(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), April 3, 2014 — The State Senate approved major law and order legislation this week as the General Assembly worked diligently towards adjournment of the 2014 legislative session. The state budget also moved front and center this week, as Governor Bill Haslam presented an amendment to his fiscal year 2014-2015 spending plan, identifying $160 million in reductions due to an ongoing decline in revenue collections.
The governor presented a budget in February addressing a $126 million gap in the current budget year which ends on June 30. The new budget amendment provides for an additional $150 million needed to cover the gap in the 2013-14 fiscal year, which has now grown to $276 million. This will be covered by capitalizing on efficiencies departments have been making throughout the year and right-sizing several reserve funds.
“Unlike the federal government, the Tennessee Constitution requires state government to balance its budget every year,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “This careful budgeting practice has kept the state in better shape to withstand periods of revenue downfalls.”
Sales tax revenue collections have lagged behind budget projections due to a modest holiday season, followed by a long, cold winter that kept shoppers indoors. The state also had an estimated revenue loss of nearly $332 million due to online commerce. This is in addition to less than expected losses of franchise and excise tax revenues which were down $215 million due to overpayments by businesses last year that are now resulting in credits and refunds. Franchise and excise taxes are privilege taxes on corporations, limited partnerships, limited liability companies and business trusts doing business in Tennessee which often fluctuate.
Other revisions to the governor’s budget proposal include:
- Savings from automating TennCare’s eligibility system – $6.5 million
- Contract reductions to Families First vendors – $4.75 million
- TennCare provider rate reduction – $18.5 million
- Eliminating pay increases for state employees and teachers – $72 million
- Reducing next year’s funding for Higher Education to the current funding level, eliminating proposed increase – $12.9 million
- Reduction of the BEP Growth Fund – $5 million
- Recognizing savings in the Career Ladder program – $4 million
- Reducing proposed funding for the Rainy Day Fund by $4.8 million, which preserves an investment of $35.5 million bringing the state’s savings account to $491.5 million on June 30, 2015.
The amendment eliminates a proposed increase to health insurance premiums for state employees and teachers to provide them some compensation. It keeps funding increases intact for key areas which serve some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens such as the Department of Children’s Services and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and local property tax relief for disabled veterans and elderly disabled citizens. It also preserves funding for the Basic Education Program’s (BEP) salary equity fund. Senate Bill 2596 is expected to be on the Senate floor for final consideration as early as next Thursday.
In other action affecting the appropriations bill this week, State Senators gave final approval to legislation which supports the budget by continuing the Hospital Coverage Assessment. Senate Bill 1908, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), prevents more than $800 million in potentially catastrophic TennCare cuts from taking effect on July 1, 2014. The cuts would negatively affect hospitals, physicians, patients and enrollees across the state. The budget was drafted on the assumption the assessment would be continued for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
The assessment, which has saved Tennessee over $1 billion over the last four years, is used to draw down federal funds available through a Medicaid match program approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The bill’s language ensures that the coverage assessment cannot be passed along to patients.
Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Community Safety Act Targeting Gang Crime
The Community Safety Act, which aims to curb gang crime, has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the General Assembly acted on several major law and order bills this week. Senate Bill 1634, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson), would clarify that a petition for the abatement of gang-related conduct may be filed against a criminal gang itself to which the members belong. The court would have the authority to restrict gang activity in certain geographic locations.
Gang-related offenses include crimes that Tennessee communities combat every day, such as robbery, carjacking, and drug possession with intent to sell, among other more violent offenses. This year’s legislation builds on a law passed in 2013 that changed the definition of “criminal gang offense” from a vague and broad definition to a specific list of offenses to make it easier for prosecutors to seek a greater sentence. Other laws enacted since 2011 create tougher sentences for certain types of crimes committed by three or more acting in concert and tougher sentences for convicted felons who persist in illegally possessing guns.
“Gang-related crimes are of increasing concern across Tennessee, in the state’s rural and urban communities,” said Senator Watson. “This bill builds on legislation already passed by the General Assembly to provide an effective tool to communities plagued with violent gang activity.”
The bill would require gang-related conduct to be proven beyond clear and convincing evidence. It includes an opt-out provision that would allow a gang member to be dismissed from an injunction if he or she renounced membership. The proposal would also make it a Class C misdemeanor for a gang member to knowingly violate any temporary or permanent injunction.
“Law abiding citizens should not have to surrender their neighborhoods to thugs,” added Watson. “We cannot sit back and let entire communities be terrorized by gangs. This bill gives law enforcement the tools to fight back.”
Survivor’s Safety Bill Helps Ensure Repeat Offenders Convicted of Domestic Violence Serve Mandatory Sentences Day-for-Day
Legislation was approved by the Senate on Wednesday to aid victims of domestic violence and ensure perpetrators serve 100% of their sentences day-for-day. Senate Bill 1794, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), requires that repeat offenders must serve at least the mandatory minimum sentence in jail day-for-day and consecutively. It also prescribes that, if the offender receives less than the maximum sentence for the crime, that he or she must spend the difference between the actual time served and the maximum allowable sentence on supervised probation.
“Domestic violence is one of the most serious problems in Tennessee today,” said Senator Massey. “According to TBI, in Tennessee domestic violence accounts for more than half of all crimes involving victims and a majority of all female-victim homicides.”
Tennessee is currently ranked 6th in the nation for the number of women killed by men.
In 2012, the General Assembly passed minimum sentencing for repeat domestic assault. However, repeat convicted offenders do not necessarily serve their sentences day-for-day, which means a second-time offender may receive two for one credit and spend as little as 15 days behind bars for inflicting bodily injury on their partner or family member. Called the “Survivor Safety Bill,” this legislation goes a step further to require convicted batterers who inflicted bodily injury to serve longer consecutive day-for-day sentences.
“Repeat convicted offenders are sometimes permitted to serve their time on weekends, often returning home to their victims during the week,” added Massey. “This legislation gives survivors of domestic violence more time to get on a path to safety and healing following a violent assault, while holding their abusive partners accountable. It also sends a message in a state that is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous states for women that Tennessee is making domestic violence awareness and prevention a priority.”
State Senate Approves Legislation Cracking Down on Sex Offenders and Giving Victims More Rights
The State Senate acted on several bills this week that crack down on sex offenders, including legislation, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), to make it less attractive for those convicted of the crime to move to Tennessee. Senate Bill 2398, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), allows any county or city to establish a community notification system by a two-thirds vote of the local legislative body. This community notification system will notify certain residences, schools and childcare facilities within that local government’s boundaries that a sexual offender resides or intend to live within a certain distance of such residences, schools, and childcare facilities. The bill follows similar laws in other states, including Alabama.
Senator Tracy also won final approval of Senate Bill 2242 which deals with observation without consent. Currently, voyeurism without consent is a Class A misdemeanor, no matter how many times it occurs. This legislation places those who are convicted of the crime three or more times on the state’s Sexual Offender Registry.
The full Senate also approved Senate Bill 1131, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), to help ensure child sex abuse is reported. The bill adds to the list of individuals who must report any known or suspected child sex abuse any authority figure at a community facility, including any facility used for recreation or social assemblies, for educational, religious, social, health, or welfare purposes. Failure to report known or suspected child abuse is a Class A misdemeanor.
State Senators gave final approval to legislation to help protect students from sex offenders and other violent criminals while at school. Current law requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to perform background checks on vendors who do contract work with schools in Tennessee. Senate Bill 2356, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), seeks to tighten a law passed last year by adding more offenses and jurisdictions to these background checks including statutory rape by a non-authority figure, aggravated kidnapping of an adult, child abuse, child neglect, aggravated robbery and voluntary manslaughter. It allows the TBI to investigate the potential of interest background for a broader timeframe than was previously granted to ensure that sex offenders and violent criminals cannot slip through the cracks.
In committee action this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 2090, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), to help ensure Tennessee is not a destination for sex offenders as a result of having weaker laws than other states regarding work and residential restrictions. Tennessee law already has such restrictions for child sex offenders. This legislation prohibits any sexual offender, whose victim was an adult, from knowingly establishing a residence or to accept employment within 1,000 feet of any public, private or parochial school, licensed day care center, other child care facility, public park, playground, recreation center or athletic field available for use by the general public.
Finally, the Judiciary Committee advanced Senate Bill 2254, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), which is designed to be sensitive to the victims of sexual offenses and their desire to keep their personal identifying information private following the conclusion of a trial where the defendant is found guilty. The legislation provides that certain information regarding the victim shall be treated as confidential and not open for inspection by members of the public, unless the victim waives their right to confidentiality. Nothing in this bill can be used to deny access to the public part of this file as long as the personal information is redacted.
Senate Resolution Expresses Strong Opposition to U.S. Army Plans to Scrap Kiowa Warrior Helicopters
The Tennessee Senate has unanimously adopted a resolution expressing strong opposition to the U.S. Army’s aviation restructuring proposal to eliminate all Kiowa Warrior helicopters from the 1/230th Air Cavalry Squadron. Tennessee is the only state in which the National Guard operates the Kiowa Warrior, which is primarily operated in an armed reconnaissance role in support of ground troops. All members of the Senate signed on Senate Joint Resolution 710 with Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) to sponsor the measure.
The federal restructuring proposal would eliminate thirty Kiowas authorized for the 1/230th Air Cavalry Squadron. This includes twenty based at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Alcoa and ten aircraft authorized for the squadron’s Jackson location. It would also mean the loss of 692 soldiers in Tennessee who support the helicopters, including elimination of 113 full-time jobs.
“This nation must be very cautious in reducing the National Guard’s expertise and resources, as time and time again, it has proven to be indispensable to our defense forces,” Overbey added. “Scrapping these helicopters at a time when there is not a suitable replacement would impair our national defense capabilities and be a serious blow to Tennessee’s National Guard.”
A copy of the resolution will be sent to the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the U.S. Army.
Telehealth — The State Senate voted on Monday to approve a bill calling for equitable telehealth reimbursement. Telehealth is the delivery of health care services to patients in remote sites by using electronic information and telecommunications technology to connect providers to patients who need them. Senate Bill 2050, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), calls for telehealth services to be reimbursed by insurance entities in the state, thus making the cost-saving benefits of telehealth more widely available, especially to rural citizens.
Channon Christian Act — The full Senate approved two minor amendments and sent to the governor Senate Bill 1797 which puts new restrictions on bringing into evidence presumptions or false information that are related to a crime victim that is totally unrelated to the crime. This measure, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), would put Tennessee law into agreement with the constitutional amendment passed by Tennesseans in 1998 which states crime victims should be free from intimidation, harassment or abuse throughout the criminal justice system. Passage of the legislation came as a result of the brutal murder of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom, who were carjacked, brutally raped, tortured and murdered. During the trial, the defense made numerous attempts to paint the victims negatively in order to advance their case.
Veterans / Firearms — Veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces who have training in handling firearms would be able to opt out of mandatory handgun permit firing range and classroom training requirements under legislation approved by the State Senate on Monday evening. Senate Bill 1725, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), exempts honorably discharged or retired veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces from the firing range and classroom training requirements for obtaining a handgun carry permit when the veteran submits a certified copy of the Department of Defense DD Form 214 that documents the veteran was discharged or retired within five years of the handgun carry permit application. The DD Form 214 is the capstone military service document, as it represents the complete, verified record of a U.S. Armed Services member. Under the bill, the veteran must have successfully completed a minimum of four hours of handgun training during their military service.
School Buses – State Senators voted this week to approve Senate Bill 1966, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), authorizing the use of conventional and Class D school buses until they have reached their 18th year of service. Currently, school buses in Tennessee are allowed to operate up to 15 years with a 200,000 mile limit, whichever comes first, if they pass additional inspections. Under the bill, the Commissioner of Safety, through the inspection process, may approve the use of buses for additional years of service beyond the 18th year if the bus has less than 200,000 recorded miles. The legislation requires school buses which are 16 to 18 years old to be inspected twice annually. It also allows a bus that reaches the 200,000 mile mark during the academic year to be kept in service until the end of the academic year.
Senior Property Tax Freeze — Senior citizens who participate in Tennessee’s property tax freeze program would be aided by legislation given final Senate approval on Wednesday. Senate Bill 1128, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), re-freezes their tax bill when the tax amount due becomes lower to benefit the seniors. Twenty-seven cities and 23 counties participate in the tax freeze program for senior citizens.
Parental Responsibility / TANF – Final Senate approval was given this week to Senate Bill 1851, sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), which requires the personal responsibility plan, created as a condition of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) eligibility, include that parents or guardians be actively involved in their child’s schooling. The bill requires that if an educational need is identified, that the parent or guardians attend two or more conferences within a year with the teacher to review the child’s status in school. The parent could alternatively choose to attend parenting classes or participate in support services that the child may need as determined by the Department of Human Services. The goal is to increase parental involvement to overcome any school, family, or other barriers that may interfere with the child’s and the family’s ability to be successful.
Theft / Re-encoders — State Senators voted this week to approve Senate Bill 1959 making it a Class A misdemeanor offense to use a credit card skimming device, also known as a re-encoder, to steal an individual’s credit card number or data stored through the card’s magnetic stripe. Since 2001, 31 states and Puerto Rico have enacted statutes that provide criminal penalties for using the device to aid or abet theft. The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville).
Handguns / Prior Statutes — The State Senate has passed Senate Bill 2031, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), which clarifies an issue that came to light after passage of the safe commute law last year. The bill removes all prohibitions passed by the General Assembly prior to 1986 with regard to the possession, transportation, or storage of firearms and firearms ammunition by handgun carry permit holders, repealing many outdated and antiquated measures on the law books which restricted gun rights from years past.
TANF / Time Limit — The Senate voted this week to change the lifetime eligibility for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) from five years to four years, mirroring actions taken in other states. Senate Bill 2039, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), reduces, from 60 months to 48 months, the total amount of assistance a recipient may receive in the program, unless the recipient is granted an exemption to the limitation or meets certain criteria. Exemptions include those with a low IQ, severe intellectual or learning disabilities, victims of domestic violence, persons suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, or other chronic conditions. Federal law provides a five-year maximum, but states can reduce the limit. The purpose of the bill and the program is to get able-bodied recipients into workforce training and the workplace.
Yellow Lights — State Senators gave final approval to Senate Bill 2056 that authorizes drivers, in the event they cannot stop safely for a yellow light, to drive cautiously through the intersection. The bill is sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains).
Teacher’s Licenses / Testing — A teacher’s license cannot be non-renewed or revoked by the Department of Education based on their students’ growth scores under legislation approved by the State Senate. Senate Bill 2240, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), provides that a teacher, principal or supervisor cannot have their professional license revoked or non-renewed as a result of their students’ TVASS scores, or another comparable measure of student growth in the event TVASS is no longer the measure utilized.
Controlled Substance Monitoring Database — The State Senate approved a bill this week to require a dispenser of a controlled drug to add that prescription to the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database within one business day beginning January 1, 2016. Currently, the reporting time is seven days. Senate Bill 2547 is sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald).
In addition, Hensley received final approval of Senate Bill 1312, which adds anyone convicted of a drug felony to the Methamphetamine Registry to prevent them from purchasing pseudoephedrine, the precursor used for making meth. The bill also extends the time from 7 to 10 years in which offenders would be prohibited from purchasing any pseudoephedrine products if they are on the Drug Registry.
Fort Hood Shootings – The Senate approved a resolution this week which petitions the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to declare that the 2009 Fort Hood Massacre was an act of terrorism. The resolution requests that those injured or the families of those killed receive Purple Hearts. Major Nidel Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who admitted killing 13 people in a jihad-inspired shooting rampage, was sentenced to death last year. The Defense Department has maintained that there is not sufficient evidence to prove the incident was a terrorist attack. Senate Joint Resolution 544 is sponsored by Senators Mark Green (R-Clarksville), Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) and Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).
The State Senate also paused during the Thursday legislative session in prayer for the April 2, 2014 attack at Fort Hood led by Senator Green.
Anniversary of the National Anthem — A resolution was approved this week at the urging of the Tennessee War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, calling for recognition of the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem. House Joint Resolution 634, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), encourages high schools to read aloud a statement regarding the anniversary before singing the National Anthem at their football games on September 14th. The resolution aims to honor those who have provided service and have sacrificed themselves to preserve the peace and freedom of the United States.
Industrial Hemp — Senate Bill 2495 to allow farmers to be licensed to grow hemp in Tennessee was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week sending the bill to the floor for final consideration. According to sponsor, Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), many people have mistakenly associated hemp with marijuana; however they are actually two very different species which are grown in dissimilar ways. Although it is legal to import, purchase or export hemp, it is illegal to grow it in Tennessee. In recent years, states like neighboring Kentucky have passed measures legalizing the farming of hemp for industrial purposes. These purposes include turning the plant’s fibers into such products as oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, and fuel. There are approximately 75 manufacturers using hemp in America today, most prevalently with plastics, which can be reinforced with hemp.