(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 6, 2014 –  Passage of key legislation in the Senate Education Committee, including a bill rewriting the state’s Textbook Commission, topped a busy week on Capitol Hill.  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, sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), 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 Textbook Commission is currently undergoing the regular Sunset review process conducted on all departments and agencies of state government.  The Senate Education Committee worked in cooperation with the Senate Government Operations Committee in looking at the role of the commission.  The goal was to come up with a bill to ensure students have the critical information they need and that it is done in an accurate and unbiased approach.  This work included looking at best practices used by commissions in other states. 


The bill adopted by the committee:

  • Vacates the current board and replaces it with a new State Textbook and Instructional Materials Commission beginning January 1, 2015;
  • Gives the Governor and the House and Senate Speakers three appointments each to the commission followed by confirmation by the General Assembly (the Commissioner of Education will also sit on the commission, and must attend or send his or her designee);
  • Limits commission members to 2 terms; whereas, currently it is unlimited;
  • Ensures the commission and those who review the textbooks have significant guidance by providing better training for members, including specific review criteria that must be considered when recommending books for approval;
  • Reduces the current bonding requirement for those who bid on textbooks to encourage more textbook companies to bid (currently, Tennessee is the only state in the nation that requires a bond of up to $1 million for participating companies);
  • Makes textbook companies financially responsible for fixing any mistakes in their materials;
  • Requires publishers to submit complete books for online review by the public;
  • Provides the public with web access to the commission’s textbook review process; and
  • Requires the commission to consider public comment regarding textbook selection.


The bill is co-sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Senator Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) and Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).


Resolution and Bill Exert State’s Sovereignty in Education – In other action in the Senate Education Committee, a resolution sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) was approved expressing Tennessee’s sovereignty over how students are educated in the state.  Senate Joint Resolution 491 provides that the state, not the federal government, should determine the content of Tennessee’s state academic standards and the measures used to assess how well students have mastered them.


The state education sovereignty resolution spells out that Tennessee considers any collection of student data by the federal government an overreach of the federal government’s constitutional authority.  It also extends to organizations contracted to conduct tests on students in Tennessee in regards to any potential sharing or allowing access to pupil data.


Likewise, committee members approved Senate Bill 1835, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), which puts the force of Tennessee law behind the principles set out in the state education sovereignty resolution.  “The Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act reiterates the federal government has no constitutional right to set educational standards and any partnership is totally at the discretion of the state,” said Gresham.  “The bill further states that state and local authorities have exclusive rights to set education standards.   Data collected by the state should be used for the sole purpose of tracking academic progress and the needs of the student.” 


The legislation requires that proposed changes to the state standards 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.   The same requirements apply to any consideration by the board of joining a testing consortium that calls for adoption of common science or social studies standards.


In addition, the bill requires the Department of Education to only use aggregate data, not student identifying information, in public reports.  To provide greater public transparency, the board must publish a list of all data elements collected, along with the purpose or reason for collecting them. Local education agencies would be forbidden, under the measure, to collect information regarding the student or their parent’s political affiliation, religion, voting history, and firearms ownership.    


Parents are also given greater access to information under the legislation.  The bill gives parents the right to review the data collected on their child.  It also requires consent by a parent before any biometric data can be collected on a student.  The proposal forbids the state from conducting an assessment or applying for a grant that violates the written consent requirements for collection of biometric data or survey data.


“I am very proud of the work done by members of our committee to make Tennessee’s education system uniquely Tennessean,” said Chairman Gresham.  The resolution and the bill now go to the full Senate for final consideration.


Senate Transportation Committee Approves Legislation to Help Repair Tennessee Bridges


Legislation that would return millions of dollars to taxpayers in the form of bridge infrastructure improvements was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.  The County Bridge Relief Act of 2014, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), changes the way Tennessee currently manages its State Aid Bridge Grant Program to make it easier for communities to access state funds to upgrade, repair, and rehabilitate bridges that have fallen into disrepair over the years.


“This legislation unlocks local money that has been sitting unused for a number of years to help aid communities with important bridge infrastructure projects,” said Senator Yager.  “This will be a tremendous help, especially to our poorest counties, which have a very difficult time meeting the current match required to access these funds.”


Currently, in order to receive funding through the Bridge Grant Program, a 20% local match must be made by local governments.  However, because many localities cannot afford the match, a large percentage of the bridge funding set aside by the state has gone unused.  Senate Bill 1679 reduces this local match percentage to only 2%.  In addition, it allows local governments to match the rate by using in-kind services as approved by the Commissioner of Transportation.


“This gives road departments the opportunity to invest sweat equity to satisfy the program’s requirements,” added Yager.  “By doing so, it unlocks local money that has been sitting in unexpended county balance funds for a number of years that is needed to make repairs and upgrades to our state’s bridges.”  


The bridge grant funds are distributed by county.   The 2013-2014 statewide total of unexpended balance funds for all Tennessee counties, pending local matches, is $9.54 million. The bill now moves to the Senate floor where it could be heard on final consideration as early as next week. 


Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Bill to Repeal Statute of Limitations for Rape


The Senate Judiciary Committee have approved legislation that would repeal the statute of limitations for rape, aggravated rape, rape of a child and aggravated rape of a child, as long as law enforcement or the district attorney general has been notified within three years of the offense.  Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), sponsor of Senate Bill 2084, said the legislation also provides a “certain degree of retroactivity” for claims in which the statute of limitations has not expired. 


The proposal pertains to acts committed on or after the bill’s July 1, 2014 effective date and offenses committed prior to that date, as long as the statute of limitations has not expired.  The current statutes of limitations range from 8 years to 15 years for rape of an adult, and up to 25 years after the 18th birthday of the victim when the offense involves a child.


“This bill will give law enforcement new tools to prosecute this heinous crime,” said Leader Norris.  “This not only provides due process protection, but encourages victims to come forward.”  


Amy Weirich, District Attorney General for the 30th Judicial District in Shelby County, who testified in favor of the legislation, told members of the Judiciary Committee that her office has already been using the legislative means given to them under a law passed by the General Assembly last year.  Weirich said that her office used legislation to obtain a “John Doe” arrest warrant this week based on the perpetrator’s DNA profile, saving the case from dismissal on grounds that too much time has passed.  That legislation, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), ensures that Tennessee law keeps pace with emerging DNA science so that prosecutions will be kept alive even when the perpetrator can’t be brought to justice within the time allowed by the statute of limitations.


Approximately 90,000 women are raped every year in the United States, with only 25% of these attacks resulting in arrests.  Courts at all levels have recognized the validity of DNA tests in identifying suspects and establishing guilt.


Senate approves “Stop Obamacare Act”


Legislation which requires the governor to receive approval from the General Assembly through joint resolution before expanding Medicaid under Obamacare was approved this week by the full Senate.  Senate Bill 804, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), is limited to the expansion of optional enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, which is also known as Obamacare.   


In June 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius that states have the right to opt out of Medicaid expansion without losing pre-existing federal Medicaid funding.


“This bill simply says the governor shall not make any decisions about optional enrollment in the Medicaid program, pursuant to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, unless authorized by a joint resolution of the General Assembly,” said Kelsey


Under the Medicaid expansion envisioned by Obamacare, Tennessee is estimated to pay $200 million a year for its 10% share to expand Medicaid to individuals with incomes up to 138% of the poverty level.  The federal government promised to pay 100% of the expansion cost for the first three years, diminishing to 90% in future years.  However, many financial experts are skeptical about the federal government’s ability to maintain the level of funding promised due to mounting national debt. Other states that have opted not to expand their Medicaid programs have also cited their doubt that the federal government will keep its promised level of funding, thus leaving state taxpayers to foot the bill.


The bill now goes to the governor for his signature before becoming law.


Senate Sends Bill to Allow Communities to Vote on whether to Allow the Sale of Wine in Retail Food Stores to Governor for his Signature


Legislation that would let Tennesseans in certain communities vote on whether to allow the sale of wine in retail food stores via a local referendum has been sent to the governor for his signature.  Action on the Senate Bill 837 came after the Senate approved amendments placed on the bill by the House of Representatives.  Those amendments change the minimum square footage requirements for newly licensed food stores able to sell wine to 1,200 square feet and sets the cost of the license at $1,250.


The bill is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).


The referendum bill applies to communities that currently allow retail package stores, liquor-by-the-drink establishments or both.  In order to place the referendum on the ballot, a petition must be presented to the county election commission where the referendum is to be held. The petition must include signatures from 10 percent of the jurisdiction’s population that voted in the last gubernatorial election.  The first opportunity that a referendum could be on the ballot is November 2014.  If approved by the voters, wine sales in food stores could begin on July 1, 2016.


Thirty-six states, including six of Tennessee’s border states, allow the sale of wine in retail food stores.


“This bill has been around for a long time,” said Senator Ketron.  “The legislation sets up referendums to finally give the people the opportunity to vote it down or vote it in.”


Senate Votes to Call for Convention of the States to Require Congress to Balance the Federal Budget Each Year


The full Senate voted this week to approve a resolution calling for a convention of the states pursuant to Article V of the U.S. Constitution to require Congress to balance the federal budget each year.  Joint Resolution 493, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), states that, in the absence of a congressional declaration of war or an economic recession, the total of all federal appropriations made by the Congress for any fiscal year may not exceed the total of all estimated federal revenues for that fiscal year.


“The Founding Founders gave the states the ability through Article V to reign in the federal government, and that’s exactly what we should do,” said Sen. Kelsey. “The federal government should live within its means and stop adding to its $17 trillion debt.”


Article V of the U.S. Constitution states that, if two-thirds of the states submit applications to Congress on the same subject matter, Congress must call for a convention for the purpose of proposing such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Tennessee would be the 22nd state that has submitted a balanced budget amendment request to Congress. Thirty four states are needed to make the call.


“The Balanced Budget Amendment will force Congress to keep its promises to the American people and ensure financial viability for future generations,” concluded Sen. Kelsey.


In Brief…


Amelia’s Law — The Senate gave final approval to legislation on Thursday to authorize a transdermal monitoring device to be ordered as a condition of pretrial diversion, parole, probation, judicial diversion or DUI probation if the defendant’s use of alcohol or drugs was a contributing factor.  Senate Bill 1962, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) simply provides a tool in the toolbox for judges to use when the facts present themselves in situations where alcohol or drugs were a contributing factor for the defendant’s unlawful conduct.  Transdermal monitoring systems are types of technologies which measure alcohol levels that are excreted through the skin which are currently used as an option for second and third DUI offenses.  This bill would allow it to be used in other circumstances such as domestic violence and probation where the use of drugs and alcohol were a factor. The bill would name the act the “Amelia Keown’s Law” for a 16-year-old William Blount High School junior who was killed in a fatal car crash at the hands of a John Charles Perkins, who had a lengthy criminal record, including numerous traffic citations and automobile crashes. 


Hall Tax Phase Out — Tax reform groups and legislators held a press conference this week to announce support for a proposal phasing out the Hall Income Tax on stocks and bonds.  The group maintains that the Hall Tax hits senior citizens who rely on investment income for retirement the hardest, providing a disincentive for saving or driving retirees to move out of state.  Senate Bill 1427, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), would phase out the state portion of the tax over a period of six years.  The measure also includes provisions to ensure that the phase out is done in a fiscally responsible manner.  The bill is scheduled to be considered on March 11 in the Senate Tax Subcommittee.


Human Trafficking Legislation —  The Senate passed two more bills in a series of legislation aiming to curb human trafficking in Tennessee.   Eleven measures have been proposed this year by the Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition to toughen state laws, help survivors, and aid law enforcement in the quest to eradicate human trafficking in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 2564 ensures that those who are guilty of patronizing prostitution of a minor would be placed on the state’s Sex Offender Registry.  Similarly, the full Senate approved Senate Bill 2040, which treats out of state sexual offenders the same way we treat in state sexual offenders for the purpose of being placed on the Sex Offender Registry.  Both bills are sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).  


Human Trafficking Services Plan / Task Force — Members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee also congratulated Commissioner of Human Services Raquel Hatter on Wednesday for her department’s work with the Human Trafficking Task Force in providing more information.  Hatter provided committee members with the latest report, the Human Trafficking Services Coordination and Service Delivery Plan. The report stems from enactment of legislation in 2012 calling for the Department of Human Services (DHS) to collaborate with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (DMHSAS), Department of Intellectual and Development Disabilities (DIDD), Department of Health (DoH), Department of Children’s Services (DCS); and Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) to develop a comprehensive plan for the delivery of services to human trafficking victims throughout the state.  A Task Force consisting of eighty plus partners from various sectors: survivors, provider agencies, non-governmental organizations, law enforcement, faith-based communities, various ethnic communities, national organizations, etc. was formed to assist in this effort.


Pension Reform Bill – State Senators gave final approval to a pension reform bill this week for governmental entities outside the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS).  Senate Bill 2079, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), helps to ensure these localities have the adequate funding to pay retirees.  The measure requires that TCRS and each local government entity with a defined benefit pension plan calculate an actuarially determined contribution (ADC) which will include normal costs and the amortization of any unfunded liabilities. Last year, the Director of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) requested actuarial and financial information from local governmental entities with defined benefit pension plans which are not enrolled in TCRS.  The survey found there were 31 local government pension plans external to TCRS, 13 of which did not pay 100% of the annual required contribution (ARC) in 2012.


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