Lawmakers Adjourn 108th General Assembly

Budget and Education Highlight 2014 Legislative Session

NASHVILLE, (April 17, 2014)  — The 108th General Assembly adjourned to become a part of Tennessee history with the state budget and education highlighting this year’s action.   Although underperforming revenues limited the number of initiatives approved this year, the 2014 legislative session will be remembered for passage of several other important measures such as a ban on forced annexation, legislation to tamp down meth use in the state, numerous statutes to help crime victims, bills to protect privacy rights of citizens and a resolution calling for a constitutional convention of the states to balance the federal budget.

The last week of legislative action saw passage of landmark legislation providing Tennessee students with the opportunity to attend college by establishing the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act.  Senate Bill 2471, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), provides Tennessee high school graduates with last dollar tuition assistance to fill unmet financial needs for tuition and fees so students may attend community college or college of applied technology free of charge.  Students can then use the state’s transfer pathways program if they choose to attend a four-year school, making it possible to start as a junior.

“These are last dollar scholarships,” said Leader Norris.  “But they are the first opportunity most of these Tennesseans will ever have to receive a higher education, a stronger likelihood of a better job, and a brighter future.”

The legislation also provides the opportunity for non-traditional students to return to community college or a college of applied technology free of charge through the state’s Tennessee Reconnect program.  This program is an initiative aimed at helping adults earn a post-secondary degree.  Similarly, the bill allows adults to qualify for the Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant, even if the student has previously received the HOPE Scholarship.  To help students succeed, the bill has a strong mentoring component by incorporating the TN Achieves program, which is already available in 27 counties.  This last dollar scholarship program provides students who might otherwise slip through the cracks in transitioning from high school to a post-secondary institution with mentors to help them succeed. The college retention rate for students in the TN Achieves Program is approximately 72 percent; whereas the HOPE scholarship program retains students at the rate of 47 percent.

In addition, the legislation provides for removal of the current 120-hour cap for HOPE scholars by extending the award to eight semesters.  This is designed to provide HOPE recipients who are double majors or who participate in program like ROTC with flexibility so the student can receive the HOPE scholarship award for at least eight semesters or 120 hours, whichever comes last.

“Tennessee, by this act, will distinguish itself,” added Norris.  “At the end of the day, we will all be beneficiaries of a better educated state, closing the skills gap, providing better employment opportunities for all of our citizens and a brighter future for Tennessee.”

Senate Adopts Conference Committee Report Providing for State Sovereignty in Education

Provides New Parameters for State Common Core Standards and Opens a Competitive Bidding Process for New Student Assessment System

In major K-12 education action this week, the Senate adopted a Conference Committee report to ensure Tennessee maintains sovereignty over how students are educated.  The Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act states the federal government has no constitutional right to set educational standards and any partnership is totally at the discretion of the state.  The bill further states that state and local authorities have exclusive rights to set education standards and that data collected should be used for the sole purpose of tracking academic progress and the needs of the student.

“This bill strikes the right balance in providing rigorous standards to improve education outcomes for our students, while preserving Tennessee values and protecting individual rights,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).  “This legislation keeps us moving forward as the fastest improving state in the nation in student achievement, recognizing the challenges we face with federal intrusion in education.”

Senate Bill 1835, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), specifies that Tennessee “shall not adopt common core state standards in any subject matter beyond math and English language arts.” Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are standards to measure student progress that were developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  The state began phasing in state common core standards in English language arts and math in 2011, with full implementation of these subjects in the current 2013-14 school year.  This legislation helps ensure that state common core standards will not be implemented in science and social studies.  In addition, it provides that the state’s Board of Education cannot join a testing consortium that requires the adoption of common standards in social studies or science without full notice to the public and the General Assembly at least 60 days prior.

The bill delays implementation of a new assessment to replace the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test for K-12 students for one year.  Tennessee students were scheduled to be assessed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, which aligns with Tennessee’s Common Core State Standards, next spring.  The legislation instead calls for solicitation of proposals for a new assessment system through a competitive bidding process with review of the contract awarded by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee.  The new assessment system awarded the contract will be field tested prior to the 2015-2016 school year, when it will replace the existing examinations in the subjects of English language arts and math.

Parents are given greater access to information under the legislation, including the right to review data collected on their child.  It also requires consent by a parent before any biometric data can be collected on a student and forbids the state from conducting an assessment or applying for a grant that violates this requirement.  Similarly, the bill protects the identifying information of teachers regarding their personal evaluation scores.

To provide greater public transparency, the state’s Board of Education must publish a list of all data elements collected under the bill along with the purpose or reason for collecting them.  It requires that proposed changes to any state educational standard shall be posted for public review on the State Board of Education’s website and submitted to the Education Committee of the House and the Senate at least 60 days prior to consideration.

General Assembly approves TAMP Act to address the manufacture of meth

The Senate approved the Tennessee Anti-Meth Production (TAMP) Act during the final hours of the 2014 legislative session, which is designed to combat the manufacture of methamphetamine in the state.  Tennessee ranks second in the nation, behind Indiana, in meth lab seizures last year.

The state spends approximately $2 million annually on meth lab clean-up, and in 2013, 1,691 labs were seized in Tennessee.  The Department of Children’s Services has reported that 1,347 children came into state custody from 2010 through 2013 due to exposure to meth, not including the number of children where non-custodial arrangements were made.  This is in addition to tens of millions of dollars in TennCare costs associated with meth lab burns, many which involve children.

Senate Bill 1751, the Tennessee Anti-Meth Production (TAMP) Act, cuts the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be bought in Tennessee from the current limit of 9 grams a month to 5.76 grams. This is designed to target the so-called ‘smurfers’ who buy from a variety of stores in small quantities until they have enough to manufacture meth.  The legislation sets an annual limit on pseudoephedrine purchases of 28.8 grams.  It also requires a prescription for any person under eighteen years of age to purchase a product that contains any immediate methamphetamine precursor, unless a pharmacist generated prescription is issued.  The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

“Recidivism Reduction Act of 2014” aims to reduce the number of drunk drivers on Tennessee roads

Legislation which focuses on reducing recidivism for DUI offenders was approved by the State Senate during the final legislative week.  Senate Bill 1633, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would give courts the power to sentence second- and third-time DUI offenders to a substance abuse treatment program as a condition of probation after completing a clinical substance abuse assessment and serving a period of time of confinement in jail.

Under the “Recidivism Reduction Act of 2014” DUI offenders would serve 25 days of up front jail time upon a second offense, before participating in a substance abuse treatment program.  Those convicted on a third offense would serve at least 65 days in prison before being sentenced to treatment.  The legislation allows a judge to keep a second or third DUI offender on probation for up to two years if the offender participates in treatment under provisions of this bill.

“Studies show that graduates of a treatment program end up with a recidivism rate of only 10 percent,” said Senator Overbey.  “This bill takes the most dangerous drivers off our roads by giving the judge the authority to order them to treatment.”

Senate approves House Amendment and sends to the governor legislation allowing for the use of Cannibidol Oil in Clinical Trials to Help Prevent Child Intractable Seizures

Legislation allowing for the clinical trial use of Cannibidol oil in two pediatric research hospitals in Tennessee to treat intractable seizures in children is on its way to the governor after final approval by the Senate and House of Representatives.  Senate Bill 2531, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), allows Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital and East Tennessee Children’s Hospital to prescribe Cannibidol oil, which has .9 percent of tetrahydrocannibinol (THC) in a clinical research study to treat such conditions.  The bill also allows Tennessee Technological Institute to obtain the necessary seeds and plants to grow and produce the oil in the controlled study setting.

Cannibidiol (CBD) oil is a derivative of marijuana that does not produce a euphoric effect.  It has shown great promise in treating children who suffer from severe intractable seizures, including Dravet Syndrome, a rare and catastrophic form of epilepsy.  Gardenhire said he brought the bill to the General Assembly after talking with a parent of a child with this condition that suffered up to 150 seizures a day.  The child had a dramatic decrease in seizures after receiving the oil out of state.

“Parents with children who suffer this condition must travel to another state to receive treatment,” said Senator Gardenhire.  “And, that is only if they have the means to relocate.  This is inhumane when this drug could be available in a controlled clinical research setting.”

 

The bill requires any clinical research study on the treatment of intractable seizures to be reported to the Commissioner of Health and the Speakers of the House of Representatives and Senate by January 15, 2018.

 

“This clinical study will be extremely valuable in giving us information regarding the effect this oil has on reducing intractable childhood seizures,” Gardenhire concluded.  “I look forward to seeing the results of this study and hope that this legislation will ease the suffering of children and their parents who suffer the effects of this condition.”

Legislation requires open reporting of deaths and near fatalities of children in state custody

Legislation sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) that sets minimum disclosure requirements for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) after a fatality or near fatality of a child is headed to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature after receiving House and Senate approval.  Senate Bill 2112 would place into law disclosure requirements which have been voluntarily implemented by DCS Commissioner Jim Henry regarding investigations of abuse and neglect in these cases.  Overbey said the legislation would ensure that the policy will not change under a new department head or gubernatorial administration.

“This legislation just makes certain that the state continues to disclose information regarding deaths or near fatalities of children in DCS custody as implemented by Commissioner Henry when he took the helm of this department,” said Senator Overbey.  “There is nothing more important than the safety of the children entrusted into the care of the state.  We just want to see that this open policy continues down the road, regardless of who is in control.”

Senate Bill 2112 requires DCS to release the child’s age, gender, and a history of the department’s involvement with the child within five business days of the child’s fatality as a result of abuse or neglect.   At the closure of DCS’s investigation, the department must release the final disposition of the case, whether the case meets criteria for a child death review, and the full case file.  Following DCS’s final classification of a child abuse or neglect near fatality, the department would be required to release a full case file.   The legislation authorizes the redaction of any case file to comply with current confidentiality requirements.  Records in fatality cases are regularly redacted and released in a de-identifying manner.

“It is very important that we address these very serious matters as openly as possible,” added Overbey.  “I am pleased that the Senate has approved the bill and that this administrative policy will soon become law so that these actions will be permanent.”

In Brief…

State Textbooks — Passage of a key education bill restructuring the state’s Textbook Commission was among legislation approved during the final legislative day.  The commission, which is responsible for recommending an official list of textbooks for approval by the State Board of Education, came under fire by a group of parents last year for having adopted books containing inappropriate language and controversial interpretations of historical facts.  Senate Bill 1602 is designed to provide greater transparency and more public input in the textbook selection process.  In addition, it addresses how the books are chosen at the local level and the process under which an objection can be appealed. The goal of the bill is to ensure students have the critical information they need and that it is done in an accurate and unbiased approach.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Cleveland).

 

Department of Revenue / Taxpayer Conferences — The Senate approved legislation this week designed to improve the Tennessee Department of Revenue’s processes for making assessments and holding taxpayer conferences.  Senate Bill 1635, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), formalizes existing policies and procedures that assure taxpayers of an informal and open review process.   The legislation would make it clear that the findings of the department’s audit division are not final until the taxpayer has an opportunity to meet in a conference with the commissioner or his designee. It also provides the department with authority to compromise on small assessments without additional approvals.  Finally, it allows the department to include refund claims in the conferencing process and sets out a process for the departments to issue pubic guidance to taxpayers, practitioners, and auditors regarding conference decisions.

 

Latest Revenue Collections — Tennessee revenue collections reflected mixed results in March according to the Department of Finance and Administration. Overall March revenues were $955.8 million. The general fund was under collected by over $4 million for March and by $263.9 million year-to-date. Finance Commissioner Larry Martin said the states March collections “continued to reflect weaker than anticipated revenues from the corporate sector, while sales tax collections were stronger.  Sales tax collections were $9.4 million more than the estimate for March, with a positive 5.51% growth rate. He said the sales tax growth is important in helping to meet current revenue projections on which the approved budget amendment was based.  Year-to-date collections for seven months of the 2014-15 fiscal year were $257.0 million less than the budgeted estimate. The general fund was under collected by $263.9 million and the four other funds were over collected by $6.9 million.

 

Month of the Military Child — The State Senate has passed a resolution recognizing the month of April 2014 as the Month of the Military Child.  Senate Joint Resolution 793, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), and all members of the Senate, urges all citizens, businesses, and government leaders to observe the month with appropriate ceremonies and activities that honor, support, and thank military children.  It is estimated that more than 20,000 of Tennessee’s children and youth have been directly affected by the military deployment of at least one parent.

 

Child Sex Offenders  —  The full Senate has approved a bill that allows the courts to authorize a single trial for a serial child sex offender who commits his or her crime in multiple jurisdictions in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 1362, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), is designed to protect child sexual abuse victims from the trauma of having to testify in multiple trials.  The legislation would affect cases like that of Jerry Sandusky where multiple abuse cases were grouped together for trial in Pennsylvania.

 

Human Trafficking / Children– State Senators voted to approve legislation attacking the “demand side” of human trafficking in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 1815, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), toughens penalties against those who patronize prostitution from a child or a person with intellectual disabilities and removes certain defenses that violators have attempted to use.  The bill increases the penalty from a Class E to either a Class A or Class B felony, depending on the circumstances surrounding the offense.  It also prohibits as a defense to patronizing prostitution asserting that the subject of the offense was a consenting minor or a law enforcement officer.  The General Assembly has passed a series of bills addressing human trafficking after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders.

 

K-12 Education / Fundamentals – Legislation was given final approval this week requiring students to be taught the fundamentals of government.  Under Senate Bill 1266, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), students would be taught the fundamentals of both Tennessee and U.S. government, including instruction in foundational documents.  This includes the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions and other key documents like the Declaration of Independence.  The legislation leaves it up to the local boards of education to decide which grade the instruction is best suited.

Industrial Hemp — The Senate adopted a minor amendment and passed Senate Bill 2495 to allow farmers to be licensed to grow hemp in Tennessee.  Although it is legal to import, purchase or export hemp, it is illegal to grow it in Tennessee.  In recent years, states like neighboring Kentucky have passed measures legalizing the farming of hemp for industrial purposes. These purposes include turning the plant’s fibers into such products as oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, and fuel.  There are approximately 75 manufacturers using hemp in America today, most prevalently with plastics, which can be reinforced with hemp.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains).

Rules of the Road / Yellow Lights — State Senators adopted a House amendment and sent to the governor legislation that authorizes drivers, in the event they cannot stop safely for a yellow light, to drive cautiously through the intersection.  Senate Bill 2056 is sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains).

Crowdfunding — State Senators approved a minor amendment to Senate Bill 1481 which make changes to the Tennessee Securities Act by creating the “Invest Tennessee Exemption” to allow crowdfunding investment.  Crowdfunding is the collection of finance to sustain an initiative from a large pool of backers—the “crowd”—usually made on the Internet. The initiative is most commonly used in a financing campaign for a start-up company.   The bill is sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).

 

Truth in Advertising / Medical Spas – Legislation which calls for truth in advertising for medical spas in Tennessee is now on its way to the governor after the Senate adopted a House amendment. Senate Bill 2033, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), requires medical spas to disclose who their supervising physician is and whether the physician is board-certified.  The physician must state affirmatively if they are not. The intent of the “Tennessee Patient Safety Cosmetic Procedures Act” is to provide important information to consumers regarding the qualifications of the physicians supervising spa procedures.

 

Meth / Improved Tracking — In order to better track meth arrests and convictions, the Senate approved legislation this week to subdivide methamphetamine from other Schedule II drugs in charging offenders with possession.  Senate Bill 1596 , sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), delineates meth from cocaine, crack and other Schedule II drugs so law enforcement can track it.

Salute / Tennessee Flag – A resolution which encourages all Tennessee schools to have their students recite the first official salute to the Tennessee flag on a daily basis passed the Senate on Monday.  Lucy Steel Harrison composed the salute to the Tennessee flag which was subsequently designated “the official salute to the flag of Tennessee” by the General Assembly in March 1981.  The Senate recites the salute before each legislative session.  Senate Joint Resolution 715 is sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).

 

Pill Mills — State Senators voted this week to approve legislation designed to reduce the number of pill mills in Tennessee.  The measure standardizes the reporting requirements for pill wholesalers when there is theft or a significant loss of controlled substances. The legislation also prohibits certain health care providers that work in pain management clinics from dispensing opioids and benzodiazepines and requires health care practitioners to notify the board or pharmacy within 10 days of starting or ending work with those pain management clinics. Finally it changes certain procedures and buy-back measures when dealing with these substances. Senate Bill 1663, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), was modeled after successful legislation passed in Florida.

 

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