State Senators approve key legislation as committees wind down their business for the 2017 legislative session

NASHVILLE – The State Senate approved a wide range of legislation this week, including key transportation bills and measures to address Tennessee’s opioid epidemic. Meanwhile, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the State and Local Government Committee completed their business, joining three other standing Senate committees which had already closed for the 2017 legislative session. This means that action will primarily shift from committees to the Senate floor during the remaining weeks of the 110th General Assembly.

Senate Finance Committee approves legislation prioritizing repair of structurally deficient bridges

Legislation prioritizing the repair of structurally-deficient bridges in Tennessee was unanimously approved by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. Senate Bill 1220, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), authorizes the Department of Transportation (TDOT) to pay up to 100 percent of the cost to repair or replace bridges on local roadways through a new “High Priority” category in the state-aid highway program. The legislation would give TDOT the ability to carry out these projects without requiring a local match.

The vote came after testimony from Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Chief Engineer Paul Degges that 200 of the state’s 526 structurally deficient bridges on local roads have been weight-posted, a status which prevents certain school buses, pumper-style fire trucks and other heavy vehicles from crossing due to safety risks. Degges said that unless there is a comprehensive fix, within 10 to 12 years all 526 bridges that are in need of repair or replacement will likely be added to that list.

“In three locations in the state, buildings have burned because a pumper truck could not get to them in a timely fashion,” Degges said.

Norris reiterated reports from school officials in Tennessee that school buses have crossed deficient bridges one axle at a time to reduce safety risk. “Woe be to us if both axles are ever on,” said Norris. “We are going to make keeping Tennessee safe a higher priority. We are going to repair and replace these bridges. We are not some third world nation. We want to rebuild Tennessee and keep her safe.”

TDOT estimates 47 percent of bridges on local roads are over 50 years old. With an average lifespan of 50 to 75 years, TDOT officials estimate 30 bridges in Tennessee will become structurally deficient each year because of age and wear and tear, not to mention those classified as functionally obsolete due to high traffic volume. In addition, 162 bridges on the state highway network are in need of repair or replacement due to the same reasons.

The legislation also gives TDOT the authority to maintain local roadways within the borders of state parks. There has been a longstanding issue related to who is responsible for maintaining these roads since they are local roads within state-operated parks. There are approximately 65 miles of roads within the state parks that are currently the responsibility of local governments.

The proposal incorporates funding made available under Senate Bill 1221, or the Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE) Act, which was also approved by the committee this week. The purpose of the IMPROVE Act, which is also called the 2017 Tax Cut Act, is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayer’s return on that investment.

“It’s a tremendous return on the taxpayers’ investment,” said Norris. “Somebody said it’s not easy, and that’s right – it’s hard. We did the hard work of looking at where we could return money to the taxpayers and reallocate revenues to maximize Tennesseans return on their investment and to make sure that we reinvest in Tennessee and her future.”

Legislation to curb opiate abuse is approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee continued efforts this week to address Tennessee’s opioid epidemic with approval of two bills aimed to reduce abuse. This includes the Opioid Prescriptions Monitoring Act which requires TennCare to monitor the use of prescribed opioids by enrollees, especially women of child-bearing age due to the increased risk of delivering an infant with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).

It is estimated that there are five million non-chronic pain users of opioids in the U.S., with two million of those being addicted. Tennessee ranks second in the nation for opioid fatalities.

Senate Bill 1227, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), establishes restrictions for dispensing opioids in certain circumstances and requires prior authorization for prescriptions which exceed two weeks during a 90-day period. TennCare would also be required to obtain prior authorization for any opioid prescription to an enrollee who is pregnant, unless there is an exemption, after the second consecutive weekly opioid prescription. It applies to the duration of the individual’s pregnancy. TennCare would be responsible for developing exemptions from the prior authorization requirements for enrollees with medical conditions that warrant an exception.

“We have seen unsuccessful efforts which use a stick to prosecute women after they deliver NAS babies,” said Senator Massey. “This is a front end approach. It helps us identify women at risk and stop any further prescriptions as well as get them the help they need to deliver a healthy baby.”

NAS is a condition in which the newborn suffers withdrawal from drugs, including tremors, weight loss, stiff muscles, seizures, inconsolable crying, gastrointestinal disorders and poor nervous irritability. Current estimates show that TennCare covers birth expenses of over 800 fully-addicted babies and their mothers each year, while also covering an estimated 5,000 plus babies born with serious complications, such as low birth weight and pre-term births, resulting from opioid use.

The other bill approved by the committee creates a new process to identify drug-addicted health care professionals and either suspends their license to protect their patients or compels them to undergo drug-addiction treatment. Action on the bill, which is sponsored by Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), came after committee members listened to a WJHL news report about an addicted nurse who traveled from one Tennessee healthcare facility to the next gaining employment, despite the fact that he diverted pain medication from patients.

“This bill tries to come up with a way to make sure that healthcare providers are not in contact with patients while addicted to drugs,” said Sen. Crowe. “At the same time, it gives those who work through their addiction and are successful an opportunity to go back to work once their treatment protocols are complete and they are in compliance with board requirements. Those providers who are a threat to their patients or do not comply with the program will have their license suspended.”

Under current law, healthcare systems, like any other Tennessee company, can test for drug abuse randomly or when there is a suspicion of a problem. However, there is not a requirement to notify the Department of Health and the appropriate licensing board if a health care professional fails or refuses the test. Senate Bill 1309 requires the Department of Health to be notified when a professional tests positive for drugs and does not have a prescription.

Upon being reported, the Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) will review the information to determine whether aggravating circumstances warrant an emergency suspension of that provider’s license. Aggravating circumstances include the sale or diversion of controlled substances, practicing while impaired, or other conduct that presents a danger to patients or the public.

If it is determined that there are no aggravating factors, the professional will be referred to a peer substance abuse treatment organization for which the professional is licensed. The licensing boards will determine the protocols as to what determines compliance to ensure that the professional is ready to go back to work. Once the peer organization has determined that the provider has completed the program successfully, the licensing board will be notified so the professional can once again interact with patients.

The bill also clarifies that quality improvement and peer substance abuse committees can share information regarding drug abuse by a health care practitioner. This would help prevent a drug-addicted provider from moving from one healthcare facility to the next due the failure in communicating abuse when one employer calls to question another regarding the work record of the practitioner.

Both bills now move to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of the fiscal impact before moving to the floor for a final vote.

Senate Judiciary Committee approves Tennessee Educator’s Protection Act

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week creating liability protections for teachers, education employees, school board members, and authorized volunteers in Tennessee’s public and private schools. Named the “Tennessee Educator’s Protection Act,” the proposal protects school employees from frivolous lawsuits aimed at harassing faculty and staff while performing their duties. It is sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).

“Meritless litigation against school employees interferes with the quality of public and private education, particularly where it arises out of the good faith efforts of educators to maintain classroom discipline or to address threats to student safety,” said Senator Gresham. “We must protect our school employees from this type of harassment.”

Senate Bill 729 states, “Legislation to deter the filing of meritless litigation and to sanction deliberately false report levied against educators is a rational and appropriate method to serve this compelling state interest.” The bill does not extend protections to those convicted of a crime, terminated for misconduct, or those who have violated state or local school policies. Parents and students would still maintain the right to sue a school system.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Tennessee Senate approves bill broadening the use of cell phones in election polling places

Legislation which revises Tennessee law to broaden the rights of Tennesseans to use their cell phones at the polling place passed the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 30-0. Senate Bill 517, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), regulates voting without infringing on a citizen’s First Amendment rights.

The bill stems from the 2016 presidential election when famous Tennessean Justin Timberlake took a selfie at a polling place in Germantown, Tennessee. The photo became national and international news due to the controversy surrounding Tennessee’s law prohibiting such action.

“Sometimes citizens are waiting in long lines in hallways before they even reach the room with the voting machines,” said Senator Kelsey. “We need to allow folks to call home about the grocery list while they are waiting.”

The legislation allows certain exceptions prohibiting the use of cell phones by election officials or commissioners, which mostly pertain to acts of harassment. It also ensures that a recording of a marked ballot, including selfies, would be prohibited only if it had been recorded in an effort to commit voter intimidation, voter fraud, or the sale of a vote.

“This law helps us to continue to conduct our elections with integrity and reliability, as the ban on cell phone use is a narrowly tailored restriction to achieve that interest,” added Kelsey. “At the same time, it employs common sense so that we don’t infringe on our citizen’s First Amendment rights.”

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is scheduled for a vote in the Local Government Committee on April 18.

In Brief…

Correctional Officers – The Senate paused from legislative deliberations on Monday night at the request of Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) to recognize and pray for the recovery of three Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) officers who were stabbed multiple times during a disturbance at the Turney Center Industrial Complex, a correctional facility in Hickman County. Lester Ball, Paul Nielsen and Jesse Shockley were hospitalized as a result of their injuries. TDOC has asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to fully investigate the incident and prosecute those involved to the fullest extent of the law.

Evading Arrest — Legislation increasing the penalties for evading arrest when the evasion results in the death of an individual advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The proposal is named the “Joe Moon Act” for a Tullahoma resident and long-term employee of the Tullahoma Parks and Recreation Department, who was tragically killed last July as the result of a car speeding to escape arrest. In addition, multiple deaths have occurred in Tennessee as the result of an individual attempting to evade arrest by motor vehicle, including a young Murfreesboro mother killed last June. Senate Bill 388, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), increases penalties from a class C to a class B felony with the hopes to further deter the possibility of arrest evasion. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of the bill’s fiscal impact.

Autonomous Vehicles — The full Senate passed Senate Bill 513 on Monday requiring the Tennessee Department of Safety (DOS) to report any accidents or traffic violations that involve an autonomous vehicle during its testing phase. The bill, which is sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), is a proactive measure to monitor the safety and accuracy of autonomous vehicles as their street-presence expands. In turn, the DOS will report its annual findings to the members of the House Transportation Committee and the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee no later than August 1 of each year.

Victim’s Compensation – The full Senate has approved a bill, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), this week empowering victims of crime. Senate Bill 555 deletes a provision in current law that allows an alleged offender the right to have notice of and suspend all action concerning their victim’s claim for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation fund.
Victims of certain crimes are eligible for compensation for the offenses committed against them.
A claim for compensation must be filed with the Division of Claims Administration of the Department of the Treasury no later than one year after the occurrence of the crime. “The perpetrator of the crime should not be notified when a claim has been filed nor should they have the ability to suspend the victim’s claim,” said Senator Ketron.

Human Trafficking / Minor Victims — Legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee which makes the identifying information of the minor victim of a criminal offense confidential and not open to inspection by members of the public, unless a court waives the confidentiality at the request of the minor’s parent. Minors who have been victimized, such as child pornography or sex trafficking victims, should not have their identifiable information available to the public in a manner that could potentially be discovered and used to further victimize the minor in the media or social media. Social media victimization is an ever increasing problem and has been cited in a number of suicides in Tennessee and across the country. Senate Bill 550 provides a measure of protection for both children and families and is supported by the Chiefs of Police, the Sheriffs Association and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. The bill is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).

Campaign Financial Disclosures / Audits — The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved Senate Bill 580 this week which doubles the number of random audits conducted by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. The Registry was created by the General Assembly in 1989 as an independent entity of state government. The agency is responsible for the enforcement of the state’s Campaign Financial Disclosure Act and the Campaign Contribution Limits Act. The measure, which is sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), requires the Registry to increase the number of audits and field investigations of candidates and their committees from two to four percent.

Student Athletes — On Monday, the Senate voted to modernize the Uniform Athlete Agents Act for the ever-evolving sport commercial marketplace and the increasing improper activity between athlete agents and student athletes. An athlete agent’s recruitment of student athletes while they are still enrolled in an academic institution may cause substantial eligibility or other problems for both the student athlete and the academic institution. Senate Bill 565, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), protects the interest of student athletes, academic institutions, and athlete agents by regulating the activities of the agents. The legislation expands the definition of “athlete agent” to ensure all who are compensated are included; provides reciprocal and interstate compact registration; provides a central location where an athlete agent credentials can be reviewed; enhances agency contract requirements; adds notification requirements mandating an athlete agent to notify the education institution before making contact with the student; and, gives student athletes the right to sue an athlete agent for damages. The bill is pending final action in the House of Representatives, before moving to Governor Haslam for his signature.

U.S. Armed Forces / Marriage While Deployed — The full Senate approved legislation authorizing members of the United States Armed Forces, stationed in another country to be married via video conferencing. Senate Bill 494 requires such persons, when applying for a marriage license by notarized statement, to include certain documentation certifying their deployment. It is sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) and is meant to help soldiers who are deployed and wish to marry during that time.

Open Records – The Senate approved and sent to Governor Haslam legislation which authorizes individuals submitting open records requests to do so by all official means of communication, including in person, telephone, fax, email or other electronic means. Senate Bill 464, sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), eases current open records requirements by ensuring that if a governmental entity communicates through email or an electronic portal, they have to accept open government requests through those means as well.

Soldiers / Handgun Permit — Legislation advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to help soldiers applying for a handgun permit who have already received handgun training while serving their country. Senate Bill 1388 provides that a handgun carry permit applicant shall not be required to comply with the firing range requirements for obtaining a handgun carry permit if the applicant submits proof of successfully passing small arms qualification or combat pistol training in any branch of the military. The bill is sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta).

Tri-Star Scholar – State Senators voted unanimously on Thursday to recognize students who earn a 19 on the ACT (or equivalent SAT score) as a Tennessee Tri-Star Scholar upon graduation. The purpose of Senate Bill 998 is to encourage more students to take the ACT or SAT tests, which could possibly lead to a greater number of them pursuing higher education degrees or post-secondary certifications. The legislation, which has already passed the House of Representatives, now goes to Governor Haslam for his signature. It is sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin).

Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act — Legislation to enact the Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act advanced through the Senate Finance Committee this week. Senate Bill 1197, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), aims to improve the quality of charter schools that are authorized in the state by enhancing the relationship between charter authorizers and charter schools, increasing accountability and aligning charter practices in Tennessee with national best practices. Strong authorizing practices, oversight, and accountability will ensure districts are only authorizing schools with a strong potential for success and will ensure underperforming schools are promptly closed. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Taxpayer Money / Audit Findings — Legislation aiding taxpayers passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week, calling for a plan of action when a local government entity is audited and problems, or findings, are cited. Senate Bill 315 adds to the Local Government Modernization Act of 2005 to require a local government receiving annual audit findings to submit its annual budget and a corrective action plan to the Comptroller of the Treasury. The corrective action plan must provide the name or names of the contact person or persons responsible for the corrective action, the corrective action taken or planned, and the anticipated completion date. If the local government does not agree with an audit finding, or believes corrective action is not required, the corrective action plan must state the reasons and justifications for disagreement or belief. The legislation is sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).
Domestic Animals — The full Senate voted this week to require entities offering animal shelter services to make reasonable efforts if an animal has any identification or a microchip to locate and notify the animal’s owner within 48 hours of custody, or two business days, before euthanizing them. Senate Bill 989, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), now goes to Governor Haslam for his signature.
Repeats with Updates

School Fire Drills – The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 136 to reduce the number of required evacuation drills in public schools. This bill would decrease the minimum requirement of practice drills to seven drills over a 10-month period. While the first four must be a complete evacuation, the remaining drills may be executed in the classroom by way of review through any means available to the school. The legislation aims to improve the efficiency of these drills without undermining the safety of the children. The proposal is sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson)

Palliative Care — Legislation creating a State Task Force on Palliative Care and Quality of Life in Tennessee was approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week. The purpose of the bill is to promote patient-centered and family-focused palliative care in the state. Palliative care is an approach intended to improve the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing serious or life-threatening illnesses. It aims to prevent and relieve their suffering by means of early identification, impeccable assessment, and the treatment of their pain, physical, psychosocial, spiritual, and various other ailments. Senate Bill 1170, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), creates a nine-member task force charged with consulting and advising the Department of Health on matters relative to the establishment, maintenance, operation, and outcome of palliative care initiatives. Over the last decade, a multitude of studies have shown the benefits of palliative care, including improved quality of life, reduced patient and caregiver burden, and an overall reduction in total health care costs. Currently, 16 states have laws establishing these Advisory Councils, and an additional seven states introduced comparable bills during their most recent legislative sessions.

Juvenile Justice Reform — Two juvenile justice bills were approved by the Senate on final consideration this week, including Senate Bill 1244 which addresses the issue of courts notifying juveniles of the need to file a motion to begin the process of expungement. Through this bill, the administrative office of the courts will create a form that can be used by the children themselves. The second proposal, Senate Bill 1253, outlines scenarios that are taken into consideration when an adolescent files for expungement. In addition, this measure would create a process to expunge cases that are disposed by pretrial or judicial diversion after successfully completing one year of the court’s expungement conditions. However, a motion could be made prior to the one year period but would still require the court to find a successful completion so long as conditions are still met, and the court believes expungement serves the best interest of the child and the community. Both bills are sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

School Bus Safety / Drivers — The Senate passed Senate Bill 149, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), providing additional safety measures to help ensure school bus safety. The legislation requires county boards of education, before issuing a certificate authorizing an individual to operate a school bus, to determine if that person has previously committed any serious traffic violations within the last three years. Serious traffic violations include excessive speeding, reckless driving and violation of a traffic law in which death or injury to a person or property occurs. It further defines excessive speeding as 15 miles per hour or more over the posted speed limit if operating a commercial vehicle or 25 miles per hour or more in a car. These restrictions are in addition to those already in present law requiring a background check for criminal convictions. The legislation also restricts school bus endorsements to applicants age 25 and older with at least five years of unrestricted driving experience prior to application. The driver must also be deemed to be of good character.

Teacher Supply Funds — The full Senate approved Senate Bill 401, sponsored by Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), which requires all Basic Education Plan (BEP) funds set aside for classroom supplies be allocated directly to teachers. Presently, $200 is allocated for teacher supplies, with half going directly to the teacher and the other half to a committee which pools resources. This proposal calls for the entire amount to go to the teacher.

Campus Free Speech Protection Act — Legislation seeking to protect free speech and open inquiry on Tennessee’s college campuses was unanimously approved by the full Senate this week. The Campus Free Speech Protection Act, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would protect First Amendment rights and values on Tennessee campuses. Senate Bill 723 requires Tennessee public institutions of higher learning to embrace a commitment to the freedom of speech and expression for all students and faculty, regardless of political or religious affiliations. The legislation requires the governing bodies of Tennessee’s colleges and universities to adopt a policy that affirms the principles of free speech, which are the public policy of this state. Included in that policy is an affirmation that “students have a fundamental constitutional right of free speech,” and that “an institution shall be committed to giving students the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn, and discuss any issue.”

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