Capitol Hill Week: Resolution seeks to address public safety threat posed by cell phone use behind prison walls

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 8, 2018 – The pace quickened on Capitol Hill this week as state senators examined the budgets of ten agencies or departments of state government and approved a number of important bills.  This includes a resolution unanimously adopted by the Senate State and Local Government Committee which seeks to address the public safety threat posed by contraband cell phone use by prison inmates.

Senate Joint Resolution 492 asks the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), major cellular providers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “to take a proactive and collaborative approach, in conjunction with correctional officials nationwide, to effectively disrupt the use of contraband wireless communication devices obtained by inmates.”

There were over 1,500 incidents with cell phones in Tennessee prisons last year.

Speaking in favor of the bill was Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker, who told committee members that murders have been arranged and carried out on Tennessee correctional officers, criminal enterprises continue to thrive, victims have been stalked, witnesses have been threatened, escapes have been arranged and prison riots have been orchestrated all from within prison cells using contraband cellphones. He said these events are becoming common instances as more cellphones illegally infiltrate state correctional facilities.

“In years past, I never would have considered the issue of cell phones being a major problem in our prisons,” said Parker. “But, I will have to say that in the last 15 years it has become one of the most significant security threats that we have in our facilities.”

Parker recounted a 2005 case in Roane County when inmate George Hyatte shot Correctional Officer Wayne “Cotton” Morgan in an escape attempt. He said Hyatte and his accomplice coordinated the escape using a smuggled cell phone.

Parker said the department is committed to tackling this problem, including working with the state’s congressional leaders in asking federal officials to stop the flow of contraband.

Introducing contraband into a correctional facility is a Class C felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.

The resolution now goes to the House of Representatives for their approval.


Senate Education Committee approves bill to give students who suffer dependency on alcohol or drugs greater opportunities to succeed

The Senate Education Committee approved major legislation this week which authorizes Local Education Agencies (LEA) to create recovery high schools for certain students with alcohol or drug abuse dependency like Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Major Depressive Episode (MDE). Senate Bill 1626 authorizes LEAs that open recovery schools to enroll eligible students, including those who are in another county.

The bill authorizes the State Board of Education to promulgate additional rules and policies in consultation with the Department of Education, the Department of Health, and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to ensure best practices are employed as schools are authorized.  The staff of recovery high schools most often includes administrative staff, teachers, substance abuse counselors, and mental health professionals, with each playing a critical role in supporting their students.  It will also allow LEAs to collaborate with other school districts to establish a school to serve their students.

Introduction into a recovery high school would be voluntary under the bill. Students who graduate from the recovery school would receive a diploma from the high school they attended prior to enrollment to lessen the possibility of a stigma being attached.  Grades earned would also be transferrable to other high schools.

Research shows students who attend treatment and go back into their normal high school have about a 70 percent chance of relapse. That number drops to approximately 30 percent when the student attends a recovery school after treatment.  In addition, a recovery school in Houston found that about 98 percent of the students who attended had planned to drop out of school due to their addiction. After attending a recovery school, 90 percent of the students graduated, and over 80 percent went on to seek a post-secondary degree.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.


Legislation helps persons with disabilities have as much independence as possible in decision-making when courts considers conservatorship

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill this week to help persons with disabilities have as much independence in their decision-making as possible when a court is considering conservatorships or other actions to protect their best interest.  Senate Bill 264 defines “least restrictive alternatives,” a term which is already in Tennessee law, as “techniques and processes that preserve as many decision-making rights as possible for the person with a disability.”

The legislation helps to ensure that when a conservatorship is pursued, it is, in fact, the least restrictive alternative for that person as required under current law.  Defining it in law ensures that all parties – families, attorneys, judges, educators, health care practitioners, and others – recognize it is not the only option for many of those who have disabilities.

Research supports that when people are empowered to make their own decisions, to the maximum extent possible, they are better able to recognize abusive situations and surround themselves with healthy relationships.  The courts have committed to working with the disability community to provide training for judges on how least restrictive alternatives can be employed to maximize independence for people with disabilities, while minimizing the risk of abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

The bill, which received unanimous approval in the committee, now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.


State Senate observes Veterans’ Day on the Hill

State Senators stopped to honor Tennessee’s veterans on Wednesday as they observed Veterans’ Day on the Hill. The day was set aside for lawmakers to speak to veterans about issues affecting them and to show appreciation for their sacrifices to this state and nation.

Each Senator wore a pin with the number 22 on it to honor, respect, and bring attention to the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day in America.  Veterans in Tennessee are more than twice as likely to commit suicide than a non-veteran according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Veterans between 35 and 54 and over age 75 have a higher suicide rate than other age groups.

Approximately 470,000 veterans live in Tennessee and Clarksville has the second highest concentration of veterans in the U.S.


Issues in Brief

Ending Emissions Testing – Legislation that would end mandatory emissions tests for vehicles in Tennessee has been filed in the Tennessee General Assembly.  Senate Bill 2656 would apply to Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson or Wilson Counties where the test is still required prior to vehicle registration or renewal.  The 1990 Federal Clean Air Act required the State of Tennessee to develop more restrictive regulations to control air pollution from mobile sources in counties which were not meeting the Federal Standards for air quality.  In August, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation announced that the entire State of Tennessee meets federal air quality health standards.

Encouraging Gun Safety — Legislation that would make it cheaper for gun owners to safely store their firearms was announced at a press conference on Monday.  Senate Bill 2476 would exempt the purchase of gun safes from the state’s sales tax.  The bill aims to make gun safes more affordable and accessible for gun owners to keep firearms out of the hands of children or thieves. Gun safes are currently exempt from sales tax in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Washington.

Government Accountability / Contracts — In the Senate State and Local Government Committee, the Contract Accountability and Responsible Employment Act was approved in an attempt to bring more accountability to the state contracting process. Senate Bill 1047 would incorporate oversight costs in any decision to outsource, establish formal contract monitoring, and give legislators a different view on how contracts impact their district. The bill requires state agencies to release an economic impact statement to the Fiscal Review committee for oversight on all contracts above $2.5 million that result in the furlough of one or more state employees.

Government Accountability / Balloon Indebtedness — Legislation which promotes better financial and debt management by local governments was approved by the full Senate this week.  Senate Bill 1493 amends the state’s “Anti-Kicking the Can Act” by clarifying the definition of “balloon indebtedness.” The Anti-Kicking the Can Act ensured that debts were paid in a timely manner. The legislation says that if a local government does refinance, it goes back to the original date of the indebtedness and they aren’t able to move that additionally down the road. Previously, local governments could change the timetable of their debt repayment by refinancing.

Government Transparency / Open Records — A bill that ensures legislative oversight of the state’s open records policies or rules has been approved by the State Senate.  Senate Bill 1724 keeps in place a 2016 law that required county and municipal government entities to establish public record policies.  However, it requires state government entities to place their open record policies in rules, as was the practice before the 2016 law was passed.  Rules meet a higher standard of oversight as they must be reviewed by the General Assembly through the House and Senate Government Operations Committees.  Some state government agencies had already moved to repeal their rules in favor of policies.  The legislation comes after Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell called for a review of the state’s policy on exceptions to open records laws revealing 538 exemptions.  Lt. Gov. McNally has appointed the Senate State and Local Government Committee and the Senate Government Operations Committee to carefully review the report and make recommendations on how the state’s records can be as transparent as possible.

K-8 Scholars Guide – The full Senate approved legislation this week calling for students in grades K-8 to receive a “Scholar’s Summer Guide” prior to the last day of the school year.  Senate Bill 730 is designed to assist parents and students to better prepare for the next school year by providing them with a list of skills and materials that could be reviewed over the summer break.  The student’s incoming and outgoing teachers would collaborate on requirements in formulating the guide so it is customized for each child.  The bill would also allow teachers to customize this guide for students that they feel need work in specific areas prior to entering the following grade.

Charitable Gaming Events – Legislation which aims to help charitable organizations meet up-front costs of events that fall under the state’s charitable gaming act has passed on final Senate consideration.  Current law requires nonprofit organizations which are applying for an annual charitable gaming event to submit an application fee ranging from $150 to $600 based on the gross revenue to be collected.  This causes hardships for charitable organizations that cannot afford to pay the fee in advance of the event.   Senate Bill 1509 lowers the fee required at the time of application to $50, with the remainder due within 90 calendar days of the event’s conclusion.

Tree plantings — The Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee approved a resolution on Thursday designating February 24th as “Tennessee Tree Day.”  Senate Joint Resolution 482 aims to encourage Tennesseans to participate in tree-planting events in their communities.  The Tennessee Environmental Council has been organizing large-scale, statewide tree-planting events that have grown from 5,000 trees in 2007 in a few Tennessee counties, to 100,000 trees in 2017 in all ninety-five counties.  The Council hopes volunteers will plant 250,000 seedlings on Tennessee Tree Day.  Tennessee is the most biologically diverse inland state in the United States.

Parental Rights / Surviving Parent – The full Senate approved legislation this week to expand the grounds for termination of parental or guardianship rights to include a parent convicted of or found civilly liable for attempting to cause the intentional and wrongful death of the child’s other parent or guardian.  Current law only affords for the termination of parental rights when the offending parent actually ends the life of the victim.  Senate Bill 1608 would permit the victim to file a petition to terminate the offender’s parental rights when the offender fails to end the life of the victim.

Constitutional Amendment banning Hall Income Tax – Legislation to amend the Tennessee Constitution to ban the Hall income tax passed the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee by a vote of 9-2 this week.  Senate Joint Resolution 494 proposes additional language in Article II, Section 28 of Tennessee’s Constitution which would eliminate state and local governments’ authority to levy state or local tax upon income derived from stocks and bonds that are not taxed ad valorem.  The Hall income tax, enacted in 1929, is the only tax on personal income in Tennessee. It is currently a four percent tax on income derived from dividends on stock or from interest on bonds after the General Assembly has made several reductions over the past several years. Legislation was approved last year to incrementally phase the tax out by January 2021. However, the proposed amendment would constitutionally prohibit the General Assembly from ever levying or permitting any state or local tax upon income derived from stocks and bonds.


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