NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Legislation that reforms Tennessee’s workers’ compensation system to make the state more attractive to job creation, while protecting injured employees, topped a busy week on Capitol Hill. Senate Bill 200, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would cut costs to businesses, create more predictability, improve the efficiency of claims management, simplify the physician selection process for injured employees and reduce benefit delays to workers. The legislation comes as a result of two comprehensive studies tasked with identifying possible recommendations for improving the program.
Tennessee is one of only two states in which workers’ compensation cases are settled primarily in the courts. In following, the state’s workers’ compensation premium costs are higher in Tennessee than in bordering states.
“This bill would implement a system that is fair, efficient and better for both employees and employers,” said Senator Johnson. “Employees will receive benefits faster and in a manner that is easier to calculate, and they will be able to return to work sooner. Employers will have a fairer, more predictable environment in which to conduct business and create jobs.”
Highlights of the bill include:
• employees would file their claims in a newly created Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims, rather than going to a trial court;
• provides neutral application of the workers’ compensation law so that neither side has an unfair advantage;
• gives a clearer standard for causation to require that the injury arose primarily out of employment rather than non-work related activities;
• provides disability benefits for injured workers based on a maximum of 450 weeks instead of the current 400 weeks;
• modifies requirements for medical panels through development of advisory medical treatment guidelines by January 1, 2016 that are based on best practices in medical care for work-related injuries and / or illnesses; and
• creates a new Ombudsman program to help employees and employers who are unrepresented get the assistance they need.
“As businesses look at Tennessee to locate jobs, they look at many factors including the state’s workers’ compensation system,” added Senator Norris. “This legislation is an important step to boost job growth, while protecting benefits for workers who are injured on the job.
In other workers’ compensation action this week, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill to allow the Department of Labor to access fines on unscrupulous construction employers who are found guilty of workers’ compensation premium fraud. The bill seeks to assist legitimate construction employers who compete against contractors who have insurance but intentionally underreport their payroll or nature of their work to insurance carriers in order to lower their premium payments.
Currently, premium fraud enforcement can only come from criminal charges by district attorneys general or civil suits by the state’s Attorney General. However, due to scarce resources, those charges rarely occur.
Senate Bill 833, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), is the result of the recommendations of the Department of Labor’s Employee Misclassification Advisory Task Force and only applies to the construction industry.
“This is premium fraud, and it puts law-abiding employers at a competitive disadvantage,” said Senator Ketron. “Fraud losses lead to increased premiums for contractors who pay their premiums, making them less competitive against cheaters.”
Finally, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee approved legislation to ensure Tennessee workers injured while temporarily on a job out-of-state are covered under Tennessee’s workers’ compensation law. Senate Bill 432 is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) and provides reciprocity for employees from other states who are temporarily on a job in Tennessee.
Judicial Redistricting Consensus Plan Unveiled
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted this week to approve a consensus plan to redraw Tennessee’s judicial districts. Passage of Senate Bill 780, sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), follows a press conference unveiling the plan held earlier in the week attended by Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade, Tennessee Trial Judges Association President Chancellor Daryl Fansler, Tennessee Judicial Conference President Robert Holloway and Tennessee Bar Association President Jackie Dixon.
The districts were last drawn nearly thirty years ago in 1984.
“When the issue of judicial redistricting was first presented to me, it was clear action needed to be taken,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey. “Tennessee is a vibrant and growing state. After thirty years, the changes experienced in our state need to be reflected in the districts of Tennessee’s judges, district attorneys and public defenders.”
“While the 1984 map made great strides by consolidating public defenders, district attorneys and judges into unified districts, it is clear that the particular politics of the time influenced the map resulting in untenable inefficiencies,” Ramsey explained. “This map corrects those mistakes and brings our judicial districts into the 21st century.”
“We came into this process with open minds and a desire to work with interested parties,” Ramsey continued. “I am pleased that, in the end, all concerned could come together and agree on a consensus plan. I am extremely satisfied with the result.”
The proposed map causes minimal disruption to the current system affecting only 22 counties in 8 districts. To maximize efficiency, the number of judicial districts has been reduced from 31 to 29. Factors such as regional integrity, geographic boundaries and ease of inter-county travel were also heavily considered.
“I would like to commend all involved for working hard to reach common ground,” said Senator Norris. “Change is never easy, but we have come together to create a map that ensures Tennesseans get the best possible service from their public defenders, district attorneys and judges.”
An open call for judicial redistricting proposals went out in February. Fourteen maps were submitted as well as informal input from members of the public and stakeholder groups. The current plan will be presented as Senate Bill 780/House Bill 636 and can be found online at: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/senate/judredist/judredist.html.
Senate approves legislation calling for online distribution of public notices by newspapers as nation observes government “Sunshine Week”
The State Senate has approved legislation requiring newspapers that print public notices to post them on the Internet. Senate Bill 461, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), is supported by the Tennessee Press Association. Action on the bill was taken during “Sunshine Week,” an annual time to highlight the importance of maintaining open government nationwide. Yager said the legislation recognizes the growing use of the Internet as a source of information, while preserving the integrity of using an independent agency for public notice by newspapers of general circulation.
Current law requires public notices be given on a variety of matters of importance to the public, including government meetings, bid announcements, notice of parental termination, foreclosure notices, public sale of private property, back tax notices, estate notices and zoning changes, to name a few. Local governments, looking for ways to reduce expenditures have suggested they can save money by posting notices on their websites rather than posting them in a local newspaper.
“My experience in local government gives me a greater appreciation of the importance of this issue,” said Yager, who served as Roane County Executive for 24 years before being elected to the State Senate. “Using an independent agency, the local newspaper, builds integrity in the process. To give even the appearance of manipulating mandatory public notices, tarnishes the reputation of government because it undermines the concept of independence and transparency.”
In addition, the legislation calls for the newspapers to post public notices on a central statewide website. Every newspaper that publishes public notices must post on their website homepage a link to the public notice section and another link to the Tennessee Press Association’s statewide repository website.
“This bill combines the best of both worlds. It keeps public notices in places where more people can find them by ensuring the widest distribution,” said Senator Yager. “This measure comes with no extra costs to taxpayers, and promotes government transparency, efficiency and public trust. I am pleased that it has been approved by the full Senate and honored for its passage during a week that embraces openness in government.”
Legislation restructures Tennessee’s DUI law to make them easier for law enforcement, lawyers and citizens to understand
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Tuesday rewriting Tennessee’s DUI laws to make them more understandable by prosecutors, defense lawyers and citizens. Senate Bill 186, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), comes from Tennessee Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons who said the state’s DUI laws have received so many additions (58 pages worth) over the years that they have become very complicated and are in need of streamlining.
“The current law consists of numerous sections dealing with DUI offenses, punishments and enhancements as well as ignition interlock requirements and fees, implied consent testing and related fees, open container requirements, drug and alcohol treatment, and mandatory reports to the General Assembly,” said McNally. “Many of these provisions are duplicative among several sections, or overlap other requirements, making it difficult for prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and the general public to determine what the consequences of a DUI are.”
The reorganization consolidates these sections into a more organized law by placing DUI offenses, penalties, fines and suspension times at the beginning of the law. That section is followed by implied consent and testing, restricted driver licenses, alcohol and drug treatment, distribution of fines and fees, vehicle seizures, underage offenses, open container and ignition interlock. The sections of the code used more frequently by prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and the general public are at the front of the new bill, and the administrative and less frequently used sections are near the back.
“The restructuring improves the way we address drunk driving and gives us the framework moving forward to improve safety on our roads,” McNally concluded.
Voter ID — Legislation authorizing the use of student photo IDs as acceptable identification for voting purposes received final approval in the State Senate on Thursday. Senate Bill 125 , sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), also clarifies that locally issued photo library cards are not allowed under Tennessee’s voter ID law and disallows out-of-state identification. “This is simply a bill to make it clear that the photo identification must be state or federally issued photo ID cards, and that students attending state universities can use their photo ID when voting,” Ketron said.
Fishing / Middle Tennessee Dams — Legislation expressing the Tennessee General Assembly’s desire to continue to allow boater access to waters above and below 10 Tennessee dams has received final approval in the State Senate. Senate Joint Resolution 132, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), urges the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to work with local communities and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency regarding alternative safety methods rather than banning the use of the waters to the public. The Dams include Barkley, Center Hill, Cheatham, Cordell Hull, Dale Hollow, J. Percy Priest, Laurel River, Martins Fork, Old Hickory, and Wolf Creek. The resolution compliments measures being taken by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and other state leaders to stop the Corps’ restrictions. “Fishermen have used these waters since these dams have been in existence,” said Senator Beavers. “This resolution just lets the Corps and our congressional delegation know that it is that the State of Tennessee, through their elected representatives, is asking them to reconsider these restrictions.”
Service Animals — Senate Bill 1026 was approved by the full Senate this week requiring the value of a service dog include any training or veterinary care in setting the punishment when a person is convicted of intentionally killing the animal. The value would also include disposal or burial costs for the dog. Under current law, the killing of an animal that belongs to another is equitable to theft of property. This bill, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), adds these components to the court’s consideration when deciding the value of the dog, given the training involved and their tremendous contribution to the community or owner.
Flu and Vaccine Information — The full Senate has approved legislation that ensures hospitals inform patients about influenza and the availability of vaccines. Senate Bill 979, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), provides information be given to patients six months of age and older in order to keep the dangerous disease from spreading for the health of all Tennesseans.
Prescription Drugs — Legislation has passed the Senate to change requirements regarding how prescriptions must be written in order to allow the pharmaceutical industry to “legally move” into the twenty-first century. Currently, all prescription orders must be printed on tamper-resistant prescription paper that meets the requirements of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid in addition to state requirements placed by TennCare. Senate Bill 963, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), would allow prescription orders to be printed with technology that would result in a tamper-resistant prescription without utilizing the tamper-resistant paper. “This technology will make their jobs easier without compromising the prescription,” said McNally.
Parents’ Day Out Programs — The full Senate has approved legislation that makes sure church-related “Parents’ Day Out” programs can continue to operate. The legislation, which comes after an Attorney General opinion was released last year placing programs in jeopardy, allows Parents’ Day Out operations to continue with an exemption as long as the child attends no more than two days a week for six hours each day. It also allows churches to have programs on each of the campuses. In addition, Senate Bill 178, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), calls for registration of Parents’ Day Out programs with the Department of Human Services in case vital information is needed for dissemination in health emergencies like meningitis and other communicable diseases.
Latest State Revenues — Tennessee tax collections continued their upward trend in February. The Department of Finance and Administration reported on Friday that overall February revenues were $744.3 million, which is $5.0 million more than the state budgeted. Total collections in February marked the seventh consecutive positive growth month this year. “While we continue to believe the modest growth rate in sales tax collections is indicative of a very slow but improving economy in Tennessee, we are concerned that escalating gasoline prices and the failure of Congress to enact a budget will soon begin to erode the positive growth trend we are now enjoying. We’ll monitor collections and spending and work with the General Assembly to end the fiscal year in June with a balanced budget,” said Commissioner Mark Emkes. On an accrual basis, February is the seventh month in the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
Accountability / Virtual Schools – The Senate has approved legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), that tightens accountability in public virtual schools in Tennessee. Senate Bill 157, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), caps enrollment in public virtual schools at 1500 students, pending appropriate student performance. It, however, allows virtual schools in existence as of January 1, 2013 to continue to serve the students enrolled at the school. If the virtual school demonstrates growth at expectation as determined by the state’s Tennessee Value Added Assessment (TVAAS) scores, they may exceed the cap under the bill. If a public virtual school is identified for scores significantly below expectations for two consecutives years, the Commissioner of Education may reinstitute the enrollment caps or direct the local education agency to close the school.
Children in State Custody — Tennessee has the highest adoption rate in the nation according to Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry. The Commissioner appeared before the Senate Health Committee this week to present his department’s budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Henry said there are 8,323 children in state custody and 15,500 in non-custodial care. He reiterated the growing problem of drug addiction and its impact on children coming into state custody. Henry said “drugs are consuming us right now,” and specifically pointed to a spike of abuse in East Tennessee. The Commissioner also detailed a long list of aggressive actions he has taken since his appointment to head the Department last month to address deaths of children in state custody.