(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 27, 2014 – Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as State Senators examined the budgets of thirteen agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills. Among key legislation approved on final consideration this week was a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), creating a statewide support structure that offers in-state tuition rates for veterans pursuing higher education in Tennessee.
The vote on the bill came the evening before testimony was given by Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder who said Tennessee was tied with Michigan in the last quarter of 2013 as having the fourth highest veteran unemployment rate in the country at 9.7%. Grinder, who appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee to present her department’s budget proposal, said the national average is 6.5%. Commissioner Grinder advocates increasing educational opportunities to help veterans return to the workplace.
“In accordance with the Drive to 55 initiative, it is imperative to increase the number of Tennesseans with a college degree,” said Grinder. “We believe those who sacrificed so much for our state and country, our Tennessee Veterans, must be included as a priority in that goal.” The Drive to 55 initiative aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications from 32% to 55% by the year 2025.
Approximately 27.7% of Tennessee’s Veterans have some college or an associate’s degree, while 24.3% percent have a bachelor’s degree. The department’s goal is to increase the number of Tennessee veterans with an associate’s degree to 37 percent and bachelor’s degree to 25 percent by 2016.
“This bill will help us meet that goal,” said Leader Norris. “The VETS Act ensures that veterans have a clear, easy pathway to attend college in Tennessee. As a state, we want to recognize and assist those soldiers who are coming home and exploring their education options.”
Currently, recently-discharged veterans relocating to Tennessee must pay out-of-state tuition rates until residency is formally established. Under Senate Bill 1433, veterans enrolling within 24 months of discharge immediately receive the in-state tuition rate when starting college classes, eliminating the issue of residency for those relying on GI Bill benefits. To maintain in-state status and rates, veterans have one year to present proof of established residency, such as a driver’s license, motor vehicle registration or proof of employment. Registering to vote also fulfills the requirement.
Norris said the act also creates a “VETS Campus” designation to recognize and promote schools that make veteran enrollment a priority. Higher education institutions that satisfy veteran-friendly criteria, such as specialized orientation and the availability of mentoring programs, can receive the designation.
“This encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials,” Norris continued.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently in the process of creating an educational resource page to help Veterans quickly access educational resources and contacts at each of Tennessee’s colleges, universities and technical schools. In addition, Grinder said the department is working with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development to improve unemployment. This includes holding “Paychecks for Patriots” statewide job fairs which have connected thousands of Veterans with jobs. The department’s “Jobs for Veterans” page highlights upcoming job fairs, big job announcements and directs employers as well as job-seeking veterans to the new online Jobs 4 TN site, where specific information is listed to provide them with assistance.
In other action on veteran’s bills this week, the Senate Transportation Committee approved Senate Bill 2098 requiring the Department of Revenue to provide a free decal to disabled veterans that may be affixed to their vehicle’s license plate. Individuals with the decal attached to their license plate would be eligible for the same parking privileges as the holder of a disabled driver placard. The bill, which is sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.
SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE APPROVES RESOLUTION CALLING FOR A FEDERAL BALANCED BUDGET AMENDMENT
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously this week to approve a resolution calling for a convention of the states pursuant to Article V of the U.S. Constitution to require Congress to balance the federal budget each year. Joint Resolution 493, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) states that, in the absence of a congressional declaration of war or an economic recession, the total of all federal appropriations made by the Congress for any fiscal year may not exceed the total of all estimated federal revenues for that fiscal year.
“The Founding Founders gave the states the ability to reign in the federal government, and that’s exactly what we should do,” said Sen. Kelsey earlier today in committee. “The federal government should live within its means and stop adding to its $17 trillion debt.”
Article V of the U.S. Constitution states that, if two-thirds of the states submit applications to Congress on the same subject matter, Congress must call for a convention for the purpose of proposing such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If approved by both chambers of the General Assembly, Tennessee will join 21 other states which have submitted similar balanced budget amendment requests to Congress.
“The Balanced Budget Amendment will force Congress to keep its promises to the American people and ensure financial viability for future generations,” concluded Sen. Kelsey.
LEGISLATION ENSURES LOCAL GOVERNMENT PENSION PLANS ARE ADEQUATELY FUNDED
The Senate Finance Committee approved a pension reform bill this week for governmental entities outside the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) to help ensure they have the adequate funding to pay retirees. Senate Bill 2079, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), requires that TCRS and each local government entity with a defined benefit pension plan calculate an actuarially determined contribution (ADC) which will include normal costs and the amortization of any unfunded liabilities.
Currently, the 487 local government entities and 118 local education agencies in the TCRS system are required to pay 100% of the annual required contribution (ARC) as actuarially determined each year. In April 2013, the Director of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) requested actuarial and financial information from local governmental entities with defined benefit pension plans which are not enrolled in TCRS. The survey found there were 31 local government pension plans external to TCRS, 13 of which did not pay 100% of the ARC in 2012.
“Only 2.04% of all Tennessee local government pension plans fund less than 100% of the ARC,” said Leader Norris. “This bill requires all governmental entities to reach this level in order to ensure that retirement funds are in place when employees call on them.”
The bill requires that each local government must maintain effort in the payment of the ARC based on what the entity paid during the first fiscal year the bill is enacted. Those entities paying less than 100% of the ARC are subject to a one year grace period plus five years of incremental phase-in, making an effective six-year phase in period to reach payment of 100% of the ADC.
If a local government cannot comply with funding progress during the phase-in period, the entity may submit a plan of correction to the State Treasurer to modify the required annual funding progress but may not extend the phase-in period. Consistent with the provisions of the Hybrid Pension bill adopted by the General Assembly in 2013, the bill includes provisions that, for employees hired after the effective date, the political subdivision may freeze, suspend, or modify benefits on a prospective basis and that no implied right to continuation of a benefit exists. The bill also provides that a local government may, upon agreement with the State Treasurer, have either its plan administration and/or the investment of its plan assets performed by the Tennessee
SENATE HEALTH AND WELFARE COMMITTEE HEARS TESTIMONY ON ELDER ABUSE IN TENNESSEE
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard disturbing testimony this week regarding elder abuse in Tennessee and at the national level. Jim Shulman, Executive Director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, told committee members that 47% of seniors with a cognitive impairment were found to have experienced elder mistreatment.
There are five types of elder abuse: financial, physical, sexual, psychological, and neglect. Shulman said abuse occurs both in homes and facilities. National studies maintain that, for every instance of elder abuse that is reported, five more elders are abused. Shulman said this is due to shame, fear of losing independence or being moved. This is in addition to the fact that 80% of assaults are committed by someone who is known to the victim.
Reported assaults on the elderly have grown over the last three years of reporting from 1,360 in 2009 to 1,492 in 2011. In addition, underreporting of abuse may also occur due to incapacitation or abuse may be mistaken for “usual aging.” Other crimes involving elderly victims were also on the rise, including the most common offenses of burglary, vandalism and theft. The elderly are nearly four times more likely than individuals under the age of 64 to become victims of robbery.
“Elder abuse is something that occurs more than we know and much of the abuse is committed by those whom the victim has placed a great amount of trust in,” said Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City). “I am pleased that the Commission on Aging has taken this under their wing and has plans to implement several programs to counteract elder abuse within Tennessee communities.”
Shulman said Tennessee has implemented several programs to counteract elder abuse. These programs include a Long-term Care Ombudsman, where concerned family members can call for assistance; a Public Guardianship Program, which is responsible for surrogate decision-making for the abused and neglected seniors who are unable to care for themselves; and, the Tennessee Vulnerable Adults Coalition which brings public and private entities together to help prevent abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. Other programs which are helpful to relieve family stress in caring for the elderly are the Family Caregiver Support Program which provides temporary relief to caregivers by providing services in the home, and Adult Day Care and the National Family Caregiver Support Program, which provides counseling, support and training to caregivers.
Drones / Hunter Harassment — Senate Bill 1777 was approved by the State Senate this week to add the use of drones to Tennessee’s hunter harassment law. The bill, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), prohibits the use of drones to conduct video surveillance of private citizens who are lawfully hunting or fishing. The measure comes after People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) announced a new hobby drone that can monitor hunters’ activities and subject them to harassment. “This bill makes technological changes to update our hunter harassment laws to protect hunters and fishermen in Tennessee,” said Bell.
Felons / Employment – Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill brought by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to help reformed former felons seek employment and lead lawful lives as productive members of society. Senate Bill 276 will allow former criminals to petition courts for a certificate of employment restoration, and it will protect future employers who hire these new job-seekers from claims of negligent hiring. The proposal protects the public by requiring a judge to determine that an individual does not pose a risk to public safety before he can receive a certificate of employment restoration.
Children / Pornography – Sellers or lenders of materials that violate the Tennessee obscenity law designed to protect minors could find themselves facing jail time and thousands of dollars in fines under legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday evening. Senate Bill 2449, sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), increases the act from a Class C to a Class A misdemeanor, the highest classification of offenses short of felonies. Present law requires vendors to meet certain conditions for display or rental of harmful material, including videocassettes, books, magazines, pamphlets, videogames, and computer software games. The legislation also adds to the parties who could face prosecution under this law. The bill specifies this list to include retail store managers, wholesalers, distributors, and rack jobbers and their employers. Any or all could be held responsible for any display in violation of the law.
Privacy / Automated License Plate Data — Legislation to protect the privacy of innocent drivers in Tennessee was approved by the full Senate on Thursday. Governments currently use cameras, with the most common being automated license plate recognition for traffic law enforcement. Traffic cameras have also been used to help find those with an outstanding warrant. Senate Bill 1664, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), prohibits any state or local government agency from storing or retaining any captured plate data for more than 90 days, unless there is an ongoing criminal investigation. “The government does not need to know where citizens are all the time,” said Senator Kelsey. “We need to protect the privacy of innocent citizens.”
Rape Kits / Justice for Victims – The full Senate voted this week to take inventory of all untested rape kits and forensic evidence and turn those numbers over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to help in the pursuit of justice for victims and survivors.
Untested rape kits are a national problem. Senate Bill 1426, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), requires all law enforcement agencies or departments charged with the maintenance, storage, and preservation of sexual assault kits to generate a report based on that inventory by July 1, 2014. The report must contain the number of untested kits and the date the evidence was collected. After receiving the information, the bill calls for the TBI to deliver a report to the speakers of the State Senate and House of Representatives regarding their findings. That report would provide information regarding a possible backlog in other Tennessee counties.
Pledge to the Flag – State Senators gave final approval to Senate Joint Resolution 482 recognizing February 10 as the 60th anniversary of the addition of the words “under God” to the United States Pledge of Allegiance. The date recognizes when U.S. Senator Homer Ferguson of Michigan introduced a bill in the 1954 United State Congress to amend the text. Senator Ferguson chose this date because it marked the 1949 anniversary of the imprisonment of Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty of Hungary, who was jailed and tortured by Communists for his sermons exposing the goal of Communism to eradicate all religion. The Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag was first recited using the words “One Nation Under God” on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. The resolution, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) will now be transmitted to the House of Representatives for approval there.
Local Governments / Debt — The Senate passed and sent to the governor Senate Bill 462 requiring local governments to obtain approval by the Comptroller of the Treasury before issuing balloon indebtedness. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), is focused on preventing the issuance of debt where the terms of bonds exceed 31 years when there is no significant payment on the principal in the first 10 years. If the municipality has a high credit rating, such as a AAA or AA+, then those governments are exempt from the provisions of the bill. The bill is designed to prevent current governments from creating debt that will have to be paid by a future administration.
Missing Children / TBI — Legislation was approved by the full Senate requiring the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to add information on its missing children website when a child is found. Senate Bill 1654, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), calls on the TBI to update the missing children registry to include pertinent information about rescued children in the same manner as the report of a missing child. The proposal is part of a package of bills aiming to curb human trafficking in Tennessee.
Attorney General / Lawsuits — The Senate Judiciary Committee voted this week to pass Senate Bill 2085 which changes the method used by the attorney general to determine whether it is in the state’s best interests to commence a civil lawsuit. Specifically, the measure would give both the legislature, through joint resolution, and the governor, via executive order, authority to instruct the attorney general when to file such legal actions. Additionally, when the General Assembly is not in session, the speaker of the house and speaker of the senate may, by joint agreement, direct the attorney general to file suit. The bill also allows the legislature and the governor to request that the attorney general move to dismiss a lawsuit and allows the legislature to employ outside special counsel. The bill is sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).
Faithful Delegate Legislation — The full Senate has approved legislation to help ensure that delegates to any future convention called to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be “faithful to” limits imposed by the Tennessee General Assembly. The “Faithful Delegate” bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), is similar in purpose to legislation in other states to ensure that Presidential Electors remain faithful to their pledged candidate for President when voting in the Electoral College. Senate Bill 1432 requires that in the event of a constitutional convention, the General Assembly would adopt a resolution and provide instructions to the delegates and alternates regarding the rules of procedure and any other instructions relating to the convention. The delegates would then be required to obey those limits or face immediate removal and a Class E felony offense for knowingly or intentionally voting outside the scope of the instructions.
E-Citations — The Senate Transportation Committee has approved a bill setting up a framework for the issuance of e-citations in Tennessee. An e- (electronic) citation is an automated traffic ticket that is prepared by a law enforcement officer and filed electronically with the court. Senate Bill 2350, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), aims to cut the time police officers spend on the side of the road at a traffic stop by 10 minutes, freeing them up for more important duties. Several tragic accidents involving law enforcement officers during traffic stops point to a real safety concern during issuance of citations. The bill also eliminates concerns over legibility of handwritten citations and clerical errors, as well as reducing the costs for data entry processing of citations to the courts. In order to defray the costs of the system, a $5.00 fee would be would be paid by defendants that plead guilty or are found guilty. Currently six cities in Tennessee use e-citations and two are in the process of implementing the system. Eight states have already implemented e-citations in their state.
Fee Cut / Charitable Organizations — Charitable organizations and the people who raise funds for them might end up paying a lot less to register with the state under legislation that received final Senate approval on Thursday. Senate Bill 1919, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), would cut fees across the board by 20 percent. For a charity raising between $30,000 and $48,999.99 per year, the new annual fee would be only $80. At the top end of the scale, a charity raising $500,000 or more would pay $240 per year. The bill would also reduce the annual registration fees for professional solicitors from $800 to $250 and for fundraising counsels from $250 to $100. The changes would affect about 8,100 organizations and individuals who must register with the division.
“Sandy” / State Artifact — The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation designating “Sandy,” an ancient stone statue discovered on a Wilson County farm in 1939, as the official state artifact of Tennessee. The stone sculpture of a man kneeling is from the Mississippian Period and is believed to be one of the oldest archeological pieces ever found in the state. Senate Bill 2442 is sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).