, treatment, regulation and enforcement.

Wykoff said that unhealthy choices are a key factor in the state’s overall low health ranking, with tobacco use, poor diet, lack of physical activity and drug abuse accounting for some of the highest death rates.  Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation for the use of tobacco, 45th for obesity and 40th in physical inactivity.  He said these factors are linked closely to the state’s economic development opportunities.  “Every employer will tell you they need a healthy, educated, drug-free workforce.  They simply can’t move into a community if they can’t get folks to work in their factory.”

“These numbers are very concerning to me,” said Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City).  “It’s troubling that Tennessee is making a great deal of progress in education and economic development where we rank high  in most categories, but that we remain in the bottom of these rankings nationwide.  Pursuant to Dr. Wykoff’s testimony, it is incumbent that we evaluate these health indicators as metrics to determine how Tennessee can improve.”

Last fall, the General Assembly formed a Wellness Caucus led by Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) to help shape future public policy to improve health outcomes.  The group is working in conjunction with the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness.

Wykoff also discussed health problems faced by children who are victims of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  ACEs are stressful or traumatic experiences that range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to parental divorce or the incarceration of a parent or guardian.  They are at the root of much of the chronic disease, mental illness, and violence in Tennessee.  During their fall meeting, members of the Senate Health and General Welfare Committee called for more coordination to ensure children who are at-risk or who suffer from ACEs are being served at the earliest age possible to give them better opportunities to succeed.

Senate Education Committee leads efforts to stop educator sexual misconduct involving students

The Senate Education Committee is working to stop educator sexual misconduct involving students in light of a new report showing ways that predators could slip through the cracks.  On Wednesday, the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office presented a comprehensive report to committee members titled Educator Sexual Misconduct Involving Students in Tennessee Schools.

“Parents need to know when they send their child to a public school that they will be safe,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville). “Legislation is forthcoming to ensure that they are protected.”

The report was prompted by a USA Today national investigation which gave Tennessee a low score in four areas:

  • background checks of teacher applicants;
  • transparency in publicly sharing licensing and disciplinary information about sanctioned teachers;
  • sharing this information with others states; and,
  • whether the state has laws mandating that educators, schools, and school districts report misconduct to the state.

It was also found that the State Board of Education is understaffed to review all cases of educator misconduct cases, and has a backlog of about six to eight months of outstanding cases.  The board has requested that the legislature grant a budget request for one additional lawyer and a paralegal to be able to properly review reported cases.

Chairman Gresham is leading collective efforts among members of the committee to produce legislation to solve all the issues revealed in the Comptroller’s report.  The legislation is expected to be filed before the General Assembly’s bill deadline of February 1.

Sixth Circuit upholds vote of Tennesseans on Amendment 1

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals this week upheld the vote of Tennesseans to amend their State Constitution to strip out the “right to abortion” as interpreted by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Amendment 1, which was adopted in 2014, was challenged by eight voters who claimed the way the state counted ballots was unconstitutional and infringed upon their voting rights.

The ruling said, “The vote-counting method employed by defendant State officials in the 2014 election was reasonable and true to the meaning of Article XI, Section 3 of the Tennessee Constitution, as confirmed by the state-court’s declaratory judgment ruling.  Further, we hold that the State officials’ actions did not result in any infringement of plaintiffs’ voting rights.”

Amendment 1 was sent to the voters by the legislature after the Tennessee Supreme Court handed down a ruling in 2000 that went a step beyond the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.  That action struck down legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly that called for women to receive informed consent information about the surgery and to wait 48 hours before they receive an abortion.  Similarly, in 2002 the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled the Tennessee Department of Health’s requirement for licensure and inspection of abortion facilities was not constitutional.  The Supreme Court justices making those decisions have since retired.

Amendment 1 placed wording in the constitution stating nothing “secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”  It also states “the people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”

“This is a clear victory,” said Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), a physician who sponsored legislation adopted in 2015 which required abortion facilities to be held to the same health and safety standards as other out-patient surgical facilities. “I am very pleased that the court upheld the votes cast by tens of thousands of Tennesseans on this matter.  This amendment gives the people of Tennessee the right to enact commonsense laws regarding abortion through their elected representatives.”

Another pro-life law passed in 2015 called for informed consent and a 48-hour waiting period for women and girls considering an abortion.

Issues in Brief

Education Success and Goals — Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen appeared before the Senate Education Committee this week to give lawmakers an update on how students are performing in Tennessee schools.  This includes that students in the state are among the fastest improving in the nation, outpacing their peers in a number of categories. Students showed across-the-board growth in the second year of high school results on TNReady, while the state’s average ACT score reached a record high 20.1.  In addition, the class of 2017 posted Tennessee’s highest ever graduation rate of 89.1 percent.  McQueen said the department will place emphasis on three goals to build on this success: 1.) Every child should be reading on grade level by the end of third grade;  2.)  Every child must have an effective teacher supported by an effective principal; and 3.)  Every child has to be set up for success on a path to a career.

Faith and Freedom — The State Senate voted unanimously this week to adopt Senate Joint Resolution 472, sponsored by Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), calling for Tennessee to join other states across the nation in declaring January 16 as Religious Freedom Day to uplift faith and freedom in America.  The day is the anniversary of the passage, in 1786, of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.  The resolution asks for “God’s continued grace, protection, guidance and favor in the hope that America can soon overcome her civil discord and disunity, so that her heritage of faith and freedom can remain a light of freedom to the nations.”  The resolution also asks that “we seek laws and public policies at all levels of government that will honor the long, hard road that our founders traveled from mere religious tolerance to true religious liberty for all American citizens.”

Child Seat Belt Safety — Approximately 812,871 children have been touched by the Ollie Otter Seat Belt and Booster Seat Safety Program over the last 10 years according to testimony given by the Tennessee Road Builders Association to the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee on Wednesday.  The association partnered with Tennessee Tech University to develop an interactive program to educate elementary school children through sponsorship with the Tennessee Highway Safety Office.  The program is designed to help children develop positive opinions about booster seats, as well as teach them about road safety.  Nine other states have adopted the program based on its success in Tennessee.

Worked-Based Learning Grants Awarded– The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development announced this week that 29 school systems or local boards of education have received Work-Based Learning Grants. The grants will assist the development or expansion of work-based learning programs that promote career awareness and student readiness in grades K-12. Work-Based Learning is an education strategy that provides students with experiences to learn and develop career and job skills.  A second round of grants will be awarded later this year with applications due by January 31.

TDOT / Snow Preparedness — The Tennessee Department of Transportation released information on Thursday assuring motorists it is stocked and ready to clear roadways of ice and snow this winter. TDOT currently has over 229,000 tons of salt and more than 1.6 million gallons of salt brine ready for use.  Salt brine is a salt/water mixture used as a pre-treatment for roads prior to a winter storm or to melt snow on roadways when temperatures are hovering around the freezing mark. Salt is applied to roads once snow has started to accumulate.  TDOT has a fleet of more than 800 snow trucks statewide, designed to remove snow and ice safely and efficiently from state routes and interstates. For winter weather tips and travel information, and a regional breakdown of TDOT winter weather supplies and equipment, visit the TDOT web site at https://www.tn.gov/tdot/inclement-weather/ice—snow.html.

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