State Senate takes up public safetybills to curb violent crime, lower the rate of repeat offenders and reduce drug abuse

(NASHVILLE, TN), February 9, 2012 —  Law and order legislation dominated debate in the State Senate this week as lawmakers considered several of Governor Bill Haslam’s public safety bills, including proposals sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), and Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge).  The Judiciary Committee advanced legislation to enact tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions and two drug abuse measures, while the State and Local Government Committee approved a bill to realign under the Department of Correction the supervision of adult felony offenders to include probation, parole and community corrections.

The bills were drafted at the recommendation of a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group composed of more than 10 government agencies which held meetings with over 300 leaders in law enforcement, substance abuse, and corrections.   The group developed 11 objectives and 40 action steps in their multi-year safety action plan with the goal of significantly reducing drug abuse and drug trafficking; curbing violent crime; and, lowering the rate of repeat offenders in Tennessee.    
 
Felons with Guns — Among bills approved was Senate Bill 2250, by Senator Norris, that would increase from a Class E felony to a Class C felony the punishment for convicted felons carrying a firearm whose crime involved the use of force, violence, or a deadly weapon.  The punishment would be a Class D felony for those whose conviction involved a felony drug offense. 

“Keeping our citizens safe is one of government’s primary responsibilities,” said Senator Norris. “This bill will give District Attorneys in Tennessee a stronger tool to keep convicted felons, who are prohibited from possessing a firearm, off Tennessee streets.”  Norris sponsored a series of anti-crime laws passed in recent years designed to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping these criminals behind bars longer and protecting the public.
 
Gang Violence — Norris is also the sponsor of Senate Bill 2252 that would enhance penalties for certain crimes committed by groups of three or more people.  Shelby County Deputy District Attorney General John Campbell told members of the Judiciary Committee that a person robbed by more than one assailant has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death.  The bill to keep them behind bars longer bumps up penalties by one classification for aggravated assault, robbery, or aggravated burglary, if the crime is committed in concert with two or more persons.  Action on the legislation was deferred until next week at the request of the sponsor.

Corrections — Senate Bill 2248, sponsored by Senator Faulk, was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee.  The legislation gives the State Department of Corrections the authority to supervise probation and parole services to provide a seamless one person contact for offenders throughout the entire criminal justice system. 

The legislation was part of the administration’s top to bottom review of departments and agencies conducted last year. The consolidation of these agencies will reduce the competition for providers and allow for continuity of a single point of contact.  Forty states operate under a consolidated system, which is widely recognized as a best practice in corrections. The existing organizational structure that actually performs under the Board of Pardons and Paroles will remain intact upon transfer to the Department of Corrections.     

“This will save the state nearly three quarters of a million dollars without any apparent change in personnel, and is the optimal model in corrections throughout the U.S.,” said Senator Faulk.

Drug Abuse – In other action on the Governor’s public safety legislation, Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) received approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee for legislation clarifying two statutes in Tennessee law dealing with the purchase of amphetamines for the purpose of making meth.  Senate Bill 2235 makes it a misdemeanor to “attempt to purchase” and “attempt to sell” amphetamines with the intent to sell it to another for a non-medical use or unlawful purpose, including the manufacture of meth, leaving the felony as the punishment for completing the act.

A second proposal sponsored by Senator McNally and approved by the Judiciary Committee adds numerous opiates, depressants, stimulants, and narcotics to Schedule I through V of the Controlled Substances Schedule. Senate Bill 2230 also adds Tramadol and Carisoprodol to Schedule IV of the Controlled Substances Schedule.  A controlled (scheduled) drug is one whose use and distribution is tightly controlled because of the potential for abuse. Controlled drugs are rated in the order of their abuse risk and placed in Schedules by the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The drugs with the highest abuse potential are placed in Schedule I, and those with the lowest abuse potential are placed in Schedule V. 

“Drug abuse is one of Tennessee’s most serious public safety concerns,” said Senator McNally.  “It is not only an underlying factor that leads to crime in our state, it touches just about every family in Tennessee.”

Other bills in the Governor’s public safety package, including a major prescription drug abuse bill sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), will be considered by the General Assembly in the coming weeks.

The Senate Education Committee Conducts Hearings on Nominees to State Board of Regents, University of Tennessee Board of Trustees, Board of Education, Lottery Board of Directors

Seven nominees came before the Senate Education Committee this week for review of their credentials to serve on various state education boards, including the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), the University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees, the State Board of Education and the Education Lottery Board of Directors.  Members of the Committee asked each of the nominees various questions about their backgrounds and goals for helping Tennessee students achieve academic gains.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) set the tone of the meeting by speaking to the nominees regarding the important public service task in front of them.  Tennessee is currently 46th in the U.S. in education attainment and has an aggressive plan to make academic gains.  Education Committee Counsel Helen James then read the duties prescribed in state law on each of the boards to which the nominees were appointed.   

The nominees for State Board of Education and Education Lottery Board of Directors must receive confirmation by the Senate and House of Representatives. This law has not been followed in recent years and was the subject of much debate in 2010 as lawmakers took a closer look at the inside workings of the Tennessee Board of Regents during the selection process for a new chancellor. 

 “The 2010 hearing provided us with a closer look at the inside workings of all of these boards and their impact on raising education attainment in Tennessee,” said Senator Gresham.  “We have much work to do as we implement the Complete College Act and accelerate our efforts in graduating more students from our colleges and universities.  It is important that we know and confirm the key leaders who are our partners in this effort.”

The University of Tennessee system consists of three primary campuses, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin, a health sciences campus in Memphis, a research institute in Tullahoma and various extensions in each of the state’s 95 counties.  The Board of Trustees, which is the governing body of The University of Tennessee, has full and complete control over its organization and administration; its constituent parts and financial affairs.  It has a combined student enrollment of more than 44,000 students. 

The Tennessee Board of Regents supervises all public institutions of higher education in Tennessee not governed by the University of Tennessee system, including the state’s four-year institutions, community colleges, and the Tennessee Technology Centers.  With approximately 200,000 students, the system is the sixth largest in the U.S. 

The Senate Education Committee approved Senate Resolutions 71, 72, 73 and 75 for  J. Brian Ferguson, Spruell Driver, Jr. and Tommy Whitaker for the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and Tom Griscom for the Tennessee Board of Regents. 

Forestry officials warn lawmakers of two new pests which threaten Tennessee walnut and ash trees

Members of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee heard disturbing testimony from state forestry officials this week regarding two new pests which threaten the health of Tennessee’s forests.  Assistant State Forester David Arnold said both the Emerald Ash Borer and Thousand Cankers Disease were first detected in the Knoxville area but have the potential to cause significant damage across the state, including wiping out entire species of trees.  Forestry officials liken the threat to the chestnut blight which caused tremendous damage to that species of trees in the early part of the last century.

The Emerald Ash Borer, which came to the U.S. from packing material in Asia, attacks only ash trees.  The Division of Forestry estimates that five million urban ash trees in Tennessee are potentially at risk from the pests.  The Thousand Cankers Disease is a progressive disease caused by a fungus that is transmitted by the walnut twig beetle.  The name “thousand cankers” is due to the numerous cankers, or infected tissue, which deprive black walnut trees of water and nutrients.  The Tennessee Department of Forestry estimates that 1.38 million black walnut trees in Tennessee’s urban areas are potentially at risk from the disease. 

Arnold said Forestry officials have taken action to protect the health of forests and have led incident management teams following the detection of the diseases.  They are continuing to survey any additional infestations and are conducting outreach to commercial forest industries and the public to quarantine the problem and prevent the spread of the diseases. He said that one of the most effective methods to contain the spread of the diseases is to control the transportation of firewood.  Forestry officials are warning the public not to transport firewood into or within Tennessee.  They have urged the public to buy wood from a local source where it is to be burned and not to bring firewood home from camping trips.  They are also urging citizens to watch for infestation in their ash and black walnut trees.

“This is a serious threat to Tennessee’s forests,” said Senate Energy and Environment Committee Chairman Steve Southerland (R-Morristown).  “All citizens need to watch for this problem on their own property and heed the warning not to transport firewood out of their immediate area.”

Issues in Brief

Tennessee Officials / Judicial Diversion — The Tennessee State Senate gave final approval to legislation sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) which makes state or local officials who have committed a crime during their term of office ineligible for consideration of either pre-trial or judicial diversion.  Judicial diversion is the process in criminal law when a person pleads guilty to a crime and can later have the charge removed (or expunged) from their record following a period of probation.   Senate Bill 2566 would simply add a criminal offense committed by an official in the executive, legislative or judicial branch to the list of those which are ineligible for judicial diversion, if the crime was committed, in their official capacity or involved the duties of their office.

New “I Hate Meth” law results are promising — Just released January data collected by the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx) reveals impressive results for Tennessee in blocking unlawful sales of pseudoephedrine (PSE) at the sales counter. Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) and other sponsors of the “I Hate Meth” law are touting the results as proof Tennessee is making progress in the fight against meth with legislation passed by the General Assembly last year.   NPLEx uses real-time, stop-sale technology to block PSE sales. NPLEx has only been implemented in Tennessee for one month, but the electronic system has successfully blocked the sale of more than 4,993 illegal boxes of PSE, keeping more than 13,000 grams off of Tennessee streets. 

Elections / Photo ID — Waynesboro made history Tuesday by holding the first election since Tennessee’s voter photo identification law went into effect.  Although there are some exceptions, the law generally requires voters to show valid photo identification before casting their ballots. The purpose of the new law, which took effect Jan. 1, is to safeguard against a type of election fraud known as voter impersonation.  In all, 354 voters cast ballots in the Waynesboro city election, including 37 who voted absentee.
As expected, there were no problems related to the implementation of the new law.

Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 –Legislation which aims to create order in the use of Tennessee’s public lands advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week and is headed to the Senate floor for final consideration. Senate Bill 2508, called the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012” would define camping on lands not intended for residential use.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville). 

Tennessee Law Enforcement Officers / Death Benefit — The full Senate has approved legislation to extend a $25,000 death benefit currently provided to local police officers or sheriffs’ deputies to state employees engaged in the detection and prevention of crime.  Senate Bill 2204, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), would provide a death benefit to Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) officers, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) agents, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Park Rangers employed by the Department of Conservation and Environment, and bomb and arson officers in the Department of Commerce and Insurance.  The death benefit would apply to employees who are killed in the line of duty.
 
Tennessee National Guard Day — March 3 would be declared “Tennessee National Guard Day” under legislation which met the final approval of the full Senate this week.  Senate Bill 2231, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), honors and recognizes Tennessee National Guard personnel each year on that date for their service and sacrifices in defense of our nation and for responding to domestic missions within the borders of our state.  The bill is pending action in the House Calendar and Rules Committee before receiving final approval in the House of Representatives.

Red Cedar / State Evergreen — The red cedar would be designated Tennessee’s official state evergreen tree under legislation which passed the full Senate this week.  Senate Bill 2362, sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), states the eastern red cedar is indigenous to the entire state of Tennessee and was one of the first landscape trees used by early pioneers of the state like Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage.  Cedar Knob, which was named for the red cedars, was the original name of the land upon which the state capitol was built in Nashville. 

Support for Israel – State Senators have approved a resolution expressing strong support for the nation of Israel.  Senate Joint Resolution 523 , sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) acknowledges a long history of friendship with Israel and its role in democracy in the Middle East.  It also states the State of Tennessee recognizes that Israel has a right of self-defense against attacks of terrorism and expresses “strong support and a steadfast commitment to the security, welfare, and survival of the Jewish State of Israel with secure borders.”

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Posted in Weekly Review

Leadership