Capitol Hill Week: Senate tackles wide variety of issues including curbing abuse of pill mills

(NASHVILLE, TN), April 7, 2011 – The State Senate approved a wide range of bills this week, including a proposal to curb abuse of prescription pain pills, legislation to address illegal immigration, and several measures to benefit police officers across the state.   Meanwhile, Senate Committees reviewed 20 departmental or government agency budgets as members examined the 2011-12 proposal submitted by Governor Bill Haslam.  The budget proposal reflects the administration’s efforts to deal with the state’s current budget crunch, while working towards reforming education and making our economy stronger to welcome new jobs to Tennessee. 

Career Coaches — On the job growth front, Governor Haslam, Lt. Governor Ramsey and other Republican leaders unveiled three vehicles designed to improve outcomes for those looking for work. Three “Career Coaches” have been customized with 10 computer workstations with Internet access, printers, fax machines, and flat screen TV’s with SMART Board overlays to facilitate classroom instruction. The intent of these roving offices is to bring job matching and training to rural communities that have limited access to a Tennessee Career Center.

“They say if you give a man a fish you can feed him for a day but if you teach that man to fish you can feed him for a lifetime,” Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey said.  “Many of our citizens, especially rural Tennesseans, are in desperate need of the tools necessary to compete in an increasingly intimidating global marketplace. These mobile career centers will provide a much needed lifeline to our state’s most vulnerable jobseekers.”

The vehicles will be based in Huntingdon, Nashville and Knoxville in order to cover all areas of the state. Each mobile unit will be staffed with specialists trained in career counseling. They will conduct frequent workshops in résumé preparation, job search skills, and interviewing skills. The department’s division of Adult Education will also utilize the vehicles for enrollment pre-and post-testing, orientation, administering the Official GED Practice Test, and offering GED Fast Track classes.

Curbing prescription drug abuse — In Committee action this week, State Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) won passage of legislation in the Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Services Committee designed to curb the abuse of prescription drugs at pain clinics in Tennessee.  Yager said the bill is a result of “the efforts of the Tennessee Medical Association, in concert with the Tennessee Nurses Association and the Academy of Physicians Assistants, to regulate their own industry in order to allow pain clinics to better serve their patients.” 

“We have a very serious problem in this state with the overutilization of pain medications,” said Senator Yager.  “This bill allows the professional groups to work together to regulate the operation of these clinics in this state in a framework that will allow legitimate pain clinics to serve their patients, while tightening the control to help curb the abuses that we are experiencing.”  

Tennessee ranks second in the nation in regard to the overutilization of prescription pain medications, having exceeded the national average for controlled substance use for many years.  A national report conducted by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that pain reliever abuse nationwide was involved in almost 10 percent of admissions for treatment of teenagers and adults, up from two percent in the previous study a decade ago.  The study shows that Southern states reported the highest numbers, and the rise was especially pronounced among young adults ages 18 to 34.  It noted that roxicodone or oxycodone can be more easily obtained than heroin in the South.

Senate Bill 1258, as amended, would require all pain clinics in Tennessee to obtain a certificate by the Department of Health.  The Commissioner of Health, in consultation with the Boards of Medical Examiners, Osteopathic Examination, Nursing, and the Committee on Physician’s Assistants, would promulgate rules necessary to operate these clinics.  They would also have the authority to examine pain clinics, their staff and patient records, to ensure compliance with those rules.  This includes the ability to investigate complaints or violations.  Under the bill, the respective boards would be authorized to take action against violators.

The bill would require pain clinics to operate under the supervision of a duly licensed medical director who must spend at least one day per week on site.  In order to assure a paper trail is created to ensure transparency for all transactions, the bill prohibits cash payments for services, except when a third party payer is billed.  Finally, the measure establishes that a paid management facility may not be owned by a person convicted of a felony.  It also applies to those convicted of a misdemeanor, when the facts are related to the distribution of illegal prescription drugs or a controlled substance. 

“This bill is a very good starting point to begin to address the problems we face in Tennessee with overutilization and abuse of prescription pain killers,” added Yager.  “I am optimistic about the bill’s chances for passage and believe it will make positive changes to curb abuse of these drugs.”

E-Verify bill overcomes first hurdle in Senate with approval of Senate Commerce Committee

The Senate Commerce Committee has voted 8 to 1 to approve legislation calling for Tennessee employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that new hires are in the state legally.  The legislation, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), is the first in a three-pronged approach to combat illegal immigration in Tennessee.

“There are more than 140,000 illegal immigrants in Tennessee, with over 110,000 in the state’s workforce,” said Senator Tracy.  “This has far-reaching effects on our state, including an impact on employee wages, costs to schools, unpaid hospital expenses and the need for additional law enforcement resources, to name a few.  This bill asks businesses to take one simple step beyond the current I-9 requirements to verify a new hire is not in the state illegally by utilizing the E-Verify System’s Internet website or making a telephone call.”

E-Verify, an Internet-based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the Social Security Administration, allows participating employers to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their newly hired employees by entering their name and a social security number.  It is free to employers in all 50 states, including Tennessee where more than 4,000 businesses have voluntarily participated in the system.  The “E-Verify” system is 97.4 percent accurate. 

The legislation, Senate Bill 1669, would penalize businesses for hiring illegal immigrants with escalating consequences for repeated offenses.  It also provides a mechanism for small businesses without Internet access to call by telephone for verification assistance.  Under the bill, businesses would keep verification records for three years after the hire or one year after termination of the person’s employment.  It does not apply to those employed before the January 1, 2012 enactment date.

“We have worked very hard on this legislation to accommodate business concerns,” Tracy added.  “The result is a common-sense approach that makes verification as simple as possible, but still focuses on identifying those who are here illegally,” Tracy added. 

Federal contractors or subcontractors have been required to use E-verify since 2008 to determine employment eligibility of employees performing direct work.  Fifteen states, including five which are adjacent to Tennessee, require the use of E-Verify for public and/or private employers.  Another 25 states are considering similar legislation. 

The Tennessee General Assembly is also considering the “Lawful Immigration Enforcement Act” which calls for state and local law enforcement to determine the legal status of an individual in question in the course of a lawful stop and the “Eligibility Verification for Entitlements Act” which would give state agencies authorization to verify the lawful status of an alien in Tennessee before receiving any “non-emergency” public benefits.

Senate passes several measures regarding police officers, including “Blue Alert” bill

Several bills regarding police officers were approved in the State Senate this week, including a measure immediately to put out information about suspects when a police officer is missing, injured or killed in the line of duty.  Senate Bill 655, which was approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would work similar to the America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) system used to get instant information out regarding serious child abduction cases.  

“A criminal who harms law enforcement officers won’t think twice about harming average citizens,” said Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), sponsor of the bill.  “This is a quick way to get this information posted so law enforcement can catch the criminal to bring them to justice and save lives.”
As with AMBER Alerts, which are only posted when police suspect a child is in danger, the Blue Alerts would be used when a suspect has not been apprehended and is considered a serious threat to the public.  The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) would use the statewide infrastructure of the AMBER Alert system to facilitate a Blue Alert.  According to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Department of Transportation, any cost to establish the Blue Alert System can be accommodated within existing resources using the current messaging framework.

Police Pay Supplement – In separate action, the State Senate approved and sent to the governor a bill that would clarify money deposited into the Police Pay Supplement Fund can only be used for supplementing police pay.  State law provides the supplement is awarded for successful completion of law enforcement in-service training. 

“This bill will virtually ensure that money in the Police Pay Supplement Fund will go for the purpose in which it was intended indefinitely,” said Senator Tracy (R-Shelbyville), sponsor of the bill.  “This fund is very important to our law enforcement officers and is needed to enhance public safety through training.  We need it to remain for the purpose it was intended and that is what this bill will accomplish.”

Current law allows the fund to be diverted for use in the state’s general fund through the General Assembly’s budgeting process.  Senate Bill 682 restricts that use so that it would require a statutory change before funds could be redirected, which is a much more difficult task that includes passage of a general bill through the legislature and the signature of the governor.

Police Training / Mentally Ill Persons — Training is also the impetus behind legislation approved by the full Senate this week to help police officers respond to calls involving a person with a mental illness.  Senate Bill 868, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), requires that the annual training for police also include the proper procedures for responding to mentally ill persons.

Tennessee FOP license plates – Finally, the full Senate has passed a bill to authorize the issuance of Tennessee Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) new specialty earmarked license plates to members and associate members of the organization. Senate Bill 835, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), allocates 50 percent of the revenues derived from the sale of the plates go to the organization’s charitable foundation.

Anti-crime bills move in State Senate / Legislation targets gang-related drive by shootings

Several anti-crime bills were approved by the State Senate this week, including a measure approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that strengthens penalties against those who discharge a firearm into an occupied habitation.  The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), aims to curb “drive-by shootings” which is a growing problem with gang-related violence in the state.

“Current penalties are far too weak to give law enforcement the tools they need to curb this crime,” said Leader Norris.  “This is an especially egregious crime because children are often the victims, like a five year-old boy who was shot in the back while at his home in Memphis last month.  The criminals then claim they did not know the home was occupied, meaning they can only be charged with at the most a Class E felony.  This bill puts some teeth in the law so that those who fire on a home will face much tougher penalties, including additional jail time.”

Presently, state law prescribes that offenders can only be charged with reckless endangerment, which is a Class A misdemeanor, even if it involves putting a person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, unless it is committed with a deadly weapon which would be a Class E felony.  Senate Bill 690 would create an additional section to the state’s “Reckless Endangerment” law to make discharging a weapon into a residence a Class C felony if it is occupied and a Class D felony if no one is present. 

Norris has sponsored a series of bills over the past several years designed to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping these criminals behind bars longer to protect the public.

Inappropriate Sexual Contact / Minors — The full Senate passed legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) to ensure that an adult authority figure who has inappropriate sexual contact with a minor child by touching or kissing the child on the lips, is held accountable for his or her actions.  The bill creates a Class A misdemeanor offense in cases where an adult authority figure touches or kisses the lips of a minor child age 13 to 17 for reasons of sexual gratification. 

“This loophole in the law was brought to my attention by a local judge,” said Senator Tracy.  “The offense is addressed for children under the age of 13, but not for those minors age 13 to 17 who can also be victimized by sexual predators.  These youth are very vulnerable to become victims of sexual contact by an authority figure and should be protected under Tennessee law.”

Tennessee law presently makes it an offense of aggravated sexual battery when such an act occurs to a child under the age of 13.  The law, however, is silent when it involves minors age 13 to 17.  Senate Bill 1679 makes it a Class A misdemeanor as long as the adult who commits the offense is at least four or more years older than the victim.

“There is no doubt that this inappropriate behavior is a predatory act which should be punished,” added Senator Tracy.  “We need to strengthen the law and punish those who use their position of authority to harm children.”

Orders of Protection / Abuse — Legislation has passed the full Senate to modify the state’s present system for Orders of Protection to allow abusers to be taxed with court costs.  As the law is currently written, any person who files for an Order of Protection is considered a victim, precluding a judge from assessing court costs against a person who applies for an order of protection just to harass another. 

Senate Bill 509, sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), would allow a trial judge to assess costs against a person who has abused the system after a special hearing is held determining first, the person was not a victim as claimed and, second, that the application was filed frivolously.  The bill is meant to curb abuse of the system so that limited law enforcement and court resources are not mis-utilized for improper reasons and so they can focus efforts on victims who are truly in need of protective measures.

In Brief…

Organ procurement – State Senators have voted to add vehicles that are transporting certain organs for human transplantation to the current list of those authorized to display amber and white lights.  Currently, organs with a short shelf life like a heart, lung or pancreas are often transported by air and then ambulance to the destination where the transplant is scheduled to occur.  Senate Bill 610, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) effects the transportation of organs with a longer shelf life like kidneys, tissue, cornea, or bone.  While it is not a “red and blue light” emergency to arrive at the destination as urgently as those organs with a short shelf life, it is still important that they are not unduly delayed.  This legislation allows the vehicles transporting organs with a longer shelf life to move through traffic as quickly and safely as possible so that the transplant has the best opportunity for success.

Secretary of State / Electronic Library – Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told the Senate Finance Committee this week that the state’s Electronic Library (TEL) is averaging more than 30 million annual searches.  Hargett said TEL’s Learning Express Library provides Tennesseans with access to job and career resources, magazine and newspaper articles, and ACT practice tests and courses. Last year alone, Tennesseans used the service to access 59,000 practice tests and courses. Users of TEL include teachers, students of all ages and those who would otherwise lack access to public libraries and educational opportunities.  The Library can be accessed at:

Post-Conviction Defender’s Oversight Commission — The full Senate has approved a bill to reconstitute Tennessee’s Post-Conviction Defender Commission and replace it with a “Post-Conviction Defender’s Oversight Commission.”  The Post-Conviction Defender Commission is an independent agency that was created to oversee the operating budget of the Post-Conviction Defender.  Senate Bill 827, sponsored by Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) spells out the new Oversight Commission’s duties would be administrative in nature, overseeing budget, staffing and caseload concerns, rather than assisting the post-conviction defender in providing legal representation. 

Abortion / SJR 127 — Senate Joint Resolution 127, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) to restore the people’s voice on state’s abortion laws was heard by the full Senate on first and second reading.  The resolution must be read three times before a final vote can be taken on the measure.  The proposal would allow citizens to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to say that the right to an abortion is only protected under the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Treasurer / College Savings Plan — Tennessee Treasurer David Lillard, who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week, updated members of that panel on his office’s efforts in re-establishing a new Tennessee 529 college savings plan.  The state’s  Path2College 529 College Savings Plan created in 2008 in partnership with the State of Georgia is set to expire in June.  Lillard said the re-establishment of a plan is important so that Tennesseans can save for those future college expenses.  Tennessee has an abysmally low college savings note- because of rising costs.  Fees, tuition, room and board of one of Tennessee’s 4 year universities is $13,180 annually and is expected to grow between 5 to 8 percent each year.  The Treasury Department will use available funds to provide up to a $50 match for everyone that established a college savings account with at least $50.
State Parks / Budget Impact  — Each dollar spent from the State Park’s budget allocation generates over $17 in direct expenditures and over $37 in economic impact (total industry output) according to Commissioner Robert Martineau of the Department of Environment and Conservation.  The new commissioner told members that the $1.5 billion in total industry output supports over 18,600 jobs in Tennessee.   Economic activity generated by Tennessee State Parks has a very significant impact on Tennessee’s economy and creates thousands of jobs in many rural areas of the state where jobs are needed most.

Military / Update on Troops – Tennessee Adjutant General Max Haston appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week to talk about the budget for the Tennessee Military Department.  Haston said the Tennessee National Guard is over 100 percent strength with 14,332 soldiers and airmen.  Presently, 573 Army and Air National Guardsmen and women are deployed around the world.  There are 367 troops that have returned within the last three months, while 1,617 airmen and soldiers are on alert within the remainder of the calendar year.


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