Capitol Hill Week: Lawmakers tackle crime as flurry of bills progress through legislative process

Contact:  Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email:  [email protected]

 (NASHVILLE, TN), April 15, 2010  — A flurry of bills began to move through the State Senate committee process this week, including legislation getting tough on crime.  Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee received an update on the state’s revenue collections and growth estimates in preparation for its work on the budget. 

For the 22nd consecutive month, Tennessee’s revenue collections continued to fall short of budgeted estimates in March, according to Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week.  The overall March revenues were $776.5 million, which is $11.7 million less than the state budgeted.  Goetz told committee members that they see some improvement in major items, like automobile sales, but until they see clear signs that the economy is recovering, they will continue to make budget decisions based on what “we’re experiencing in Tennessee.”

Year-to-date collections for eight months were $244.1 million less than the budgeted estimate. The general fund was under collected by $205.0 million and the four other funds were under-collected by $39.1 million.  Goetz told the committee that Governor Bredesen will present a budget amendment to lawmakers within a week.

“I am very concerned about our state revenue collections,” said Finance Chairman Randy McNally.  “The best course of action would be to choose a conservative course.”

State Comptroller Justin Wilson also presented the state’s Funding Board estimates for the current and upcoming fiscal year to the Finance Committee.  For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010, the Funding Board expects the revenue growth rates to be negative, ranging between -1.77 percent and -1.29 percent for total tax revenues and between -2.31 percent to -1.78 percent for the state’s general fund, the primary funding source for state government’s general operations.  However, the Board projects some improvement for the 2010-2011 fiscal year that will begin July 1 with projections for a positive growth rate ranging between 1.73 percent and 1.98 percent. The Funding Board also anticipates a positive growth rate for the general fund between 2.05 percent and 2.30 percent.
Lawmakers act on several anti-crime bills

DUI / Interlock devices – State Senators acted on several bills this week to get tougher on crime, including approval in the Finance Committee of legislation that would increase the use of ignition interlock devices to curb the number of alcohol-related car crashes in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 2965, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), requires the use of the devices if the offender has a blood or breath alcohol concentration of .15 percent or higher; is accompanied by a person under 18 years of age; or, violates the present implied consent laws.  It also provides that those convicted of drunk driving from under .15 with the option to install an interlock device instead of being geographically restricted by the court. 

Interlock devices are small pieces of equipment attached to the steering wheel of a car with a tube that the driver must breathe into in order to allow the ignition to start.  The current alcohol ignition interlock technology makes it easier for courts to require drunk drivers to utilize the device.  Studies show the devices have been very successful in curbing drunk driving. 

Courts often restrict those convicted of drunk driving to traveling only to work and home.  The restriction routes can be difficult for law enforcement officers to monitor.  Officers would easily be able to see if a convicted offender has a court-ordered interlock device, which would be installed at the offender’s expense.

As of January, 2,743 Tennessee driver’s license holders had an interlock restriction, while 580 license holders had an interlock device installed. Eight other states already have laws that require DUI offenders to install interlock devices if they register .15 or higher.  The National Transportation Safety Board has urged Tennessee to pass a more uniform and mandatory system for installation of interlock devices for those convicted of drunk driving.

Dogs used as weapons — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation to prohibit those convicted of a violent felony, a felony drug offense, or an animal cruelty offense from owning or being in control of a vicious or potentially vicious dog for ten years after completion of their sentence or parole supervision.  The bill, Senate Bill 555 sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), also requires that any dog in their possession be spayed or neutered to reduce the use of the animal as a violent weapon. 

The bill is one of several measures proposed to attack gang and drug violence by providing law enforcement with another tool to combat crime.  Expert testimony confirmed that a majority of criminals involved with drugs and meth labs use vicious dogs to protect them from law enforcement.  About 80 percent of the dogs used by criminals are males that have not been neutered which makes them more aggressive.  The dogs often roam freely, posing a particular danger to children and the elderly.  

“We have made progress in addressing about 60 percent of these kinds of crimes,” said Norris, who sponsored two major ‘Crooks with Guns’ laws approved by the General Assembly over the past several years to get tough on crimes involving weapons.  “These dogs are trained to be weapons against law enforcement.  They can also come in contact with children and the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to attack.  This legislation gives law enforcement another tool to combat violent crime.”

Armed Robbers — Similarly, a bill to strengthen penalties against armed robbers was debated in the Senate Finance Committee this week.  The legislation, Senate Bill 3431,  would more than double the minimum amount of time served for aggravated robbery. 

Presently, armed robbers convicted on a first offense can receive up to eight years in jail, but the 30 percent requirement places the actual sentence at less than three years.  This legislation would increase the percentage of jail time for these armed offenders from 30 percent to 74 percent. 

To ensure there is prison space, the bill would sentence those convicted of non-violent property crimes under $1,000 to community corrections, with more intensive supervision instead of jail time.

“This allows us to that we use our limited jail space wisely to house the worst offenders who are a danger to the public,” added Norris.  “The non-violent offenders will still pay for their crime through intense supervision in community corrections.”

Debate on the bill will continue in the Finance Committee next week.

Bail / Mental Health Crisis  — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation requiring law enforcement officers who believe a defendant arrested for an offense against a person poses a substantial likelihood of serious harm to request an examination of the defendant by a member of the Community Mental Health Crisis Response Service within 12 hours.  The bill, Senate Bill 3439, is sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Murfreesboro). 

“The bill arises from a Rutherford County tragedy last November, when a woman was beaten by her son after he had been arrested for assault,” said Senator Tracy.  “The son had a long history of mental illness.  This bill works to avert such tragedies from occurring again.”  

Meth labs — In other Judiciary Committee action, members approved legislation designed to protect the public from being harmed by the ill effects of entering a house or building that has been used as a meth lab.  The bill makes it a Class B misdemeanor offense to knowingly inhabit a property quarantined by law enforcement due to the manufacture of methamphetamine within the structure, unless that person is part of the official police investigation.  The bill, Senate Bill 2969, is sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin).

Cruelty to Animals — Legislation that would strengthen penalties against those who are convicted of animal cruelty was approved by the full Senate on final consideration this week.  The bill makes violation of a judge’s order connected with animal cruelty conviction a Class A misdemeanor, which carries up to a one-year jail sentence and a $2,500 fine.  It also provides that second and subsequent cruelty to animal convictions would be considered a Class E felony with a one- to six-year prison sentence and up to $3,000 in fines.

Currently, a judge in Tennessee can issue a special order that bans persons convicted of animal cruelty from owning an animal again.  However, the law does not prescribe penalties to allow prosecutors or judges to punish offenders.

“The current law does not have any teeth,” said Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), sponsor of the bill.  “There is nothing to punish those who commit this crime from abusing again.”

The link between animal cruelty and other forms of violence is a national concern. For example, the practice of dog fighting is commonly linked to illegal drug and weapons violations, gambling, aggravated assault and gang violence.

The bill, Senate Bill 3540, now goes to the governor for his signature before becoming law.

Sentencing / Juvenile offenders – Judges could consider serious felonies committed by a repeat offender as a juvenile upon sentencing under legislation passed by the full Senate this week.  The legislation, Senate Bill 3314 sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) allows a judge to consider Class A and Class B felony convictions that the repeat offender committed as a juvenile which would be added to the presentencing report for consideration along with any other adult convictions.

“It’s time to start locking up criminals who continue to commit serious crimes,” said Kelsey.  “That’s the only way we can make our communities safer places to live.”

Sex Offenders / Physicians — The full Senate approved a House Amendment and sent to the governor legislation to require the Board of Medical Examiners to deny the application for licensure or revoke the license of a physician convicted of an offense which requires registration as a violent sexual offender.  The bill, Senate Bill 3362 sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin), provides for communications between the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s (TBI) Sex Offender Registry and the Board of Medical Examiners within 30 days to assure notification is given.  It also requires the Medical Examiners make sure that no existing physician is currently listed on the Registry.  If a physician is on the Sex Offender Registry, but is not listed as a violent offender, they can still practice as long as there is no patient contact, under the amended bill.  The bill also gives due process to allow physicians the opportunity to contest a finding by giving evidence to the Board that they were not the person convicted.

Bill would protect Tennesseans from foreign defamation judgments by terrorists 

State Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) guided passage of Senate Bill 3589 through the Judiciary Committee this week.  The measure relates to grounds for non-recognition of foreign defamation judgments, closely resembling a similar law that was passed by the New York Legislature on the matter.

The bill would help in the fight against a tactic known as “Libel Tourism” which results from defamation lawsuits filed against authors critical of individuals with known ties to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and Hamas. The lawsuits have been finding their way into foreign courts. Ketron’s legislation ensures that Tennessee Courts have the ability not to recognize a foreign judgment, if that country’s laws protecting free speech and the free press are not at least as protective as freedoms provided in the constitutions of Tennessee and United States.

“This bill protects all Tennesseans’ fundamental right to the freedom of speech and the press without fear of reprisal from foreign courts,” said Senator Ketron.

Senate passes legislation to help homeowners avoid foreclosure

The Senate has approved legislation sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) that would provide assistance to homeowners who are about to lose their home due to non-payment and gives them the opportunity to contact their lender in an effort to avoid foreclosure.  The bill, Senate Bill 3519, requires that a new simple and easy to understand notice be sent to homeowners when they fall behind or become delinquent in their mortgage payments to help them find a resolution or to see if there are any governmental programs available to avoid a foreclosure sale.

“The notice gives them the best advice anyone can get in this situation,” said Senator Overbey.  “This is to contact the lender who may have ways to mitigate the situation if they know the homeowner’s situation.   The notice also points the borrower to the various federal loan modification programs which might be available to them.  It is a timely bill given where we are in the current state of the economy and the high number of foreclosures.”

Tennessee ranked 26th in the nation in February according to Realty Trac Inc.’s U.S. Foreclosure Market Report.  The state has consistently ranked among states with the highest number of foreclosures for the past decade.  

The legislation requires that a lender, trustee, or other creditor send the debtor a notice of the right to foreclose no less than 60 days prior to the first publication of a notice of a foreclosure sale of a deed of trust, mortgage, or other lien securing the payment on an owner-occupied residence. The notice must contain sufficient information to allow the debtor to contact the lender to discuss options available to the debtor. If the trustee determines at the time of the sale that notice of the right to foreclose was not sent to the debtor as required, the debtor may request postponement of the sale for 30 to 60 additional days to allow time needed to examine other possible resolutions. 

The bill now goes to Governor Phil Bredesen for his signature.

Legislation prohibiting taxpayer-funded coverage for abortion arising from federal healthcare bill wins unanimous approval in Senate Commerce Committee

The Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Diane Black (R-Gallatin) that would prohibit taxpayer-funded coverage for abortion services in Tennessee associated with the federal healthcare bill passed by Congress last month.  The bill, Senate Bill 2686, prohibits any health care plan established pursuant to federal health care reform legislation enacted by the 111th United States Congress from offering coverage for abortion services. 

 “I am very pleased that we received unanimous support for this bill in the Commerce Committee today,” said Senator Black.  “We have worked for years to ensure that taxpayer money is not used for abortion services in Tennessee.  We must fight back against this overreach of federal power.”

Black maintains an Executive Order signed by President Obama as part of an agreement to gain the votes of a key block of anti-abortion Democrats as the price for the massive federal health care law, will not stop federal funding of the procedure.
“We are not comfortable that the Executive Order will stand up to protect the life of the unborn,” added Black.  “It does not fix the fact that this federal health care law clearly allows for the funding of elective abortions. Therefore, we must take every action possible to protect Tennessee from being a part of a plan that allows for funding abortions.”

The bill was approved in the House of Representatives on final consideration on Monday by a vote of 70 to 23.  It now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration before going to the governor for his signature. 

In Brief…..

TNInvestco – Legislation sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee to expand the TNInvestco tax credit program by $80 million to include four additional participants already selected as alternates in the new program.  The Committee also added further improvements to the bill, Senate Bill 3049, to increase transparency and accountability in the program.  Small businesses provide 67 percent of first jobs and produce 55 percent of innovations.  TNInvestco helps to make investment capital available to small, medium and start up businesses in Tennessee.   The goal is to develop Tennessee’s entrepreneurial infrastructure, to bring additional capital into the state, to diversify the state’s economy and to create “anchors” or “clusters” of business innovation which can result in new companies being created in Tennessee.  Individual businesses interested in applying for the program may go to and complete an application form which will be submitted to each of the TNInvestco funds. 

English in the workplace – The Senate Commerce Committee has approved a bill to clarify that Tennessee employers have a right to institute an English-in-the-workplace policy.  The bill, SB 2753 sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), clarifies that employers can require that English be spoken on the job as long as it is posted.  The Republican sponsor said requiring English is often a safety precaution. Businesses where employees are continuously handling toxic products or food containers have a need to require English.

Holocaust Remembrance – The State Senate on Monday remembered those who died in the Holocaust as part of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day each spring, which is observed near the Days of Yom Hashoah. The event was organized by Senator Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) and Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville).  Each year the General Assembly invites the Holocaust Survivors and US Army Camp Liberators to join in a Commemoration hosted by the Tennessee Holocaust Commission.

Overreaching by Congress — The State Senate gave final approval to Senate Joint Resolution 897 sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) which urges Tennessee’s Attorney General to join 19 other states in challenging the unconstitutional provisions in the federal government takeover of the nation’s health care system.  The resolution states the General Assembly shares the concern of other states that mandated insurance coverage for citizens within their boundaries violates the Commerce Clause and the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Elected Attorney General — The Senate heard two readings this week of a resolution sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), calling for an elected State Attorney General (AG).  The resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 698, seeks to amend the state’s Constitution to allow a popular election every four years.  Tennessee is the only state in the nation that allows the State Supreme Court to select the attorney general.  The amendment process requires three readings before a vote is taken on the resolution.  It must be approved by both the 106th General Assembly, currently in session, and the 107th, which will take office in 2011, before going to voters in a statewide referendum in November 2014.

College Savings — The Senate Finance Committee has approved legislation to increase the number of college graduates by providing essential education to parents and students about how to save for college.  The proposal, Senate Bill 3234 sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), would create an 11-member Tennessee Financial Literacy Commission to establish a state clearinghouse of information, resources, and assistance for improving financial literacy in the area of college savings.

Similarly, a separate measure was approved by the full Senate that authorizes the Board of Trustees of the Tennessee Baccalaureate Education System Trust (BEST) to establish an incentive plan to encourage citizens to participate in any 529 college savings program that the Board has contracted with to assist in these efforts.  The proposal, Senate Bill 1142, also sponsored by Gresham, helps citizens take advantage of the incentive plans, grants and scholarships that could be available to them through individual savings accounts established by or on behalf of residents through BEST.

Hospitals — Members of the Senate Finance Committee voted this week to approve a plan to help hospitals avoid almost $659 million in cuts proposed in Governor Phil Bredesen’s 2010-2011 budget.   Hospitals have asked the General Assembly to assess a coverage assessment on them in order to raise $230 million.  Money raised would be used to draw down $430 million in federal funds available through a temporary Medicaid match program.  Language in the legislation, Senate Bill 3528 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), also ensures that any assessment would not be passed along to patients.  In addition, hospitals have negotiated, contracted rates with payers that would prevent them from passing the fee on to patients.   

Report / Coal ash storage — A resolution calling for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to file an annual report regarding TVA’s progress in transition to dry coal ash storage at coal plants in Tennessee has received approval on final consideration in the State Senate.  The measure, Senate Joint Resolution 784 sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville), specifies that the report should also contain information known to the department arising from the continued environmental restoration activities at the Kingston power plant and the affected lands and rivers, and the department’s records arising from solid waste, air quality, and water pollution control or other permitting of TVA facilities and facilities which are used for the disposition or storage of coal ash produced from TVA power plants.  The Roane County coal ash spill released more than 5.4 million cubic yards of ash into the river from an on-site lagoon, also referred to as a holding pond, at the Kingston Fossil Plant.  Fly ash is a fine, glass-like powder recovered from gases created by coal-fired electric power generation.

Child Abductions — Lawmakers gave final approval to legislation sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) that aims to reduce the risk of child abduction in Tennessee.  The bill, Senate Bill 3065, would provide courts with guidelines to follow regarding potential child abductions and to provide courts with appropriate measures to prevent these crimes. 

Education / MRSA – The General Assembly has approved Senate Bill 3828 sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin) to provide more information to schools regarding MRSA, a potentially deadly staff infection.  The bill requires the Department of Health to issue an advisory to K-12 schools and early education centers to explain the medical condition and give them guidance on steps they can take to protect their students.  The legislation comes from a case in Sumner County where an 11-year old girl died from the condition, pointing to the need for additional information on MRSA in schools.

Medal Program – The full Senate approved Senate Bill 2488 sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) that would create the Veterans’ Honor Medal program to recognize and honor distinguished service by Tennessee veterans.  The Department of Veterans’ Affairs, under the bill, would commission the design of a medal for the program.

Teacher appreciation — State Senators gave final approval to a resolution expressing support for Tennessee teachers and acknowledging the role they play in the future of the state.  Senate Joint Resolution 798, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), also recognizes the challenges before teachers as a result of the Race to the Top Act, as well as the commitment it will take on the part of parents and students to make strides in improving education attainment in Tennessee.

Mammograms — Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) pushed passage of Senate Joint Resolution 890 through the full Senate this week encouraging women to consult with their doctors and organizations such as the American Cancer Society when choosing to have annual mammograms.  Beavers, a breast cancer survivor, credits screening and early intervention as a reason for her success in defeating the disease.  The resolution takes issue with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ new guidelines increasing the age for baseline mammograms to age 50, and changing the recommendation for annual screenings to having the exams every other year.  The resolution instead urges Tennessee women to use the American Cancer Society’s recommended standard for annual screenings beginning at age 40.


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