Capitol Hill Week Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation strengthening penalties for trafficking substances combined with fentanyl

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 29, 2018 –  State senators tackled a wide variety of issues this week as three more of the Senate’s nine standing committees closed for the 2018 session, leaving only the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Finance, Ways and Means Committee open.  Many important issues still remain on the General Assembly’s agenda before adjourning next month, including the state’s budget, which will move front and center in the remaining weeks.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week strengthening penalties for the distribution and trafficking of any substance that is the combination of fentanyl, carfentanil, sufentanil, remifentanil, or any analogue.  Senate Bill 1999 requires all convictions relating to controlled substances containing fentanyl be punished one classification higher.

The legislation is one of a series of bills sponsored this year to deal with Tennessee’s opioid crisis.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.  It is used before surgery as an adjunct to anesthesia and in some cases for acute pain, like advanced cancer.  The most commonly known substances to be laced with fentanyl are heroin, cocaine and counterfeit prescription opioids.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health (DOH), fentanyl, when mixed with heroin or other drugs, is a leading cause of opioid deaths in Tennessee.  Reports show 1,631 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses in 2016. This is an increase of 12 percent from the 1,451 overdose deaths recorded in 2015.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee for consideration.

In other action to fight opioid abuse, the full Senate voted to authorize pharmacists to dispense less than the full prescription for opioids and other Schedule II drugs.   Opiate abuse often results from unused prescriptions remaining in the household medicine cabinet by a patient who does not take the full amount prescribed.  Under current law, pharmacists are not allowed to partially dispense a Schedule II prescription.  Senate Bill 2025 would allow a pharmacist to partially fill a prescription if requested by the patient or directed by the physician.

The legislation does not require the patient to go back to the doctor for the remainder of that prescription.  The physician would be notified that a partial fill has taken place and only the portion filled is reported in the database.

State senators also approved a bill requiring the Department of health to set up a toll-free telephone and web-based hotline to hear reports of opioid abuse or diversion.  Senate Bill 2022 calls for entities that prescribe, dispense, or handle opioids to display a sign or to notify employees in writing about the hotline.  This bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

Senate approves Fresh Start Act reducing licensing barriers for offenders who want to become productive taxpaying citizens after prison

Legislation which helps ensure Tennessee’s occupational licensing does not keep offenders who have served their time in prison from obtaining employment and getting a fresh start in life unanimously passed the Senate on final consideration on Wednesday.  The Fresh Start Act reduces barriers to entering a profession by only allowing a state licensing board to deny licenses for past crimes that are directly related to the job sought, excluding certain felonies.

Each year, about 5,000 Tennesseans leave Tennessee prisons after serving time for crimes that they’ve committed.

The state requires a license for about 110 different jobs, many of which impact “blue collar” workers. Most of the state’s licensing boards can deny a license to do a job based on a past criminal record, including low level misdemeanor crimes.

The legislation requires that before a licensing board denies a license to an applicant for a past crime, they must consider the nature and the seriousness of the crime, the passage of time since the crime was committed, and the relationship between the crime and the license sought.  It also calls for an appeal process for an applicant who is denied a license to ensure their right to earn a living is not unfairly restricted.

In addition, the bill allows the license applicant to petition a state licensing board in advance to determine if a past crime would disqualify them.  This clarity is important before the applicant spends money and time to meet state requirements to enter or remain in a profession in which they will not be licensed. It also makes clear these rights are not available for individuals who commit certain class felonies in particular professions in order to protect the public.

School Safety Working Group Releases Recommendations

A School Safety Working Group appointed by Governor Bill Haslam to recommend changes to protect students released their report this week.  The report includes immediate steps that can be taken to reduce risks.  The group identified three priorities including:

  • A review and risk assessment of all school facilities to identify vulnerabilities;
  • An increase in resources to help secure school resource officers (SROs); and
  • A statewide technology application for anonymous reporting of security threats.

After endorsing the plan, Governor Haslam asked the Department of Safety (DOS) and Homeland Security to work with the Department of Education and local officials  to immediately begin development and implementation of a statewide risk assessment of every public K-12 school in Tennessee.   The risk assessment will be based on model security standards identified by the DOS, with assessment training provided by state homeland security officials to local school district personnel and first responders. The assessments will be completed before students return to school for the 2018-19 school year.

Following the school security assessments, and on an annual basis thereafter, each school’s emergency operations plan must ensure specific facility risks are identified and updated and that state school safety resources, including the additional $30 million proposed in the governor’s Fiscal Year 2019 Budget, are utilized to address the identified risks.  The governor’s proposed budget and school safety plan doubles the amount of recurring school safety grant funding for schools, which can be used toward SROs or other facility security measures. And, to address immediate needs while further state, local and federal conversations around school security and budgeting take place, total state school safety grant funding would increase by more than 500 percent for the upcoming fiscal year.

The third immediate priority of the working group is for the state to provide a statewide technology application for the anonymous reporting of threats or suspicious activity by students, faculty, staff and others. This would provide for direct communication among and between the individual reporting the threat or activity and the state, local law enforcement officials and local school districts.

The working group also recommended the promotion of positive behavioral health for all students. The governor directed the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services assist schools expand training areas, including training on strategies to increase awareness and responsiveness to signs and symptoms of student behavioral health and mental health needs.  To view the full report go to: http://www.tngopsenate.com/governors-school-safety-working-group-recommendations-for-consideration/

Legislation directs TennCare to seek federal waiver to prevent abortion providers from receiving taxpayer funds

Legislation directing TennCare officials to seek a Medicaid waiver to exclude facilities in Tennessee that perform elective abortions from receiving taxpayer money received final approval in the Tennessee Senate on Thursday.  Senate Bill 2148 also declares that it is the policy of the State of Tennessee to avoid the direct or indirect use of state funds to promote or support elective abortions.

President Donald Trump’s administration has opened the door for such waivers to be approved.  The bill calls for the waiver to be implemented within 20 days of approval.

The funds for other women’s health services, such as breast exams, cancer screenings and birth control, would not be affected by the proposal.  The money would be redirected from elective abortion clinics to other health care providers so women will continue to receive care.  All of Tennessee’s 95 counties have identified community health centers and other providers, aside from those who perform elective abortions, who meet criteria to receive taxpayer funding for other women’s health services.

The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.

Bills in Brief

Moratorium on New Statewide Assessments for Students — Legislation placing a two-year moratorium on any new statewide assessments for students in grades K-12 is headed to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature after passage in the State Senate on Monday night.  Senate Bill 1806 prohibits the Department of Education and the State Board of Education from mandating new statewide assessments for grades and subjects beyond those assessments required as of the 2016-2017 school year until the 2020-2021 school year.  The bill also requires the Tennessee Department of Education to report the actions and procedures that have been implemented to ensure all data associated with the assessments is accurate and timely.

Mental Health Issues / Firearm Purchases — The full Senate approved legislation this week to create greater cooperation between the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and local authorities in order to prevent those with mental health issues from purchasing firearms. Senate Bill 834 requires the TBI to notify local law enforcement within 24 hours when they properly identify that an individual identified as having a mental disorder in the NICS ‘Mental Defectives’ Database has attempted to purchase a firearm.  The bill also adds new identifying information to the reporting requirements of sheriffs, court clerks, and hospitals to ensure individuals who are adjudicated mentally defective are readily identified.  It requires sex, race and social security numbers, along with the name and date of birth already required by law.  The bill follows passage of Senate Bill 2362 earlier this year requiring acute care hospitals to report involuntary commitments in their psychiatric units to law enforcement so that they can be a part of the record used in the verification process for the purchase of firearms.

Illegal Aliens / Driver License — The full Senate voted this week to require any applicant presenting a driver’s license from a state that issues them to illegal aliens, to establish proof of United States citizenship or legal residency when applying for one in Tennessee. Senate Bill 272 affects applicants from twelve states which issue a driver’s license to illegal aliens, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.  Tennessee prohibits issuance of a driver’s licenses to an illegal alien.

Veterans / University and College Systems — Legislation calling on the governor to appoint at least one veteran to the boards of Tennessee’s university and community college systems has been approved by the Senate Education Committee.  Tennessee law currently asks the governor to strive to select board members who are diverse in gender, race, perspective and experience.  Senate Bill 2036 would add a person who is an honorably discharged military veteran in order to ensure that the approximately 500,000 veterans are being served as effectively as possible.  The state has numerous veteran programs including the Tennessee Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) Program which allocates resources for veterans’ successful transition from military service to college enrollment.

Marketplace Contractors — The Senate approved a House amendment and sent the Governor legislation this week which provides clarity in Tennessee law that independent marketplace contractors who enter into an agreement with a marketplace platform are not the platform’s employees.  A marketplace contractor is an individual that enters into an agreement with a marketplace platform, like Handy, TAKL or TaskRabbit to use the platform’s online application or website to be connected with individuals seeking their services.  Such platform services have been called the “want ads” of the Internet.  Tennessee has been a leader in the support of innovative technology within business.  Senate Bill 1967 continues that effort, by keeping state law up to date with the growth of the gigabyte economy.

Suicide Prevention Act — The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee approved legislation this week establishing a Tennessee Suicide Mortality Data Review and Prevention Team in the Department of Health to address the growing number of adult suicides in Tennessee.  The Suicide Prevention Act of 2018 calls for the team to gather suicide data identifying causes and factors in order to direct limited prevention resources in the most effective way possible.  Under the bill, the Suicide Mortality Data Review and Prevention Team will be appointed by the Commissioner of Health and will collect, review, and report existing suicide data and data gaps.  Additionally the team will identify suicide prevention resources.  There were 1,110 suicide deaths in 2016, which is the highest number recorded in Tennessee in over 35 years of record-keeping.  This is compared to 945 deaths in 2014 and 1,065 deaths in 2015.

Suicide Prevention / College Students — The Senate Education Committee approved a resolution on Wednesday encouraging the Tennessee Higher Education Task Force and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (DMHSAS) to develop and implement higher education specific protocols to prevent suicide among Tennessee’s college populations.  Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college and university students in the United States and is the third-leading cause of death for Tennesseans aged eighteen to twenty-four.  Senate Joint Resolution 726 calls for implementation of specific protocols that are based on national best practices, as well as innovative approaches that address suicide prevention, intervention, and post-intervention strategies.  The measure is also designed to advise students and staff on suicide prevention programs available on and off campus.

UT Board / FOCUS Act — Legislation empowering the University of Tennessee (UT) Board of Trustees to operate more efficiently and effectively like the state’s other four-year universities was approved by the full Senate this week.  Senate Bill 2260 would reconstitute the board from 27 members to 11 who would serve staggered terms. The board members would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. An amendment added to the bill calls for at least five of the members to be UT alumni and that the governor should strive to appoint those members from different University of Tennessee institutions. The legislation also creates seven-member advisory boards at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, University of Tennessee at Martin, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and UT Health Science Center. The advisory boards would submit recommendations regarding operating budgets, tuition and fees, strategic plans, campus life, academic programs and other matters related to the institution.

Occupational Licenses / Animal Massage Therapists — Legislation which repeals a license requirement for those engaged in animal massage has been approved by the full Senate.   Senate Bill 2466 addresses a rising tide of government licensing requirements. In 1950, just one in 20 American workers were required to have a license or certificate in order to obtain a job, as compared to 30 percent who need it to earn a living today.  The legislation comes after the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners passed a regulation that defined animal massage as a form of veterinary medicine.  The bill permanently eliminates the veterinary board’s rule and allows Tennesseans looking to enter the profession to practice with minimal regulations and without a government license after posting or obtaining a $25,000 insurance policy.  It also creates a voluntary certification program for those who choose to complete at least 50 hours of training, 50 hours of supervised in-class hands-on work and who pass an examination by the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage.

Child Sex Offenders — The full Senate approved a House amendment and sent the governor legislation ensuring sex offenders convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child are listed on the state’s Sex Offender Registry.   In 2014, the General Assembly passed a bill creating the offense of continuous sexual abuse of a child.  The statute allows prosecutors to try several counts of sexual offenses committed against a child victim in one trial and this prevents the child from having to testify about their victimization multiple times to several juries.  However, when the law was passed, this new crime was not added to the state’s Sex Offender Registry.  Senate Bill 1944 would add the offense of continuous sexual abuse of a child to the Sex Offender Registry as a violent offender.   The amendment from the House of Representatives adds language to the bill to clarify that any conviction punishable under the statute shall be punished within the full range for which the defendant was convicted, regardless of the range for which they would otherwise qualify.

State Forest / Downed Trees — Action on the Senate floor this week included passage of legislation that creates a “free-use area” in state forests where Tennessee residents are allowed to remove downed and dead timber without cost.  The free-use would only apply if the wood is used for the resident’s personal use, such as firewood, home heating and cooking.  Senate Bill 1914 would not apply to those who remove it and offer it for sale. The state forester must designate these areas and publish them on the department’s website.

POW / MIAs — Legislation which requires a POW/MIA Chair of Honor Memorial to be placed on Tennessee’s Capitol campus has received final Senate approval.  Senate Bill 2159 allows the State Capitol to select a suitable location if the costs are provided by private funds. A Chair of Honor is a very simple yet powerful memorial.  Generally, they include a single back chair with the POW/MIA logo on it which is then flanked by the American Flag and the POW/MIA Flag. Over 91,000 servicemen nationwide remain unaccounted for since World War II.

Governor / Duties – A resolution that would allow voters to decide if they want to amend the State Constitution to provide for the exercise of powers and duties of the Governor,  if he or she is unable to perform them, was approved by the Senate on final consideration.  Currently, the State Constitution is silent on the process.  Senate Joint Resolution 521 calls for the Senate Speaker to discharge the duties until the Governor is able to return. The proposed amendment is modeled after the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For the Senate Speaker to take over the Governor’s duties, the Governor or a majority of the Secretary of State, the State Treasurer, the Comptroller of the Treasury, and three commissioners of administrative departments would need to transmit a written declaration to both the House and Senate speakers. If the Senate Speaker’s office is unoccupied, then the Governor’s duties would be transmitted to the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

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