(NASHVILLE, TN), February 26, 2015 — Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as State Senators examined the budgets of 12 agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills.
The budget hearings are part of the process of reviewing how taxpayer dollars are spent to examine whether the money is being used efficiently and effectively to meet the state’s goals for each department or agency. Particular scrutiny is given to any proposed reductions or recommendations for improvements sent to the legislature by the Governor. The hearings will continue through March 25 until the budgets of all agencies and departments have been reviewed. Adoption of the budget is traditionally one of the last bills to be passed before adjournment.
Senate Judiciary Committee passes legislation to help identify, investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking
Legislation that would give law enforcement and other officials more training to identify, investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking in Tennessee has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), calls on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to implement such training courses, which will also include information to help first responders and caseworkers find services to assist victims of the crime.
The action by the committee came just one day before five victims were rescued in a human trafficking operation in Franklin, Tennessee, that resulted in the arrest of seven suspects.
“We have seen far too many cases of human trafficking in Tennessee,” said Senator Ketron. “Training is essential to help us identify and prosecute this crime as well as assist the victims.”
The General Assembly passed a series of bills addressing human trafficking after a 2011 TBI report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. A follow-up to the report was released last year which showed that these statistics could have been understated, partially due to lack of experience in identifying the crime. The follow-up report also included a survey from top law enforcement, caseworkers and court officials who deal with human trafficking cases, which revealed that 79 percent felt that their agencies were not adequately trained to recognize and identify the crime.
The proposed legislation provides for four additional special agents to provide the training and for the agents to be dispersed to cover all regions in the state. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of its financial impact which totals $456,200 on a recurring basis and a one-time cost of $212,300.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved Senate Bill 305, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), which changes the hotline that law enforcement provides to minor victims of prostitution from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline to the Tennessee Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline.
Legislation to protect Tennessee against financial cyber-attacks passes Senate Commerce and Labor Committee
On Tuesday, the Senate State and Local Government Committee reviewed a bill to better protect Tennessee against financial cyber-attacks. Senate Bill 416, also referred to as “The IT Security Breaches for State Entities,” was presented by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) on behalf of the comptroller’s office.
“The state of Tennessee is at risk of significant fraud now and in the future by outside forces gaining an unauthorized access to confidential data including social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, financial account numbers and their passwords or codes,” said Sen. Bowling. “When a breach occurs, it is imperative for the comptroller’s office to be notified so that the financial statement and programmatic risk can be identified and accessed.”
As the law presently stands, there is no statutory requirement for the comptroller to receive notification when a security system that protects state data is breached. The proposed legislation requires state agencies to notify the comptroller’s office of any security breach within five working days. By notifying the comptroller’s office within a reasonable amount of time, the audit staff may assess the risks of the breach for the state government.
The bill was referred to the Senate Calendar Committee with 8 ayes from the State and Local Government Committee.
Bills aim to bring Tennessee law into the 21st century and make it more customer-friendly
Three bills were approved by Senate committees this week that aim to update Tennessee law and make the state’s court system more customer friendly, including legislation calling for adoption of an electronic filing system. Senate Bill 41, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), creates a nine-member task force to review and propose a process to implement e-filing of documents in the state’s courts. The bill, which was approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee, now moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.
“We need to bring our courts into the 21st century,” said Senator Kelsey. “We need to use technology to increase efficiencies and help our courts better serve Tennesseans.”
Similarly, Senate Bill 144, sponsored by Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), brings the state’s Business Corporation Act and Nonprofit Corporation Act into the 21st century with acknowledgement of the Internet and email. The legislation clarifies revisions made to the laws over the past several years on such matters like the use of electronic signatures. The bill also allows companies that have different classes of common or preferred stock to elect to have class voting through their charter or by agreement, restoring the law back to its status prior to 2012 when that option was removed. The legislation moved from the Commerce and Labor Committee this week to the Senate floor for final consideration
Another bill which aims to utilize 21st century technological advancements calls for updating the e-filing system in the Tennessee Department of Labor. The legislation requires electronic filing of an employer’s quarterly wage and premium report for employers that employ 100 or more people. As amended, Senate Bill 102, sponsored by Senator Johnson, would allow for an opt-out for employers that employ between ten and 99 employees. The conditions for the opt-out would be similar to criteria used by other departments of state government, like businesses that do not have access to a computer or the Internet. The bill is expected to result in tremendous cost savings. It now goes to the Senate floor for a final vote.
Decline in Tennessee Traffic Fatalities linked to Increased Seat Belt Use
Representatives from the American Automobile Association (AAA) reported this week on the safety status of Tennessee roadways in 2014 to the Senate Transportation Committee. Speaking on behalf of the organization, Tim Wright and Don Lindsey told committee members that the increase of seat belt use is the primary reason for a drop in fatalities on Tennessee roads over the past six years.
Traffic fatalities exceeded 1,000 per year from 1964 to 2008, killing over 55,000 Tennesseans. In 2009, traffic deaths decreased below 1,000 per year and have only climbed above that mark in two of the past six years.
Tennessee suffered 967 fatalities in 2014, down three percent or 28 deaths, from the previous year. The decline is despite the fact that the number of automobile crashes increased by 4 percent. Lindsey said this was due to record 87.7 percent seat belt use. “In 2014, the 12 percent who chose not to buckle up made up about half the deaths of passenger vehicles, about 367 people,” Lindsey said.
“These statistics are very telling,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy, (R-Shelbyville). “We need to step up our efforts in encouraging the use of safety belts, which are critical to preventing a tragedy.”
Lindsey also told members of the committee that Tennessee was one of the first states to address distracted driving. Tennessee passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Tracy in 2009, banning the use of texting while driving, one of the most common causes of crashes due to distracted driving.
“Texting is an extremely dangerous form of distracted driving,” Tracy added. “When drivers take their eyes off the road to read or send messages, they pose a great danger to all who cross their path. I am very pleased that this law has improved safety on Tennessee roads.”
Tennessee’s TNStars College Savings Plan ranked top in the nation
TNStars College Savings 529 plan, established in a bill sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), has just been recognized as the top direct-sold plan in the nation. The savings plan was among topics discussed by Tennessee Treasurer David Lillard and members of the Senate Finance Committee during an examination of the State Treasurer’s budget.
The plan was designed to give Tennessee families high quality investment options at low cost to help them pay for education and receive tax advantages. Families of all income levels are served by the plan. Of the new accounts opened from September to December 2014, 15 percent were opened by families making less than $50,000 annually.
“Tennesseans have a viable investment option to set aside money for their children’s post-secondary education,” said Treasurer Lillard. “Dollars invested in TNStars accounts are yielding strong returns. Even small amounts invested early will better prepare your child for education after high school.”
All families who open savings accounts with TNStars can receive up to $375 in incentives. Some families will also qualify for a four-to-one match of up to $1,500 per child. Funds and extra incentives saved in a TNStars account can be used not only for post-secondary education tuition and fees but also for related expenses, including room and board, textbooks and supplies.
Research shows that children with a college savings account are six to seven times more likely to attend a four-year college compared with children with no dedicated account.
During the presentation, Treasurer Lillard also said Tennessee’s retirement fund for state government, higher education and other public employees is the fifth best funded state public pension plan in the country. The AAA-rated plan has 347,000 active and retired enrollees with assets of $43 billion. This makes it the 24th largest pension plan in the nation and one of the largest in the world. Lillard said the pension plan had a solid 16.7 percent gain during the past year on its investments.
Issues in Brief
Pharmacy Drug Disposal Program – Members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved legislation this week authorizing any licensed pharmacy in this state to participate in a drug disposal program to collect and destroy unwanted or unused prescription drugs. The Patient Access to Pharmacy Drug Disposal Programs Act of 2015 is sponsored by Senate Doug Overbey (R-Maryville). Safe disposal programs help prevent unused drugs from getting into the hands of children who could ingest them or adults who could abuse them. It also helps remove them in a way that is environmentally friendly. The legislation exempts any participating pharmacy’s liability regarding theft, robbery, or other criminal activity in regards to a pharmacy’s participation in a disposal program. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.
Bright Spots and Challenges in Tennessee’s Health Status — Department of Health Commissioner John J. Dreyzehner made a budget presentation in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee this week which included a report on the “bright spots” and challenges regarding Tennessee’s health status. Dreyzehner said that infant mortality is the lowest ever in Tennessee at 6.8 per 1,000 live births. Other bright spots include a two percent drop in childhood obesity, a 40 percent reduction in doctor shopping since 2012, and a five percent decrease in the amount of morphine dispensed. On the upward trend is increased life expectancy, which is now 76.6 years; and a rise in the number of Tennesseans who receive the flu vaccine, which now stands at 52.7 percent. The state is rated among the top five in the U.S. for its disease outbreak response as well. Dreyzehner said the state still faces challenges with the “big three” causes for poor health in Tennessee. These are tobacco use, obesity and physical activity. He also said the state ranks 40th in the nation in drug deaths.
Racial Profiling Prevention Act – Legislation, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), requiring Tennessee law enforcement agencies to implement policies against racial profiling was approved this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The “Racial Profiling Prevention Act” defines the discriminatory practice and calls for all law enforcement agencies in the state to adopt a written policy on the subject by January 1, 2016. Senate Bill 6 defines racial profiling as the detention, interdiction, or other disparate treatment of an individual based solely on perceived race, color, ethnicity or national origin. The bill would apply to any law enforcement agency responsible for preventing and detecting crime and enforcing laws or local ordinances if their employees are authorized to make arrests for crimes. It would also apply to officers employed by colleges and universities.
Lung Cancer Awareness — The Senate voted on Monday to designate November as “Lung Cancer Awareness Month” to bring attention to the fact that it accounts for about one in three cancer-related deaths in Tennessee. Senate Bill 208, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Stawberry Plains), also aims to bring attention to the need for an early diagnostic test and more effective treatments to help save lives.
Baby Boomers / Elderly Care – Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability Director Jim Shulman told lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week that there has been an 8.54 percent increase in the number of senior citizens in Tennessee over the past year. Seniors are growing faster than any other sector of the population due to the arrival of baby boomers who have reached their golden years. Baby boomers are typically defined as those individuals born between 1946 and 1964. Shulman told the committee that it is important that Tennessee is efficient with its resources to serve an increasingly larger aging population. Shulman also said that 110,000 Tennesseans have Alzheimers, a condition which refers to memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life.
Forest Report – The Tennessee Forestry Commission presented their 2014 annual report to the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week regarding the health of Tennessee’s forests. The Commission reported the state fought 1,346 forest fires that burned 20,968 acres, the highest since 2007. The Commission has also been working aggressively to eradicate the ever-increasing number of native and non-native pests encroaching on Tennessee’s forests. These include the gypsy moth, hemlock woolly adelgid and southern pine beetle. In June 2014, 7,400 gypsy moth detection and delimiting traps were placed in 93 counties. The Commission also worked to detect and monitor thousand cankers disease, emerald ash borer and exotic bark beetles. The Commission has held its first meeting of the Tennessee Forest Health Council, a group consisting of representatives from all agencies and organizations involved in promoting and improving the health of Tennessee’s forests.
Buzzards / Destruction of Property – The Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee has approved a bill that would prohibit state wildlife officials from participating in any federal enforcement or investigation into the killing of black vultures (or buzzards) which are protected under federal law. Senate Bill 204, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), was described as the first step in raising awareness about the problem buzzards pose to farmers and property owners in Tennessee, especially in the face of the high fines imposed by the federal government for killing them. The committee heard testimony about vultures in the state killing newborn animals, including calves, sheep and goats. One calf can cost a farmer up to $1,000. This is in addition to mass destruction of personal property caused by buzzards as the committee saw photos involved in a $25,000 insurance claim. Although Tennessee law does not prohibit the killing of buzzards, those who kill one can face federal penalties of up to 6 months in jail and $15,000 in fines, as well as the loss of their weapon and vehicle.
Opioid Abuse – The full Senate approved legislation to repeal Tennessee’s Intractable Pain Treatment Act in an effort to reduce opioid abuse in Tennessee. Senate Bill 157, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), is supported by the state’s districts attorney and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The Intractable Pain Treatment Act was passed in 2001 and includes a “Pain Patient’s Bill of Rights” which gave patients a great amount of responsibility to choose opiate medications as a first line of treatment even through other modalities of pain relief exist. Under the law’s “Patient Bill of Rights,” physicians are required either to provide requested opiate medication or refer to physicians who will. Since the passage of the 2001 law, Tennessee has experienced multiple negative consequences, including being ranked second in the nation for the rate of opioid pain relievers sold per 10,000 persons. Prescription opioids also rank as the worst abused drug among individuals receiving state-funded treatment services in Tennessee.
Education / Teacher Fellowship — The Tennessee Department of Education and the Hope Street Group announced a new statewide partnership this week to raise educator voices and strengthen teacher leadership opportunities. Hope Street Group is a national nonprofit organization known for its role in teacher engagement. Hope Street Group will select teachers to participate in the 12-month fellowship set to begin in the summer of 2015. This is one of many programs Tennessee has launched over the past few years to elevate the teaching profession and the voice of educators. Fellows will be given the opportunity to attend professional development trainings, interact with their colleagues and collect data and feedback from teachers.
KIDS COUNT – A new KIDS COUNT report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that refundable tax credits, such as the child care tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), are the single most effective policies to help children living in poverty. The report, Measuring Access to Opportunity in the United States, assesses the improvements of the percentage of children suffering from poverty. The reports also notes that Tennessee is one of the cheapest states to live in according to the cost of living index with lower taxes which helps Tennesseans with lower incomes stretch their money.
Tennessee Promise / Soldiers — Legislation which aims to ensure that the Tennessee Promise scholarship is available to soldiers has received final Senate approval. Senate Bill 56, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), cleans up language in the law to help high school students who train between their junior and senior year in the National Guard and/or go to their advanced individual training after their senior year. Green said currently these soldiers would not be eligible for Tennessee Promise. Soldiers are provided other scholarships which could cover them as Tennessee Promise is a “last dollar” scholarship. This legislation gives them an option to ensure they have access to Tennessee Promise just in case they don’t.